Distraction and a Ray of Hope
What if we could monitor healthy internet habits? What if we could measure cortisol and dopamine levels similar to how we measure glucose levels? What if we could measure distractibility? I don’t have a solution yet, but in the future, we may just need to find one.
A little bit of everything all of the time
The world is moving to an always-on, always-connected, always-available, digitally immersed meta-reality. To some extent, we are already there.
The majority of our day is spent online. At work (from home) we jump between video calls and reply to emails and instant messages. Food and groceries are just a click away - lunch and dinner sorted. We use navigation and ride-hailing services to get us from point A to B. In the evening, online streaming platforms entertain us. Not to mention, the social media likes and mentions and retweets that capture our attention throughout the day.
The trend is accelerating rapidly. In the post-Covid (or cyclical-Covid) world we are moving even deeper into a digital reality. Facebook has even rebranded itself as Meta, showing its intent to invest deeper in this space and develop additional tools to shift users to the metaverse and virtual reality.
It is undeniable that the internet has made the world a better place. These tools and websites have made our lives easier. We are constantly fed and entertained and connected. I can work from anywhere I can log into Wifi. I can consult a doctor from the comfort of my living room. I have friends on five different continents. There are more opportunities to connect, feel close to people, learn and create.
Despite the benefits, there are consequences to being online all of the time. We have more tools, but we are also more distracted than ever. We have more information, but we are also more overwhelmed by its abundance. As Bo Burnham satirizes in his song called “Welcome to the Internet”:
Is there a world in which we can enjoy all the benefits, while limiting the control our devices and apps have over us? Can we use technology to empower us against internet addiction? This could be something big, similar to the fight against climate change. Fighting to get our attention back.
Select your cookies
It's fun to eat cookies, but you know you can't eat them the whole time. High sugar levels and a poor diet have bad consequences for your health.
In the same way, we can't consume information junk food the whole time, otherwise we will get "intellectual diabetes"1.
Just like it’s important to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy types of food, it is becoming increasingly important to distinguish between good and bad apps, the productivity boosters and the attention destroyers. Distinguish between the apps that empower you compared to those taking power from you. Apps that help you manage your life better versus apps that manage you. Those that gain from taking your time and those that give it back to you.
Social media can be used as a positive tool to create connections. Twitter is one example where you can curate a very positive feed of content based on who you follow. But social apps (like Twitter) also have a dark side. The documentary, The Social Dilemma, is intentionally set up to frighten us. It ignores the positive impacts of social networks and the digital economy, but, despite this shortcoming, the documentary does a good job of pointing out that we have been hacked.
The platforms that connect us also control us. Humans are wired to get dopamine hits and we are defenceless against the constant stream of likes and clickbait. Our attention is being farmed and being sold to the highest bidder.
This trend will continue in the future. As Paul Graham points out in the Acceleration of Addictiveness:
The world is more addictive than it was 40 years ago. And unless the forms of technological progress that produced these things are subject to different laws than technological progress in general, the world will get more addictive in the next 40 years than it did in the last 40.
To combat bad internet habits and addiction, it will become increasingly important to curate your information diet. Either through consuming better, more mentally nutritious information or using "old world" techniques of switching off, finding rest and blocking out time for deep work. Choose the cookies you eat and the cookies you opt into.
We have all seen or experienced some of the negative impacts of the proliferation of the digital world and the distractions that go with it.
At the surface level, there are two impacts that I’ve experienced personally: fewer opportunities to be present due to constant distraction as well as mental fatigue from never switching off.
First case. I have been that guy. Notifications and phone vibrations distracted me to the point where I wasn’t being present during the dinner conversation. I now put the phone away when I am having dinner or meetings. I also trained myself through meditation to not always react when I receive a notification. In the past, my hand would shoot out to read the message. Now I recognize this impulse and I have control over whether I pick up the phone or not (to some extent).
Second case. With the advent of remote work last year, the lines between work and personal life became blurred. When I went into the office there was a natural break between the work day and down time. With WFH and having my laptop in the room I worked and slept in, there was no distinction anymore and I just kept on working. This year I decided to set healthier rules in place, limiting the always-on work mode and allowing myself to push some pieces of work to the next day.
At a deeper level, internet addiction has severe impacts, with links between the rise of social media and the rise of depression, teenage suicide and body dysmorphia.
These consequences have a cost on society and the longer this continues unchecked the higher the toll will be on us. Apart from the impact on families and communities, there is also a financial impact on medical aids and life insurance firms. More life claims for suicides, more health claims for depression and anxiety. Companies are also feeling the drag from lower productivity and presenteeism (employees are online but they are not really working).
This could become a bigger issue in the age of information abundance. There must be an easier (or at least more obvious) way to help people foster safer internet habits.
Taking back control
There are a number of solutions available to us immediately. We can take back control by limiting our consumption, curating our feeds and training our minds.
As individuals, we can use the tools that have been deployed to farm our attention, to help us. We can use our phones in our favour. The latest phones and operating systems come standard with screen time tracking and night time mode. By using these features we can reverse the tables and flip the technology in our favour.
As I mentioned above, training your mind and recognizing your thoughts can be very powerful. Just like you can practise your mind to control the impulse to eat the chocolate, you can learn to control your impulses to react to notifications and control your emotional reactions to sensational tweets and Facebook posts.
Medical aids and life insurance companies can go a step further and start incentivising their customers to develop healthy internet habits.
Give people rewards and insurance discounts for, among other things, logging meditation, going for a daily walk, tracking screen time, adding time limits for social media apps, adhering to do-not-disturb mode at night and Using productivity tools like Forest (or just airplane mode) to turn off notifications and lock you out of your phone to engage in deep work. Take away points and rewards for the opposite behaviour, for example breaking time limits on social apps (too much sugar).
It shouldn’t be hard to prove the link between these positive behaviours and better mental health and productivity. Set up an experiment with two groups: control and test. Both groups complete a survey before the experiment. The survey asks questions related to distraction, anxiety, stress levels, feelings of being overwhelmed and energy levels. The results of the survey produce a score out of ten, with zero representing good mental health and productivity and ten representing danger.
The control group is instructed to go on living their life as they currently do. The test group is encouraged (and motivated through rewards) to engage in positive behaviours as listed above. After a month, the two groups fill out the same survey and they are graded again. My guess is the test group will experience significant improvements in mental health and productivity as a result of adopting some or all of the habits above.
The next step of the experiment would be to prove the link between the score (from the self-reported survey) and health and life claims as a result of mental issues. And then track the distractibility score against interventions to show which actions are the most significant. In this way, insurers can flag “at-risk” members and intervene before risk events occur, benefiting the individual and the company.
Even if we implemented these incentives and tricks, it would remain unclear if we were on the right track (apart from feeling better). I put some structures in place to deal with the new pressures of the digital age. While I feel more in control of my phone habits, I still don’t have something tangible to prove my conviction. What if we can take it a step further? What if we could enhance the self-reported score with medical data?
This is where things get a bit sci-fi, but maybe we are not that far away from achieving this goal. Similar to how we measure glucose levels currently, what if we could measure cortisol, dopamine and serotonin levels in future2? What if we could measure our mental health just like we do our physical health? What if we could measure distractibility?
Creating a score helps at two levels:
It gives people control. It’s more tangible when a patient sees a number. Knowing your glucose score helps you manage your diet and exercise regime. Being aware of your dopamine levels could help you manage your internet consumption.
A score also represents a lower barrier than teaching someone to be mindful. It can shock someone into action or give them comfort that they are on the right track.
In future, a distractibility score can become part of our annual health check. Insurers can also use it to monitor the health of their book or use the score when underwriting prospective clients.
The internet is a great tool if used wisely. Hopefully we are not too far away from quantifying the impact of our information diets on our mental health and productivity. This will help us avoid intellectual diabetes.
I’ll leave you with this. Iceland did a brilliant spoof of Facebook’s rebranding, re-emphasizing the value of going outside and enjoying the “real” reality of enjoying nature and meeting people.
Phrase coined by David Perell in his essay The Paradox of Abundance: https://perell.com/note/the-paradox-of-abundance/
Thanks to Balaji Srinivasan who first mentioned this idea on the Northstar podcast with David Perell: https://perell.libsyn.com/balaji-srinivasan-living-in-the-future
Thanks to Jess Schanz, Karena de Souza, Arthur Plainview and Laila Faisal for reading drafts of this essay.