Tell me if this sounds familiar…
Scene: it’s 8:08pm, you’re hunkered down in a state of semi-hibernation on your chaise longue. You’ve been in this position for approximately an hour and a half. Your deeply crinkled workwear is a visible measure of this time gone by. It was only meant to be for a minute or two, this slumped business, but both your mind and body are telling you ‘no’.
At 9:20pm you still haven’t got round to reading the Friday supplement long-reads (or short-reads for that matter, and it’s Wednesday) and you haven’t listened to the last four episodes of NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast, you haven’t been on the BBC site in yonks and that book on your nightstand? Adolescent ants have taken up residency on page 43. Because in this moment, the desire to be well-informed is at odds with wanting to indulge in rare stillness.
By 11:30pm, you’ve endeavoured, with unmistakable iron will, to read in bed till your eyelids can take no more, but instead you splinter off onto YouTube and watch a five-minute clip of a dishevelled woman who hasn’t washed her bedsheets in over 10 years, which then turns into an hour-long slide into the archives of Oscar speeches from 1991-94. This is me and I am sure you, too.
The salvo of content (the articles, the social media posts, the sharing, the retweeting and the stories) we’re trying to manage is coming at us with head-spinning velocity – the Internet has a lot to answer for our satiated minds. What’s available is so visible to us and yet – does anyone else feel like their consumption of it is incomplete?
If only you could see my Google Chrome right now: it’s a conga line of dormant tabs – an arbitrary clutter of outdated reads that I ‘must-get-to-at-some-point’. But when I do start reading an article about say, fraudulent clairvoyants, halfway through I’ll command ‘T’ and type ‘Susan Boyle 2018’ into a new tab to see what ever happened to her. She’s working on her eighth album (and the other seven were?) in case you were wondering. But then each new thing gets a scrape of my flitting attention.
Being that we’re immersed in online worlds, our concentration levels have been shot by browsing from one thing to another every two minutes, all the livelong day. Our brains are used to a routine of demanding new tasks as we go from tab to tab. Clinical psychologist, Dr Saliha Afridi from LightHouse Arabia, confirms that our attention span “has slowly been declining over the years due to information overload and all the notifications we receive. However, new research counters what we feel is shorter attention span. The amount of attention hasn’t changed – our interest and expectation levels have. For example: the reason we can’t read a novel in the same way we used to, is because social media has raised our expectations of having a more interactive and engaging experience”. Interesting. Now, every time I see someone posting their recommended reading or TV show on Instagram Stories, I’ll wonder, have you finished it? Or have you not even started it yet? My hands are up high on this one – guilty as charged.
So how do we manage all of this content to better serve us? To filter the news from the noise, we have to start curating our content better (both online and in print) rather than relying on what is algorithmically designed to suck us in. Let’s not forget the media operates as a business. To make money, clicks need to be generated via content and more content. Nir Eyal, author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products said in a blog post called How To Stay Informed Without Losing Your Mind “Media companies that deliver news online monetise attention through display advertising. They want to keep us clicking and scrolling as much as possible. If a story drives clicks, views, or reads, they have an incentive to publish it – sometimes to sensationalise.”
The ‘pull-to-refresh’ cycle of news is a pressure cooker that can send us into paroxysms of paranoia – how can we possibly quench all this content in real time and still work a 9am-6pm job, have a social life (in which said content is the talking point), reply to reams of voice notes and commit to a healthy month of GuavaPass?
It’s gotten to a point where I’ll lock in a few articles and a bite-size podcast episode in a 30-minute cooking window, when I can confidently leave my lentil and quinoa chili to ad-lib on low-medium heat. That sense of accomplishment is toe-tingling. But in the age of impressionable exposition and reputation (posting our lives to quench our crave for ‘likes’) are we pivoting more on quantity than quality?
Dr Saliha cites American writer and researcher Nicholas Carr, who famously said the “Internet is making us stupid” because it compromises our ability for deep contemplation – instead, we skim lots of content. “We have a lot of information at our fingertips but it isn’t integrated. We may feel good about the quantity of our accomplishments and being able to multitask, but our creativity is lacking,” adds Dr Saliha.
To claim back our creativity, we need to make room for some considerable blank space in our minds. So next time you’re splayed out on your chaise longue, Dr Saliha urges us to “make time to do nothing”. Put Netflix in the category of nothingness because as much as it’s considered cultural fluff, it’s a comforting escape valve from the must-must-must narratives foisted on us.
In my final attempt to find out how others wade through content, I made a shouty plea on Twitter: “HOW DO YOU ALL DO IT?” A friend sent a gif of the hookah-smoking caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland with smoke rings dancing out of his mouth. Message dutifully received: chill out.
Reader: in the spirit of being ‘only human’ we can do anything but we can’t do everything.