Buckle Up

I. TRUE STORY. On a cloudless morning near the dawn of the information revolution, a youngish senior executive of a surging Seattle-based software company trots on board an airliner, takes his seat, buckles himself in. A few minutes later, a pleasantish elderly woman comes aboard and sits down next to him. Engines churn, safety instructions are parceled out -- "In the event of a loss of oxygen, an unexpected water landing...," and so on. The plane taxies, takes flight, climbs to a comfortable cruising altitude. The passengers relax, loosen their collars and ties, settle in. This young man was raised to be polite to all strangers; he makes some friendly small talk with his seat neighbor. They go back and forth. "Some nice weather today," "Where are you headed?" and so on -- and then: "What business are you in?"

"I work for a firm that designs software for the internet," explains the fellow.

"Oh, I see," says the woman. "You're in the artificial urgency business."

II. It's plain to see that something extraordinary is happening to human society and how we communicate with one another. In considering how far and fast we have leaped into the future in recent years, forget for a moment about receiving e-mail on your cell phone; forget about RealAudio and RealVideo; forget about Yahoo and the price of Yahoo stock. Think instead about the long century of the unanswered phone.

The telephone first came into use around 1900. In 1986 I was a sophomore in college. When I called home to say hello to my family, if no one was at home, the phone rang and rang. After four or five rings, I'd hang up. If mom called me and I wasn't in my room, the phone would ring and ring, and then she would hang up. Neither of us would have any way of knowing that the other had called. Ringing and ringing and then hanging up and trying again later was a way of life for advanced civilization for a long, long time. On campus, friends routinely missed the chance to meet up with one another because of the unanswered phone. To combat this problem, we used markers and posterboard on dorm doors: "D -- Meet me at The Gate at 11-H."

It's not two decades later, and we're already in a different communications eon. Missed contact is now the rare exception -- the occasional e-mail that drops into a black hole. Now, ordinary life is me tracking down my wife in the middle of Prospect Park to arrange the details of dinner or ask her opinion of a sentence fragment. Ordinary life now is me getting an e-mail from high school students in the Netherlands who need a reply that day, please, for a report they're writing. Ordinary life now is my mother in Ohio getting home from work and finding a digital picture of her granddaughter waiting for her -- taken that same day in New York. With voice mail, e-mail, pagers, cell phones, fax machines and FedEx, there are no more missed messages or impressions. People who want to reach us know just how to find us.

Which is also the problem. A wired-wireless world is a world saturated with contact and stimulus. Phone calls get interrupted by call-waiting, work by incoming e-mail and top-screen messages. Rarely now are we unreachable by phone; in fact, we have to take special care to turn it off in churches and theaters. Fax machine bins and voice mail boxes fill up as fast as we can empty them. And then there are all the new and interesting ways that our attention is being flagged by people we don't particularly care to hear from -- advertisers zeroing in on every opportunity to capture our eyeballs and attention for a split second. With marketing, it's a particularly vicious cycle: The more overloaded we get by stimuli, the more desperate they get to find new ways to grab us. All of commercial media becomes louder, more vulgar, more manipulative.

The paradox, then, is that we are simultaneously entering an Age of Information "When you add all of these harmless diversions together, pretty soon they're not harmless anymore, and they're not diversions."and also an Age of Distraction. Life moves faster and is more electronic and thrilling; our conversations and attention spans get shorter. Our willingness to wait for things dissipates. Our patience wears thin, and our ability to think skeptically gets short-circuited by the hypnotic speed. One harmless diversion after another begins to fill up most of our waking moments -- advertisements on sidewalks and umbrellas and stickered fruit; flickering "free stuff" banners on the net; television screens in every lobby and every restaurant and every airplane and even in subways and taxicabs (coming soon). When you add all of these harmless diversions together, pretty soon they're not harmless anymore, and they're not diversions. They are your life. The long conversations, the peaceful moments, the poetry and prose that spark your imagination, the spiritual times of reflection: these are now the sideshows of life, the odd, unexpected flashes.

III. I've written two books about this strange paradox. The most recent was reviewed in the online magazine Salon not long ago, along with James Gleick's book Faster. The reviewer made a special point of demonstrating how distracted she was. Here is how it began:

"In the course of conceiving this paragraph, I checked my e-mail three times and fired off four responses. I took a phone call, visited a few websites -- simultaneously, I might add, on two computers -- and perused some posts on an online bulletin board. I snuck a peek at the latest news wires, gobbled some take-out Thai food, read a press release. I did this all while switching back and forth between two internet radio stations, which I listened to through headphones."

Needless to say, the reviewer is happy with her frenetic lifestyle -- she went on to disagree with my concerns (and Gleick's) about the unexpected drawbacks of the faster-paced, multitasking life. But her opening paragraph reminds me of those diet commercials that boast how many special chocolate shakes you can drink in a day and still lose weight. Sure, you can get through life with that kind of distraction, and it can be a pretty thrilling ride. And I suppose you can conceive of an opening paragraph to a book review while doing all those things at the same time. But is that really something to brag about? Is such distraction really the hallmark of success?

IV. I have no interest in nostalgia. I am not looking to the past as a place where we should want to go, but to the future as a better place for all of us. I believe in progress. I believe in technology making our lives cleaner, longer, cheaper, with more freedom and more choices. But I also think we're seriously at risk here of making a great many trade-offs for these benefits, at risk of trading away some of our real rich pleasures, some of our core values: community, conversation, shared experience, imagination and creative thought.

Distraction is now a part of our landscape, I believe, and it's going to require some real effort to take part in the exciting opportunities of the information sphere without being lulled into a thrilling but hypnotic lifestyle of high-stim distraction. We need to try to make some disciplined decisions for ourselves that go beyond the moment. Here are a few guiding principles:

1. Avoid news nuggets.

The dirty little secret about the information revolution, as marvelous as so many of the new opportunities are, is that most of the new mass-media content falls into the suspect realm of "infotainment." It turns out that sensational news programming is one relatively cheap way to capture eyeballs, and the faster the news comes, the more exciting it seems. Matt Drudge, a worthy contributor to this genre, has aptly named it "hyper-instant news." I call it "news nuggets." Whatever you call it, infotainment updates usually turn out to be much more about entertainment than educating consumers. Of course there are new events worth paying attention to every day, but if there's one main problem with the way adult Americans apportion their information time these days, I think it is how they try to keep up with the minute-by-minute (CNN) at the expense of more thoughtful journalism (The New Yorker).

2. Beware "shock-jocks" and "shockumentaries."

One sure-fire way to capture eyeballs and eardrums in today's crowded data sphere is to do or say something shocking. Usually, the extra dose of gore or the surprisingly invisible blouse is just a marketing trick. The more sensationalistic the presentation, the less worthwhile it is going to be.

3. Information is not knowledge.

We all get caught up in the thrill of being connected every day -- but it's important to constantly distinguish between what is merely thrilling and what is nourishing. For all of the hype about new "interactive" technology, the most important interactions going on are between our ears. It's the rich web of connections we're making in our brains that are going to come back to make us more productive and interesting people.

4. Convenience is not simplicity.

"User-friendly" technology does not simplify the life of the user. If people want to live truly simple lives, they should avoid buying complex machinery, period. And even if you're a gadget fan (as I am), it pays to be careful not to buy a machine with any more features than you really desire. A phone with twice as many capabilities as you actually want is likely to be twice as expensive, twice as complicated to navigate and at least twice as likely to break down.

If we do not strive for some discipline, the weeks and months and years will go by and we'll all look back and be disappointed. We'll see a lot of buzz and not many meaningful moments to savor. Technology is supposed to serve humanity, and not the other way around. That's a point worth keeping in mind as we take our speedy ride into the future.

This story, "Buckle Up" was originally published by CIO.

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