Distraction and Web browsing through life

I heard an interview the other day with Nicholas Carr, author of the book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.  The basic idea is that the brain is a flexible machine that grows and improves itself based on how it is used.  If you spend a lot of time practicing an activity, like playing the piano, your brain is designed to emphasize those skills so that it’s better suited for each subsequent try.  While the brain is improving in one area, however, those that remain unused don’t get the same type of attention.

Mr. Carr’s argument suggests that throuh years of surfing the web and becoming daily more immersed in the online experience, we have trained our brains to be good at that type of interaction.  Reading an article, we expect lots of links and widgets pulling in and exposing lots of information at one time.  The very activity – “surfing” – expresses the flowing nature which is really good for absorbing a broad range of information at once.  This breadth, however, comes at the cost of depth.  Just as Nicholas describes, we find ourselves leaping from thing to thing without the same kind of focus and dedication as we might with a long news article or chapter of a book.

Conversations come in short chat or text messages, squeezed in between or layered on top of other activities.  At any given time, I have access to huge wealths of information, but not the time or focus to get into any of it.  It takes real work to hone in on the details of anything and we’ve been training ourselves to do be bad at exactly this.  Skimming the surface can be great, but it comes at a cost.  It will be a sad day when generations begin to grow up in a world of hyper-experience, without the grounding of concrete and focused interaction with the world.

NPR Interview with Nicholas Carr


Stepping Back

I read a blog post here a few days ago outlining self-imposed ‘internet free zones’ where you choose to disconnect for the sake of focus and freedom from distraction. As I sit on the north shore of Lake Superior at Neys Provincial Park, utterly out of touch with the outside world, I am overwhelmed by the vitality of it all, and the energy of a simpler life. Unfortunately, life does not afford such a regular opportunity to get away.

As an option, though, what about implementing a ‘connectivity-free zone’ now and then to step back and consider the broad scope of a project, a relationship, an important decision, or life itself? Camping for a day, or even taking a day trip by bike without phone, iPod, email or so much as a newspaper might do the trick. Life these days is overwhelmed by the continuous flow of information.

The never-ending barrage is draining and we need ways to turn it off, recognizing and remembering that the world will be okay without us for awhile, and us without it.

Let Curiosity Off the Leash

Though generally serving as a waste of time and not-so-clever procrastination device, there are a few occasions when lists step in to keep me sane.  I’ve recently begun a list of things – random things – I’d like to know more about.

For example:

  • how to make pad thai
  • weather prediction
  • barbeque
  • the workings of nuclear power
  • how plumbing works
  • the art of the symphony
  • early modes of transportation
  • venture capital
  • transatlantic ocean currents
  • national parks of the us
  • carrier-pidgeons

Often when I’m biking home from work, or falling asleep, or making dinner, etc. I think of things that would be worth knowing.  Sadly most of these thoughts are discarded and lost in the depths of my terrible terrible memory.

Try keeping a list – a leftover envelope, a notepad file, whatever – and take note of these things to look up later.  There’s the kind of knowledge we learn in classes where we memorize the names of elements in the periodic table, physics equations, dates of important events or classic novels.  Then there’s the kind of knowledge that really enriches the mind.

To fully digest something, it needs to be interesting enough to drive you to dig in and do move beyond memorization.  This list is my way of setting aside some time to set aside the stresses of life and immerse myself in things, random things, that enrich my view of the world.

The Paradoxical Outdoors Geek

Grand Marais Waterfall


I am a geek. I read technology blogs, carry an iPod, work for a tech company, receive regular tech support calls from family and friends and am never too far from internet access.

Lately, though, I’ve discovered a rather unexpected trend in my habits. Nearly all of the things I truly love to do for fun are conspicuously devoid of any technological component. It’s almost as if such routine exposure to technology drives me to places where I won’t be reminded of it at all. Strange, huh.

When I was younger, I was the kid who brought his laptop to the campfire circle while camping on the family trip in Canada. These days the thought of sitting in serene silence without any hint of developed civilization have replaced the need for constant connectivity to the outside world.

Contented shivers make their way up my spine at the thought of a week in the woods. I sit and wonder whether the constant drive to develop new more powerful forms of technology is the only way to improve civilization. After all, the capacity for happiness has existed way longer than the knowledge of electricity or industrialization.


Anyone worth anything has a set of activities that are simply rewarding for no other reason than their inherent value. There isn’t a dependence on company, or context. There’s no need for credit or outcome. A hobby is the work of a satisfied soul, pursuing something that is clearly and simply enjoyable.

Mine include photography, writing, music (the listening of and the contribution to), crafts (building bookshelves, fixing a futon, making a longbow) cooking and reading, among others. So often I look at those around me and wonder what it is that makes them tick. What secretly gets their blood flowing…? Because it could not solely be their 9-5 job, or the essays they write, or the family to whom they go home at the end of the day. Politicians do not rely 100% on the extortion of good from their constituents. Even for them there must be something.

It’s sad how little these things come out. There is something truly good about these things that doesn’t depend on a meaning to life, but rather on the simple appreciation of those everyday aspects we would otherwise take for granted.

Affirmation Turned 180 Degrees

I’ve discovered about myself that I crave attention more than I’d generally be able to admit to myself. When I’m depressed, it generally has some basis in the fact that I believe myself to be uninteresting, unworthy of attention, or generally alone. These feelings stem from an innate belief that to be happy I must be worth liking, and to be worth liking I must be noticed as demonstrating skill, wit, intelligence or other beneficial traits. So, despite my desire to claim selflessness and a lack of dependence on trivial gains, here I am, superficial.

The thing that troubles me, though, is the lack of reason to this whole idea. I shouldn’t need anything more than a clear mind to experience happiness. Frankly, the most true and sincere joy I’ve felt, has come in the clarity after tossing away all thoughts of body or self and delving into experience.

I’m not sure when today, but for a few small moments, I was pondering this particular obstacle to happiness and it occurred to me that in times such as these when I fall into the trap of so desperately needing affirmation, there might be a better alternative. Maybe what I need to remember is that, given the time to think about it, there is no greater joy than at the thought of touching someone else in a powerful way.

I guess the lesson to myself is this: in times of self-doubt, loneliness and hardship, solace comes from the knowledge that I’ve given someone else the self-assurance they need to carry on in a difficult world. If I can’t come up with recent experiences fitting this description, then I have some work to do, and a clear and definite purpose to fulfill. And what could be more joyful than the knowledge of a clear and definite purpose.

Left Brain vs. Right Brain Optical Illusion

Perth Fun: The Right Brain vs Left Brain test

A friend of mine pointed out the above article about testing left-brain/right-brain dominance. The idea is that judgments can be made about hemispherical dominance according to which way someone perceives the spinning of the dancer. Those who see it as a clockwise rotation are right-brain dominant (feeling and big picture oriented) and those who see it as counter-clockwise are left-brain dominant (logical and detail oriented).

The thing I wonder about is the fact that throughout the course of reading the article, I found myself seeing it both ways, clockwise and counterclockwise. I really wish this article would provide more evidence for the claims it makes about the relationship between this image and right/left-brain dominance. If it’s true, it’s a pretty cool way to see how your mind works. Either way, though, it’s an interesting exercise to try switching back and forth between directions. (Hint: Cover most of the image and focus on her spinning leg)