Using My Attention with Intention

About a year ago, after a lot of consideration, I decided that I was through with social media. I’d gone back and forth on the whys, the hows, the reasoning and finally decided to pull the plug on it all. I was an early adopter and for awhile a staunch advocate, but I’d reconsidered. Long story short – I don’t regret it.

When I was first experiencing the rumblings of the idea that I might want out of social media – and to spend less time online/looking at screens – I remember at the time reading The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. The one thing from it that has stuck with me was his reporting of the fact that neuroscientists had actually observed physical changes happening to the brain, based on the way people were reading and consuming content on the Internet. It would only seem obvious that people’s attention spans were shortening, but experiments and data showed that the actual physical molecular structure of people’s brains was changing making it harder for them to concentrate for longer periods of time on one thing and also making it more difficult for people to read longer-form literature. The Internet was rewiring people’s brains, literally. This kinda freaked me out.

A few years later when I finally decided to kick my social media and decrease my screen time. I also made it a point to get back to reading more long-form writing – articles, essays and books – and to revamp my reading ‘practice’, doing some things differently as well as things I’d never done before like taking notes and marking up physical books with notes and highlights. Most people developed some of these habits in university – but I never went, so it was a new endeavor for me.

I’d noticed my own tendency to read only shorter pieces, avoidance of long articles, and deteriorating attention span. Though I’ve been attempting to rehabilitate my reading skills, I’ll ironically point out that old habits die hard. In the case of the article I discuss below, I read it 3 times. The first two I would resort to skimming, looking for hooks and trying to get to the end so I could get on to ‘next thing’. Part of my efforts have been working on stopping, slowing down, and staying with the writing. Too often these days we are in a hurry to ‘get elsewhere’ either virtually or physically and don’t pay attention to the one thing we are actually doing.

With no social media any longer to feed me articles and book ideas, I set out and stocked my Feedly app with sources of the kind of stuff I wanted to read. I began to regularly check in and read more and for articles of longer length – this step is key, I would bookmark to read later – when I could actually give full attention to the text vs. just scanning quickly as had become my standard practice for ‘Internet reading’.

An example of an outstanding result from my new ‘practice’ is this article recently in The Paris Review by Mairead Small Staid – it’s a review of The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age written in 1994 by Sven Birkerts . A superbly written review, so much of it resonates with me that I have to restrain myself from just copy and pasting the whole thing here. Ms. Staid’s writing is fantastic – go read it for yourself – it’s well worth it, but I will share a few teasers here that stuck with me.

The book is a book about reading that has Birkerts wondering – at the dawn of the Internet – how we will read in the future and if reading will continue to constitute the experience that it did prior. I haven’t read the book yet, but have moved it to the top of my to-read list based on Ms. Staid’s article.

“Literature holds meaning not as a content that can be abstracted and summarized, but as experience, … It is a participatory arena. Through the process of reading we slip out of our customary time orientation, marked by distractedness and surficiality, into the realm of duration.”

Sven Birkerts

I found it interesting that Ms. Staid mentions her age and relevant points on the ‘technological timeline’ of her life. Though older than her, I can also remember the ‘pre-Internet’ days and my relationship to books and reading then. It is even easier when looking through this lens to see how my habits and attitudes have changed over time and with the growth of the Internet and related technologies.

Though we’ve experienced some of the same milestones on the ‘technology timeline,’ albeit at different points, Ms. Staid echoes some thoughts I’ve had but never been able to elucidate quite as effectively:

“Loneliness is what the internet and social media claim to alleviate, though they often have the opposite effect. Communion can be hard to find, not because we aren’t occupying the same physical space but because we aren’t occupying the same mental plane: we don’t read the same news; we don’t even revel in the same memes. Our phones and computers deliver unto each of us a personalized—or rather, algorithm-realized—distillation of headlines, anecdotes, jokes, and photographs. Even the ads we scroll past are not the same as our neighbor’s: a pair of boots has followed me from site to site for weeks. We call this endless, immaterial material a feed, though there’s little sustenance to be found.”

Mairead Small Staid

I don’t think I’ve read anything to date that more perfectly summed up my final, turning-point experience with social media. So many times I remember checking in with my feed only to say to myself, there is nothing here worthwhile. Now, by using the Internet and apps with more intention, I’m finding there’s much more ‘sustenance in my feed,’ and I am spending less time online, reading far more, and getting a lot more out of it.

“I no longer have a Facebook account, and I find myself spending less and less time online. As adulthood settles on me—no passing fad, it turns out, but a chronic condition—I’m increasingly drawn back to the deeply engaged reading of my childhood. The books have changed, and my absorption is not always as total as it once was, but I can still find, slipped like a note between the pages, what Birkerts calls the “time of the self… deep time, duration time, time that is essentially characterized by our obliviousness to it.” The gift of reading, the gift of any encounter with art, is that this time spent doesn’t leave me when I lift my eyes from the book in my lap: it lingers, for a minute or a day. “[S]omething more than definitional slackness allows me to tell a friend that I’m reading The Good Soldier as we walk down the street together,” Birkerts writes. “In some ways I am reading the novel as I walk, or nap, or drive to the store for milk.”

Mairead Small Staid

I too have returned to physical books and rediscovered the joy and experience to be found therein. Initially I’d also read e-books, but found I was still to tempted to check email, or be distracted by notifications, so have now eschewed even those, preferring good old-fashioned paper and ink that I can feel, mark up and make my own. A real book is much easier to literally dive into and get lost within.

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