August 8th, 2022 · 3 comments
In my book Digital Minimalism, I emphasized the danger of a newly-emerged condition that I called “solitude deprivation.” As I wrote, the introduction of the smartphone caused our relationship with distraction to mutate into something new:
“At the slightest hint of boredom, you can now surreptitiously glance at any number of apps or mobile-adapted websites that have been optimized to provide you an immediate and satisfying dose of input from other minds. It’s now possible to completely banish solitude from your life.”
I went on to argue that this condition was worrisome. Us humans evolved to experience significant amounts of time alone with our own thoughts. Remove this solitude from our lives and we’re not only bound to get twitchy and anxious, but we miss out on much of the subtle but deep value generated by a wandering mind.
A new paper, published by researchers at the University of Tübingen, and appearing in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, provides some support for these claims. “Psychologists who studied a group of more than 250 people encouraged to engage in directionless contemplation or free-floating thinking,” summarizes The Guardian, “said that the activity was far more satisfying than the participants had anticipated.”
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August 1st, 2022 · 10 comments
Just a few months ago, it seemed that the biggest social media news of the year would be Elon Musk’s flirtations with buying Twitter (see, for example, my article from May). Recently, however, a new story has sucked up an increasing amount of oxygen from this space: TikTok’s challenge to the legacy social platforms.
Last February, Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, released a quarterly report that revealed user growth had stalled. Analysts were quick to attribute this slow down, in part, to fierce competition from TikTok, which had recently blasted past the billion user mark. The valuation of Meta plummeted by over $200 billion in a single day.
Forced by investor pressure to respond, Meta began a sudden shift in its products’ features that moved them closer to the purified algorithmic distraction offered by its upstart rival. This spring, a leaked memo revealed Facebook’s plan to focus more on short videos and make recommendations “unconnected” to accounts that a user has already friended or followed. More recently, Instagram began experimenting with a TikTok-style full screen display, and has emphasized algorithmically-curated videos at the expense of photos shared by accounts the user follows.
From a short-term business perspective, these might seem like necessary changes. But as I argued in my most recent article for The New Yorker, published last week, the decision by companies like Facebook and Instagram to become more like TikTok could mark the beginning of their end.
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July 11th, 2022 · 10 comments
A reader named Peter recently sent me a perceptive note. He had just returned from a visit to Austin, where he had visited the LBJ Ranch, now operated as national historical site, located about 50 miles west of the city in the Texas Hill Country.
As Peter recalled, during the tour, the guide emphasized that as president, Lyndon Johnson was so obsessed with connectivity that he had a telephone installed beside his pool. “Everyone in the tour group laughed,” wrote Peter. But as he then correctly pointed out, this collective mirth may have been hasty.
In an age of smartphones, everyone has access to a phone by the pool. Also in the bathroom. And in the car. And in every store, and on every street, and basically every waking moment of their lives. The average teenager with a iPhone today is vastly more connected than the leader of the free world sixty years ago.
I thought this was a good reminder of the head-spinning speed with which the connectivity revolution entangled us in its whirlwind advance. We haven’t even begun to seriously consider the impact of these changes, or how us comparably slow-adapting humans must now adjust. Be wary of those who embrace our current moment as an optimal and natural evolution of our species’ relationship with technology. We still have a lot of work ahead of us to figure out what exactly we want. After sufficient reflection, it might even turn out that taking a call by the pool, LBJ style, isn’t as essential as we might have once imagined.
July 5th, 2022 · 12 comments
Earlier today, June Huh, a 39-year-old Princeton professor, was awarded the 2022 Fields Medal, one of the highest possible honors in mathematics, for his breakthrough work on geometric combinatorics.
As described in a recent profile of Huh, published in Quanta Magazine (and sent to me by several alert readers), Huh’s path to academic mathematics was meandering. He didn’t get serious about the subject until his final year at Seoul National University, when he enrolled in a class taught by Heisuke Hironaka, a charismatic Japanese mathematician who had himself won a Fields back in 1970.
Given his recent conversion to the mathematical arts, Huh was only accepted at one of the dozen graduate schools to which he applied. It didn’t take long, however, for him to stand out. As a beginning student, Huh managed to solve Read’s conjecture, a long-standing open problem concerning the coefficients of polynomial bounds on the chromatic number of graphs. The University of Michigan, which had previously rejected Huh’s graduate school application, soon recruited him as a transfer student. Along with his collaborators, Huh generalized the approach he innovated to tackle Read’s conjecture to prove similar properties for a much broader class of objects called matroids. The new result stunned the mathematics community. “It’s pretty remarkable that it works,” said Matthew Baker, a respected expert on the topic.
The reason so many readers sent me the Quanta profile of Huh, however, was not because of its descriptions of his mathematical genius, but instead because of the details it shares about how Huh structures his deep efforts:
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June 22nd, 2022 · 7 comments
In my previous essay, I wrote about how novelist Jack Carr rented a rustic cabin to help focus his attention on completing his latest James Reece thriller. This talk of writing retreats got me thinking again about what’s arguably my favorite example from this particular genre of aspirational day dreaming: Wendell Berry’s “camp” on the Kentucky River.
In February, Dorothy Wickenden, whose father Dan Wickenden was Berry’s original editor at Harcourt Brace, featured Berry’s camp in a lengthy New Yorker profile of the now 87-year old writer, farmer, and activist. Berry brought Wickenden to a twelve-by-sixteen foot one-room structure, raised on concrete pilings high on the sloped bank of the river, only on the condition that she not reveal its exact location.
In the summer of 1963, Berry, all of twenty-nine, and just a few years into a professorship at New York University, built the current cabin on the same site where his great-great-great grandfather, Ben Perry, one of the first settlers in the valley, had long ago erected a log house. Berry remembered the location from his childhood. As Wickenden explains, Berry returned that summer to build an escape where he could “write, read, and contemplate the legacies of his forebears, and what inheritance he might leave behind.”
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June 6th, 2022 · 13 comments
Last spring, I wrote an essay for The New Yorker about a notable habit common to professional authors: their tendency to write in strange places. Even when they have beautifully-appointed home offices, a lot of authors will retreat to eccentric locations near their homes to ply their trade.
In my piece, for example, I talked about Maya Angelou writing on legal pads while propped up on her elbow on the bed in anonymous hotel rooms. Peter Benchley left his bucolic carriage house on a half-acre of land to work in the backroom of a furnace supply and repair shop, while John Steinbeck, perhaps pushing this concept to an extreme, would lug a portable desk onto an old fishing boat which he would drive out into the middle of Sag Harbor.
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May 25th, 2022 · 7 comments
Several readers have recently pointed me toward a productivity tool called Inbox Pause, which allows you to prevent messages from arriving in your email inbox for a set amount of time. You could, of course, simply decide not to check your inbox for this period, but as every knowledge worker who has ever used email has learned, it can be very, very difficult to resist a quick check when you know there are messages piling up, desperate for your response.
I like this tool. Among other benefits, it can provide a nice support system for time block planning. When you start a block that doesn’t require email, you can setup a pause to make sure you’re not tempted to abandon whatever demanding activity you’ve planned to instead fall back into the comfort of stupefying inbox sifting.
Pausing on its own, however, cannot fully solve the problem of communication overload. As I argue in my book, A World Without Email, the foundation of our overload is a widely-adopted collaboration style that I call the hyperactive hive mind. This is an approach in which work is coordinated with a series of ad hoc, on demand, unscheduled, back-and-forth messages — be them emails, instant messages, or texts (the actual technology doesn’t really matter).
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May 16th, 2022 · 20 comments
In my writing on technology and culture I try to be judicious about citing scientific studies. The issues involved in our ongoing wrangling with digital innovations are subtle and often deeply human. Attempts to exactly quantify what we’re gaining and losing through our screens can at times feel disconcertedly sterile.
All that being said, however, when I come across a particularly well-executed study that presents clear and convincing results, I do like to pass it along, as every extra substantial girder helps in our current scramble to build a structure of understanding.
Which brings me to a smart new paper, written by a team of researchers from the University of Bath, and published last week in the journal of Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. It’s titled “Taking a One-Week Break from Social Media Improves Well-Being, Depression, and Anxiety,” and it caught my attention, in part, because of its parsimonious design.
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