Reading, Technology and the Art of Attention

Matt Richtel’s recent article in the New York Times—Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction—was the latest salvo in the debate about how technology is “re-wiring” the human brain. This is a hot conversation. It’s easy to take sides on the extremes and lose the nuances.

Nicholas Carr raised the temperature of the debate in 2008 with an article in the Atlantic—Is Google Making Us Stupid? As a result of spending a lot time online, Carr notes, his experience of reading changed:

Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

Soon afterward, Linda Stone coined a term for the tendency to simultaneously monitor email, text messages, and social networks—all while in the midst of another activity (such as doing paid work). She calls this continuous partial attention and has even linked it to changes in breathing (email apnea).

Meanwhile, psychiatrist Edward Hallowell suggested a reason why many of us get great ideas while we’re in the shower: It’s one of the few places where we unplug from technology, enjoy solitude, and allow ideas to bubble up from the bottom of the mind.

I’ll admit that the “Growing Up Digital” article scared me. As a writer, editor, and parent, I felt a visceral fear as I read about a teenager who prefers YouTube to books. Richtel quotes this kid:

On YouTube, “you can get a whole story in six minutes,” he explains. “A book takes so long. I prefer the immediate gratification.”


I found some solace in Cathy Davidson’s response to Richtel’s piece. She describes the article as “lots of anecdotal evidence and a smattering of neuroscience thrown in….” She wisely points out the contradiction between describing young people as distracted and addicted to technology: “Addiction, of course, is the most focused form of attention.”

I’ll keep you posted on new volleys in this debate. You’ll need to wait, though, until after I catch up with You Tube and TED.

Photo by compujeramy, Flickr Creative Commons

The Art of Crap Detection

The purpose of a liberal education is gaining the ability to detect crap. And crap detection is necessary for one simple reason.

Because you are a fool.

And so am I.

Please do not be offended by the above statements. They are cause for compassion, not criticism.

We are brothers and sisters in fool-hood. We live, move, and have our being in foolishness. And it’s not our fault. We are born into foolishness, and precious few are the voices that would call this fact to our attention, let alone point a way out.

Much of what we hear from pundits and politicians of any stripe is foolishness. Much of what we see in print and find online is foolishness. And often the first words that come out of our mouth on any given subject—and the first words we commit to paper or screen—are pure foolishness, otherwise known as bullshit, or more simply—crap.

Fortunately there is a solution. It starts with constructing an operational definition of crap.

We utter crap when we string together:

  • Words that—upon close examination—have no meaning
  • Assertions that—upon close examination—violate logic
  • Arguments that—upon close examination—have little or no supporting evidence
  • Sentences that—upon close examination—are unnecessarily ugly

The act of sustained attention and close examination that reveals these flaws is called crap detection, or editing. People who write for a living know that editing is not a luxury. They know that if they skip this step, their readers will be only too happy to point out the resulting crap.

Crap detection is an inexhaustible subject, the study of a lifetime. I’m glad to say that there are refresher courses from two esteemed teachers. They’re both dead, but that matters little when it comes to crap detection, for their teachings are still available.

The first teacher is George Orwell, whose essay Politics and the English Language is an anthem to crap detection.

The second is Neil Postman, who carried on the Orwellian tradition with another classic essay, Bullshit and the Art of Crap-Detection.

But please be careful. Be on guard. Be ever vigilant. Because anything you read—including what you’ve just read here—might be pure, unadulterated crap.

Preserving Your Sanity While Writing

Over two decades of writing about mental health, I’ve found a gem in an approach called Constructive Living. This is not so much a type of therapy as a way to view the relationships between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

Constructive Living (CL for short) has helped me so much during the sometimes lonely and frustrating experience of writing that I want to share it with you.

CL is the brainchild of David K. Reynolds, who synthesized several approaches to meditation and psychotherapy.

Reduced to its core, CL says that health springs from a balance between reflection and action. When troubled by negative feelings, we can apply four core principles to achieve this balance:

Feel your feelings. Since we cannot directly control our feelings, the wisest possible response is to simply accept them as they are. This is easier to do once we reflect on the true nature of feelings — fluid, complex, morally neutral, and often illogical. Feelings are not good or bad, right or wrong — they simply are. Moreover, most feelings will fade on their own if we simply accept them and let them pass without fanfare.

Think about your purpose. When in emotional turmoil, we can often benefit from a subtle but significant mental shift. Instead of dwelling on feelings of resistance to writing, we can ask: What is my purpose? What do I intend to do with my manuscript today? This moves us from a realm where we have little control (feelings) to one where we have a great deal of control (behavior).

Do what’s needed. Even when feeling down, we can still take constructive action: When sad, we can still make phone calls. When angry, we can still go to the library. When uninspired, we can still write. Once we move into the stream of action, our feelings will often cease to be a problem.

I’ve reduced these principles to a three-word mantra that’s steadied me during many emotional tremors: feel, think, do.

A bonus principle from CL is: Focus your attention. There’s a saying: “Self-centeredness is suffering.” When I’m feeling sad or angry, my attention is usually on myself — often on how other people are failing to give me exactly what I want. This line of thought serves little purpose but to increase my negative mood.

Refocusing my attention is one way to restore perspective and re-enter the world outside my head. Instead of dwelling on others’ faults, I can review my next action list for tasks that need doing: papers to be filed. Books to read. Mail to be sorted. Drafts to finish. Going further, I can focus on creating new ways to improve my work process and create value for readers.

The preceding summary hardly does justice to CL, and I urge you to learn more on your own. Especially useful is a short book by Reynolds called simply Constructive Living. More recent and more detailed is A Handbook of Constructive Living. Either of these will lead you to more of Reynolds’ work.

Photo by Vincepal, Flickr Creative Commons