Like many people, I felt as if technology had sapped my ability to focus on anything, said writer Craig Mod.
Getting my attention back
So I went on a month-long retreat from all digital input. What followed was a revelation.
THERE ARE A thousand beautiful ways to start the day that don’t begin with looking at your phone. And yet so few of us choose to do so.
For 28 days last fall I lived on the grounds of an old estate in central Virginia, next to a town called Lynchburg, making good on a residency I had been offered by the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. I had done other residencies and knew in order to eke out maximum productivity, internet disconnection was non-negotiable. And so it began, the day after the election: my month without the internet.
It felt like a cop-out—like I wasn’t allowed to escape the “real world” so easily. But the quieter my mind became, and the deeper I went into my own work, the more I realized how my always-on, always-connected state had rendered me largely useless.
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” wrote Blaise Pascal. Did any of us remember how to sit quietly, alone, without a phone in hand? I certainly didn’t. I had long since lost control of my attention.
I want my attention back.
It had been a long time since my attention was mine. I tried to think back to when my attention was something I could manipulate confidently. I couldn’t remember.
Was it pre-Snapchat or Instagram Stories? Before everything was filtered through a real-time performance? Before every meal and outfit had to be posed, captured, and #tagged. Or pre-Grindr and pre-Tinder? When fantasies born on the crucible of YouPorn (or is it Pornhub?) weren’t so easy to make real, nightly?
Was I being too hard on technology? Technology is such an easy scapegoat. But it feels so right to point our fingers: It must have been the fake news. It must have been Facebook. It must have been Twitter. It must have been Reddit forums.
It was none of these things. It was all of these things. Whatever it was, it robbed us of our attention and, with that, our compassion. But the network never meant to harm us.
Regardless, down in Virginia, on a repurposed plantation: I want my attention back. The thought wouldn’t let go.
IN THE LAST year I had gotten myself addicted to the game Clash of Clans. Not purposely. I was in Myanmar on a research job and noticed all the farmers were playing it, atop their buffalo in the fields (where the 3G was strongest). I wanted to understand what compelled them to never put down their phones.
Five months into it and I was fully hooked. I set a goal—some level, some league that seemed just on the edge of “enough.” Make it over that line and I’d pull the plug. What makes Clash of Clans so treacherous is that you are always building, sculpting. Five months of work is really five months of work. Each additional day of play makes it that much more difficult to abandon.
As I got closer to my goal—that mythical league on the horizon—I felt the algorithms turn on me. I sensed they knew I had a goal, and they turned that goal into an unobtainable carrot. Was I being paranoid? Maybe. The last day I played, I played for 10 hours straight. Play the game slowly, a few minutes a day over months, and the algorithms are insidious. Play the game in a manic burst, and suddenly the algorithms feel laid bare. I spent only $40 over those five months, but those last 10 hours were grueling. The closer I got to the goal, the more the algorithm would knock me down, set me up with what appeared to be easy wins only to have me lose. Disheartened, I’d try again, this time beating someone against whom I should have lost.
Over and over this continued. It was so perfectly tuned to my most primitive set of chemical desires that it was actually beautiful—a thing of beauty. I could feel it moving beneath the screen. Its tendrils and my neurons moving with an eerie synchronicity. But of course, the lock-step relationship was weighted heavily toward the house; just as victory was once again in sight, I was back to my position 10 moves and an hour prior. Where did it end?
It was ridiculous. I was ridiculous. And maybe I was just a bad player. But I couldn’t help shake that I was caught in a con, a long and s----y con.
I pulled the plug. Deleted the app. Deleted the Game Center account. The data was gone (I hoped, I haven’t checked). A weight was temporarily lifted.
IN 1992, BILL MCKIBBEN “spent many months of 40-hour weeks” attempting to watch 24 hours of television as recorded on 91 cable stations in Virginia (at the time, the most in the world). He wrote up his findings in the book The Age of Missing Information.
“We believe that we live in the ‘age of information,’” he writes. “That there has been an information ‘explosion,’ an information ‘revolution.’ While in a certain narrow sense this is the case, in many important ways just the opposite is true. We also live at a moment of deep ignorance, when vital knowledge that humans have always possessed about who we are and where we live seems beyond our reach. An Unenlightenment. An age of missing information.”
Today, I could live on Twitter all day, everyday, convincing myself I was being productive. Or at least inducing the chemicals in the mind that make me feel like I’m being productive. Read more news. Send more replies. Start more threads. Each incoming reply activating a corresponding dopamine pop. Pushing nothing in the world forward.
Maybe I lost my attention because I’m weak, lonely, pathetic. Maybe everyone else has total control; they can resist all the information spun by algorithms—all the delicious dopamine hits in the form of red circles. Bing! Maybe it’s just me.
Did I really have it before Facebook? Thinking back, the early versions of Facebook were adorable. Benign. No tagging. No timelines. Just The Wall. A way to say: Hey, what’s shaking, dorm buddy? Poke. No algorithms. A human scale.
The more I thought about my attention, the more I thought about the limits to human scale. How technologies amplify ourselves—the best and worst parts—in a way that is almost impossible for us to comprehend. How that scale is so easily co-opted to attenuate our attention with the worst possible diet of high-sugar, high-carb nothingness.
Last year, Nintendo released its first iPhone game, Mario Run. It feels uncommonly fresh. I’m not a big gamer (Clash of Clans and Mario Run are the only two mobile titles I’ve picked up in earnest in the last, say, 20 years), but the difference between CoC and Mario couldn’t be starker. Mario is finite, bounded. The edges are clear. You pay once, and there’s no other way for Nintendo to extract money from you. In Mario you can not only see the end but get there. Your points max out at 9,999. Mario Run is human scale. Clash of Clans is machine scale, network scale.
When the scale of our systems with which we interact breaches our comprehension, and control of attention is weakened en masse, the opportunity for manipulation arises.
I want my attention back.
FOR THAT MONTH in Virginia, I took it back. I did the thing only the mega-entitled are allowed to do: I went offline. A scant 20 years ago, the entitled went online. Today, we go dark. A true privilege. I say “only the entitled” because that seems to be the pervasive notion. Oh? You get to stop checking email for a few days? Lucky you! Friends say to me. Strangers say worse.
If I tell people I went offline for a month, it’s like telling them I set up camp on Mars. It hints of apostasy, paganism. Tribes seem to find pleasure in knowing all members suffer equally. But, really, is the situation so dire that we can’t wrangle a little more control? We’ve opted into this baffling baseline of infinite information suck, always-availability. Nobody held a gun to our head. We put our own mouths on the spigot every single day.
But it’s so delicious. That spigot goo—buoyed by pull-to-refreshes and pings and wily dots. Giving up attention, so seductive.
Tristan Harris and Joe Edelman’s Time Well Spent project takes aim at this thoughtless allure. Bianca Bosker’s entire Atlantic profile of the crew is worth a read, but this passage really cuts to the heart of their work:
While some blame our collective tech addiction on personal failings, like weak willpower, Harris points a finger at the software itself. That itch to glance at our phone is a natural reaction to apps and websites engineered to get us scrolling as frequently as possible.
“You could say that it’s my responsibility” to exert self-control when it comes to digital usage, he says, “but that’s not acknowledging that there’s 1,000 people on the other side of the screen whose job is to break down whatever responsibility I can maintain.” In short, we’ve lost control of our relationship with technology because technology has become better at controlling us.
Fifty years ago, you could read all of the news in a single day. Grab the two or three papers and read. The information had edges; it could be understood by a single human over one cup of first-wave coffee.
THE VIRGINIA RESIDENCY was a balm. It kept me sane at a moment where I was close to folding. As the month stretched on, I found my mind clear, excited, optimistic.
There is a qualitative and quantitative difference between a day that begins with a little exercise, a book, meditation, a good meal, a thoughtful walk, and the start of a day that begins with a smartphone in bed.
Work began early, continued long into the night after dinner. Wintry stars falling to the horizon were scrutinized. Breaks were had without phone in hand. Acres of woods were available to be walked in. Everyone was largely offline, although there were no strict rules about connectivity. We all worked on things that had no immediate value, and spent time thinking over problems that were perversely meta.
And yet, the quietude of those disconnected days evaporated as soon as I came back online. It was a shock to feel my mind returning so quickly to where it was before—namely, away. Elsewhere. My attention so eager to latch onto whatever cleverly architected spaceship of dopamine was flying out from my consciousness. It was clear that vigilance was required, some set of rules. And so here are mine:
The internet goes off before bed. The internet doesn’t return until after lunch.
That’s it. Reasonable rules. I’m too weak to handle the unreasonable.
Total disconnection is a privilege, certainly. But I found it necessary to retreat and reset. To feel once again what it was like to have an attention without fighting for it each minute. In short: I recognized the need for self-care, and thankfully, the residency came along at just the right time.
Attention is a muscle. It must be exercised. Though, attention is duplicitous—it doesn’t feel like a muscle. And exercising it doesn’t result in an appreciably healthier-looking body. But it does result in a sense of grounding, feeling rational, control of your emotions—a healthy mind. Our measuring sticks for life tend to be optimized for material things, things easy to count. Houses, cars, husbands, babies, dollar bills. Attention is immaterial, difficult to track.
We deserve our attention.
Disconnection helped me remember what the mind felt like before I had lost my attention. Reminded me how it felt to wash off that funereal glaze that seemed to coat us all, and to return to the world—however thick the gloom—with clarity and purpose, able to help out in far better ways than I could have had I stayed online.
I wanted my attention back, and I’ve got it...for now.