The Dangerous Side of ‘Easy’
A call to action for sustained focus and tech-free interaction in the age of social media.
This morning, I found myself reacting judgmentally to a post on LinkedIn by a person advocating not communicating by voice, video or in person; but rather, by text or post, because they are “faster” and produce “better answers”. “Believe me, I’ve tested this,” she parenthetically highlighted, assuring her readers of her bona fides. In the same post, this person — a dynamo with eight years of post-graduate breathing under her belt, during which she has held fourteen jobs, successively, thirteen of them in just five years, announces herself in bold-faced letters on the website as an “Entrepreneur | C-Suite | Business Influencer | Ambassador | Speaker | Online Trainer | Philanthropist” and “Author SOON”. (Yes, she used caps.) I have to admit: I’ve never come across a C-Suite-Abassador-Philanthropist as young as she. So I felt the urge to slog to the end of her post, in the same way that I can’t avert my eyes from an oncoming car crash. She advised her readers to order their food — burgers, specifically — by chatbot, rather than the tedious process of submitting themselves to a “lengthy boring discussion with a human” (chatbot burger-ordering is a thing in some parts of the world, it seems).
Her thesis: “Gonna admit. Millennials think faster than anyone older than 35 yo. Millennials process information faster. They don’t have time for outdated technology.” Her conclusions were fueled by a question she had posted some time earlier to LinkedIn and Facebook about where to buy a phone. “About 7 people answered within seconds,” she crowed. Seconds.
She went on to get serious about the above-35 set’s middling faculties. “In a phone call, there’s a chance the other person on the other line might have a harsh opinion. With messaging & other forms of digital communication, we can say what we need to say & move on.”
The post was crowned by a large selfie in which about 14 blush brushes are visible underneath her décolleté. The relevance of the image? Unclear. But she meant business. After all, it was LinkedIn, and she closed her post with a hashtag: #tech
What is wrong with this picture?
Sixty-five admirers “thumbs upped” her LinkedIn post, with two of them — men, both — adding their reaction below it, in just one word, “Beautiful.” I wasn’t sure whether they were referencing her wisdom or her selfie. What, exactly, these fans were judging favorably remains elusive. Caesar’s thumbs were far less perplexing: they saved or spent lives. Were her devotees concurring that they, like she, couldn’t be bothered to hold their focus for more than a few seconds, or submit themselves to the tedium of dialogue? That they, too, crowd-sourced their actions by how many “beautifuls” or thumbs up they received in “harsh opinion-free” agreement? Or that they, like she, have mistaken “faster” for “better”, and opinion for truth, and youth for superiority; or worst of all, that they have confused “saying what we need, and moving on”, for communicating?
It’s amazing; this C-suite entrepreneur-philanthropist highlights the fact that everyone under the age of 35 is tech-savvy and intellectually quick, which no one would dispute; it sounds like a perfect generation. What worries me is that people in her age bracket attempt more suicide (up 34% since 2000) and suffer from more depression, stress and anxiety (up 55% in just seven years) than any generation before it by a wide margin. I would posit that this is in part the result of her generation’s loss of ability to connect with others in a way that our biology demands of us, in order for us to thrive, into “old age”. More on that below.
Perhaps — caution: harsh opinion coming — we do better as a species — emotionally, intellectually, and socially — when we interact live. And by better, I’m referring to the quality, not the speed, of our communication, and connection.
Today’s muse developed conclusions about what phone to buy based on seven respondents to her query. I’m developing conclusions to her post based on the sixty-five respondents who digitized their thumbs, but more importantly, on published research into communication — such as the insights I reference in Why Communication Matters — by true experts like Priya Parker, David Bohm and the Stoic Senator Epictetus, among other great thinkers.
Here are some thoughts.
When we completely lose our tolerance for contrasting opinion, a critique, a thought-provoking challenge, or the holy grail—long-form discourse, what we have really lost is our ability to truly communicate, at all. All we are left to do is make statements, then fish for people whose emojis indicate their approval, and use those to embolden and deepen our prevailing views in a textbook example of confirmation bias, lest our opinions be otherwise challenged. What we are not doing in this forum is communicating. More alarmingly, if we continue to lob texted opinions like hers at one another for long enough, without supplementing them with richer forms of interaction, like those I wrote about in Disembodied and Defaced, then at some point, our behaviors and emotions risk regressing enough as to toss our uniquely human neuroplasticity to the winds. When we whittle away our tolerance for true discourse, and by extension our capacity for dissent, we reduce ourselves to unwitting agents of binary reactions: relax, or panic; fight, or retreat; trust, or avoid; concur, or disagree; like, or dislike. None of these things is truly, inherently binary. A sliding scale, in reality, defines the human world of consciousness; or at least, it used to. But we no longer have the stomach for any of it, because holding such open-ended thoughts in our heads is just. so. tedious.
A Diminishing Attention Span
Time Magazine is just one of many who published Microsoft’s 2015 study about the human attention span, which by then, already five years old, had diminished to just eight seconds — a precipitous drop since 2000, when it was 50% longer, but is now one second less than that of a goldfish. wyzowl published an infographic littered with statistics, such as “39% of Americans have forgotten one basic piece of information or lost one everyday item in the past week”; that “the average user picks up their phone more than 1,500 times a week, for a total screen time average of 3h 16m per day”; that “on the average web page, users will read at most 28% of the words,” and that “20% is more likely”; and that “the average page visit lasts from between 10 and 20 seconds”. Empirically, this tracks with my own experience, watching my three children’s behaviors; conducting perhaps 3 dozen zoom calls per week; and holding conversations with people at dinner tables, out at restaurants and bars, and at home.
Our ability to allow one another to complete their thoughts without interruption, or losing their focus, or being distracted by a beep or a buzz, or just checking their feeds, is declining rapidly. Next time you’re outside, count the number of people who are not looking at their phones on a subway, elevator or bus; while ‘socializing’ at a restaurant or bar; or even while walking, or driving; or, on a video call or meeting room, how often they will look away, perhaps responding to emails, doing other work, surfing the net or watching a video you cannot see because you are unable to walk behind them to peek at their screens.
The phenomenon of a diminishing attention span led my cousin to produce a number of made-for-Shapchat mini-series for the ‘young adult’ segment, comprised of five-minute episodes, like The Dead Girls Detective Agency. She’s not alone. Up-and-comers like Quibi and Ficto — specializers in the so-called “ultra-short streaming” segment — are proliferating, pushing three- to twelve-minute content directly onto mobile devices, according to a recent Wired.co.uk article. Quality aside, the idea that we can no longer focus even on a 30-minute sitcom (really 22 minutes, plus REALLY LOUD ads) is no longer conjecture; it’s been proven in studies, and enshrined in the ever-shortening content that entertainment companies and marketers now put forth. wyzowl reassures us that there is good news for marketers hidden in that same infographic: that as long as companies (or the strange phenomenon of ‘people-brands’) communicate with video, rather than ‘tedious’ words, they can extend a viewer’s 10–20 second attention span into a mind-boggling 2.7 minutes! This is indeed good news for my cousin’s former employer, Insurrection Media: apparently, they can safely cut their episodes in half from the current five-minute ‘marathon’, while maintaining market share with just half the production costs.
The Brain is a Muscle
A hundred and fifty years ago, on Dec 11,1869, the oldest continuously published magazine in the United States, Scientific American, printed a piece on Brain and Muscle. Even then, in the early days of the Scientific Revolution, long before the field of neuroscience existed, the magazine’s editors knew something about our brains; namely:
“The commonest cause of failure is not want of natural mental ability but want of training; training that might have been attained through personal effort had its value been known. In fact all training, whether of brain or muscle, must be attained by personal exertion.”
An intentionally brief Inc.com article called You Probably Have the Attention Span of a Gnat posits that information workers can no longer hold their focus for more than 40 seconds, on average, before switching tasks or checking feeds; it then ironically sends readers via a hyperlink onto a sister article, advising readers to consider attention-expanding exercises to help with the issue. 150 words in, Inc.com sarcastically congratulates its readers on “making it this far”, then shares seven concrete activities, including those that build increased capacity to focus; to follow the second hand on a clock for five minutes; to “slow-read” books (27% of Americans apparently haven’t read a single book — or even a part of one — in the past year); to practice active listening; to do exercise; and to write thoughts down in lieu of picking up a phone every time we have one, and want to check Google.
They were essentially advising people to do ‘novel’ things that were default behaviors less than 100 years ago.
On the science side of things, for those who still value it, evidence suggests that mental stimulation improves brain function and reduces the risk of cognitive decline and related diseases. Harvard Medical School cited a study in which the more likely that elderly, mentally intact people were to read, write, do crossword puzzles and engage in group discussions, the less likely they were — by half — to develop mild cognitive impairment, or to suffer from Alzheimer’s.
None of the healthy people in the study felt the same way about the “tedious process of interacting with others” as the woman on LinkedIn who spurred today’s thoughts apparently does.
Choices to Make (aka Conclusions)
Hockey legend Wayne Gretsky — the greatest in his sport of all time, and perpetually on the top ten lists of any sport — famously said, “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it has been.” Marketers, media companies, entertainers and frankly educators and parents are collectively — increasingly — skating to where our attention spans are going: into the toilet. They ask less and less of us, and concede more and more, because frankly, we, too, are getting more distracted, or less tolerant. It’s easier to sit a child in front of a device than to continually engage with it, let alone foist a challenge upon it or allow it to be bored, lest we be judged for doing so. Many of our teachers just want us to be prepared for the tests by whose results we — and they — will be judged; while they are frankly not paid or funded enough to do more even if they wanted to. Social media asks nothing from us other than our eyeballs, by which they gain market share and ROI, and marketers want to capture our attention with flashier, meme-ier content in order to push us into a sale, or at the very least, a click.
In the process, we are creating the illusion of the “Entrepreneur | C-Suite | Business Influencer | Ambassador | Speaker | Online Trainer | Philanthropist” and “Author SOON”, while in fact all we are doing is creating people who are both incapable of holding a job for more than 5 months, and simultaneously — incredulously — believing they are superior to the “older than 35” set because of their ability to speed up the feedback loop and avoid “harsh opinions”.
In my view, there is something soul-crushing about this new reality, because I am thoroughly convinced that we are capable of much more, while our intellectual and interpersonal trajectories are both plummeting alarmingly downward.
I know I am viewed as a dinosaur. I am a champion of vocabulary (one frequent reader of my posts once quipped, “Anthony’s latest post is up: time for coffee and a dictionary!”). I believe in long-form journalism, and as a result, 28–50% of my readers, max, make it to the end of one of my pieces; congratulations! I am a believer in suspending disbelief, and of engaging — encouraging — dissent, because doing so keeps me honest, and ensures my world view remains nuanced; then, I like to pay those provocations forward. And I am way, way over 35.
Still, the world needs Don Quixotes, because while people are mostly skating toward USB-equipped La-Z-Boys (no lie), some are still, thankfully, heading to the library, or the laboratory, or the conversation pit. In stark contrast to the prevailing educational dogma, where “No Child is Left Behind”, and therefore the lowest common denominator of education is establishing ever-diminishing baselines, I believe that we must always aim to ‘punch above our weight’, and bring those who fall behind with us, earning us the triple benefit of learning, empowerment and community-building. Every world-class athlete knows that unless they play someone better than they are, they will never improve. Well, similarly, unless we engage with people who have ideas to share that we may not yet have heard, or beliefs that we may not yet share — or vice versa — we cannot hope to expand our individual and collective world views, in our bids to become better people and cultivate richer relationships, within the communities we hope to improve, with our acts and contributions.
As I lauded in Greta’s Brave New World, the youngest generation, and that of my children—Gen Z—seems to understand their role in repairing the world intuitively; and, thankfully, that they can’t be so narrowly focused on being self-referential—part of which includes engaging and deputizing the ‘over-35’s in their bid to build a better future for everyone.
And so joust I will, as so many others do so beautifully, in the world today. Scientific inquiry, creative output, experimentation and ideas-sharing are all alive and well, if less pervasive, because they are fueled for the first time by an increasingly powerful engine — technology — that puts the world’s collective history at our inspired fingertips. But the less we can focus and engage one another properly, the more disconnected, depressed and anxious we will become, the sicker we will get, the faster we will decline cognitively, and the farther behind in life we will become.
In our search for convenience, speed and agreement, we are diminishing the quality of our brain fuel. At some point, there will quite possibly be an enormous, Brave New World-esque chasm between those who chose the rigors of attention- tolerance- and capacity-building, and those who gave in to the things that my LinkedIn muse apparently has, to the point where she can no longer even recognize value propositions like research, discourse, expert opinion, dissent, sustained focus, quality and tech-free interaction, when she comes across them.
Blush not included.