Regarding Attention

Going Without TV

Recorded on January 17th, 2017

I was looking for a previous post from last year, thinking that at some point I wrote about going without TV for a certain number of nights per week. I either didn’t write it or can’t find it. But we recently did it again, having relocated the Sony TV to the basement, covered by a plastic bag to keep out dust.

The first week is really hard. You don’t know what to do with the time while you get used to it. It’s like weaning yourself off sugar. But after a week, you look forward to and savor the quiet of the evening, and you realize that you have way more free time than you ever thought you did. Tonight we even found ourselves prepping our lunches for tomorrow. That 100% would not have happened if we still had the TV hooked up.

As I wrote the other night, our life preserver is Amazon Prime and a laptop, in case we go nuts and need to watch something. I mean, we’re not animals.

More on Our Distraction Sickness

Recorded on September 23rd, 2016

I keep thinking about Andrew Sullivan: My Distraction Sickness — and Yours. Shortly before I read his article, I was thinking about how I spent the evenings of one summer when I was home from Va. Tech, renting movies with a friend after working during the days refurbishing computer terminals. I’d go to her house and we’d drink beer in her family’s basement den and watch actual VHS tapes1 of whatever early 90s movies were out then (like Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts”, or similar). Maybe there was some sort of improvised dinner, but that was pretty much it for the night! When I got home, I didn’t have a shame-spiral email address weighed down by years of unanswered messages. There was no World Wide Web (at least that I had access to) to browse, no smartphones to check, no Twitter, no Facebook, and no CNN.com to rot our minds with every page refresh. 22-year-old me surely had fewer responsibilities overall compared to now (no house, no real job yet, very few bills, no debt). But beyond the absence of the actual things to take care of, there’s a difference now where we feel like the multiple channels of input require constant tending lest they get out of control. You don’t want your email to get too moldy and you don’t want to slight someone on whatever your preferred social media app is. The convenience of Amazon, online banking, mobile task management apps and text editors means there’s always some planning or scheming or writing or shopping you could chip away at in the in-between time.

Imagine if Sullivan’s article had been a passage from some sci-fi book in the 70s, a picture of what the coming network would do to those who dove into it too deeply. It reads like an account from the looming future:

In the last year of my blogging life, my health began to give out. Four bronchial infections in 12 months had become progressively harder to kick. Vacations, such as they were, had become mere opportunities for sleep. My dreams were filled with the snippets of code I used each day to update the site. My friendships had atrophied as my time away from the web dwindled. My doctor, dispensing one more course of antibiotics, finally laid it on the line: “Did you really survive HIV to die of the web?”

I’ve been (and will often continue to be) the person sitting alone at a bar or restaurant, staring at my phone. The reasons are: 1. I’m an introvert. Of course I prefer the safety of a device queued up with my favorite articles, posts by friends, and unorganized information to groom. 2. From what I hear, people at nudist resorts or nude beaches do not stare at each other. If they regard each other at all, it’s all in the eyes. Keep your gaze high. You don’t want to stick out. You do the same thing at a bar or restaurant where everyone is nose-deep in their phones. Now the phones encourage us to not look at each other at all. You don’t want to be the one weirdo staring around, looking up at the ceiling or smiling at the other patrons. “Who’s the creeper? Why doesn’t he keep to his phone? Why doesn’t he have a book?”

Even knowing all this, I don’t see myself completely swearing off my mobile devices anytime soon. But just like taking a shower every day is a good thing to do for your body (and everyone around you), it’s equally good to regularly step away from the electronic information-pellet dispenser long enough think about why we do it so often, and whether it’s how we want to spend 30 seconds here and there, multiple times a day, while we’re still alive.


  1. No matter how much we fetishize the past, good riddance to VHS tapes. 

Andrew Sullivan: My Distraction Sickness — and Yours

Recorded on September 22nd, 2016

There’s hardly anything I can add to Andrew Sullivan’s article that he doesn’t say better: My Distraction Sickness — and Yours

All those technologies re-connect me with dear old friends on Facebook, inspire me with beautiful photos from strangers on Flickr, and make me feel so close to my favorite podcasters (who are humans). But that network also provides an endless source of distraction, killing my attention and everyone else’s through a thousand tiny ephemeral cuts.

By the way: the irony of finding this article via a link from a friend on Facebook is duly noted. At least I learned some new words while reading it: “febrile”, “novitiate”, “caviling”.

“Although I spent hours each day, alone and silent, attached to a laptop, it felt as if I were in a constant cacophonous crowd of words and images, sounds and ideas, emotions and tirades — a wind tunnel of deafening, deadening noise.”

“Every second absorbed in some trivia was a second less for any form of reflection, or calm, or spirituality.”

Merlin Mann: Ignore Anything That Makes You Consider Stopping

Recorded on September 13th, 2016

In my thicket of text files, I copied this tweet from Merlin Mann EIGHT YEARS AGO, and it’s still good advice:

I am usually awful at this, but in the rare cases when I’m good at it, I manage to keep going for an additional minute at a time, keeping my self-generated attention thieves at bay. I have to remind myself:

  • If you want stop to check CNN, don’t.
  • If you want to check your email inbox, don’t.
  • If you want to check Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram, don’t.
  • Just keep working until you’ve put in a good chunk of time and made progress on something.

This is less a “how to be productive” post than it is a reminder to myself for when I forget all of the above.

Jim Clark on the Cost of Time Wasted on Social Media

Recorded on July 18th, 2016

Yep, there’s an irony to posting this on my blog and then tweeting a link to it, hoping that you’ll see it. Will your life be better because of it? I don’t know. Maybe by a small amount. But there will definitely be a time and attention cost, paid by you. Add up enough slices of time and they become real opportunity costs, where you could have invested those house as uninterrupted, big blocks, getting something more important done.

Cal Newport recently wrote about a video interview at Stanford with Jim Clark, founder of Silicon Graphics, Netscape Communications, and other companies. He says:

I just don’t appreciate social networking, which has blown up in recent years. In part, because [I recently attended a panel on social media where a panelist was] just raving about people spending twelve hours a day on Facebook…so I asked a question to the guy who was raving: the guy who’s spending twelve hours a day on Facebook, do you ever think he’ll be able to do what you’ve done? That’s the fundamental problem… people waste too much time on that.

I hopefully spend much less time on Facebook than Facebook would like me to. The notifications about local events and the ability to keep in touch with far-away friends make it too convenient a service for me to leave entirely, but man is it ever a low-return on investment of time. Twitter is a little better, but it’s still fundamentally ephemeral stuff. I would hate to see the aggregate number of hours I’ve spent in my life scrolling through both of them.

An Undistinguished Browser History

Recorded on March 27th, 2016

Sometimes when I have no idea what to write about, I’ll look at the present day’s Safari history on my phone to see what caught my eye or what I was obsessed about in the past hours. Some days I get on a roll, doing what could almost pass for research on a topic, saving a breadcrumb trail of information to text files for current or future DIY projects. One of those nuggets may be worth expanding on and sharing here.

Other days, like today, I don’t know where my attention went. Or rather, I do know – in painful detail – where it went. Some of the epoch-shattering Google searches from my device earlier today were:

  • “is ted cruz crazy”
  • “did jesus really rise again”
  • “crazy cow cereal”

and this gem to round out the evening:

  • “jesus cadbury egg”

Add those inessential bits up and toss in all the attention wasted on the web version of Facebook and you have a squandering of the TCP/IP standard. I won’t hyperlink any of those searches, or any of the implied links in this post, because you don’t need to go further down the rathole.

Today’s only relative high points were a tribute to Garry Shandling, some old J Dilla videos, and a quick search for vibration-damping material (for, yes, the turntable). Why do I have this device with a total cost of ownership of $1200 every two years if I’m going to misuse its powers so regrettably? I would be more productive taking a nap.

In a similar vein, I know I’ve been looking at Twitter too often when I launch Tweetbot on the phone and there have only been six new tweets since the last time I looked. The more I check it, the more I feel the need to check it. What kind of press-the-lever-for-another-pellet rat have I become? What’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with people?

I don’t have any answers here – only more awareness of my patterns. Hopefully, more awareness of what I’m about to search for next time, and whether it will be worth the minutes, seconds, and accumulated hours.