I just finished this month’s cover story from The Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The basic premise of the article is that due to the Internet, the amount of content available and how content is presented on it, the way we consume information has changed to such a degree that it may be altering our ability to process and ruminate on larger ideas. Our brains may be physically changing, thus “evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the instantly available.’”
In what turned out to be ironic, I felt I didn’t have time to read this article. It was just too long and I had too many things to do so I converted it to an audiobook file and listened to it instead on my iPod. If a 4000+ article sounds like it’s longer than you’re likely to read, you won’t get any flack from me, given the state of information overload. You can download my audiobook file I created here. It will work in iTunes.
Listening is one way I try to manage the volume of stuff I want to read. I subscribe to The New York Times audio digest through Audible and have that news read to me while I’m running errands as well. It’s one way I try to manage what I think of as Internet-induced ADD. Since one more acronym won’t do that much more damage to already fried synapses, I’ll just call it IIADD.
Note: Although, I didn’t intend for this to be a “how to” post, converting text to an audiobook is not difficult. I use a free script that installs a service on the Mac that will convert selected text into a spoken audiobook that I can listen to on my iPod when I’m running between errands. You can learn more about it here. This conversion utility only works on Macs, although there might be a Windows and Linux solution out there.
While reading, or, rather, listening, to the article, I thought about my own experiences as a fully immersed net citizen. Since I’m online so much, I fight the distraction of a wealth of tempting content every day. Email, news sites, Twitter, Facebook, Friend Feed, Podcasts, Google Reader, YouTube, etc. There’s an unbelievable amount of stuff I want to read, listen to, or watch. Although I love to read, the volume is exhausting.
Reading The Atlantic article made me evaluate one of my daily routines. If you follow my Twitter feed or read much of this blog, you know I own a Kindle and I receive the Wall Street Journal on it every morning. I actually subscribe to both the web site version of the Wall Street Journal and the Kindle version. The content on the web is a much richer experience with video, photos, links to related articles and more. The Kindle version is very bland by comparison. It doesn’t even have any photos. Just words. Many, many words. Occasionally, it will feature a simple line drawing of a person but that’s the extent of the visual stimulation you get.
The Kindle’s limited screen real estate dictates that the newspaper’s content be delivered in a linear fashion. There is a single column of text listing the headline of each story in the day’s paper and, for major stories, a summary paragraph. I start at the beginning and work my way to the end. If a headline or summary interests me, I have only one place to click and that article takes up all the screen. When I’m finished, I go back to the list of articles. Simple. A black and white screen with only words is not the only anachronistic part of my Kindle experience. I also don’t read my Kindle at my desk. I’m usually in a chair by my window with a cup of coffee, sitting quietly, reading for about an hour. (Below is a small gallery of Kindle screen shots. Just click on any image to see a larger version.)
Since I’m also a subscriber to the Wall Street Journal’s web site, I’ve tried to read the daily paper online many times but I’ve never been able to consume and successfully digest the same amount of information sitting in front of my computer even though there is a rich experience right at my fingertips. The level of distraction and the habits I’ve formed online are working against me.
Since most of the information I want to take in can’t really fit into the Kindle’s framework, I’m constantly trying to manage my IIADD.
As I write this, Google has added a feature to their Labs version of Gmail called Email Addict that “lets you take a break from email and chat by blocking the screen for fifteen minutes and making you invisible in chat.” Hitting refresh gets you right back in though.
For even more “freedom” from distraction, check out Freedom, a small piece of software for the Macintosh. For a donation of just $10, you can disable “wireless and ethernet networking on an Apple computer for up to three hours at a time.” Now you know, the price of freedom is $10. For me, that’s also the price of getting work done.
I’ve also mentioned Write Room in an earlier post called “Can’t my computer see I’m working?” as one way I try to shut out the distractions when I write. I’ve been using that particular tool less recently, but I still find it useful for some situations.
I guess to close this long post, (and thanks for reading this far, by the way) I love to hear from you if you’ve got any special tricks for dealing with IIADD. Personally, I’m fighting that physical change in my brain the article from The Atlantic that started this train of thought as hard as I can.
Update: A day after I posted this, The New York Times published “Lost in E-Mail, Tech Firms Face Self-Made Beast” about technology companies dealing with the issue. I especially like the idea they mention of “Zero E-mail Fridays.”