It seems that the number one New Year’s resolution this year (as covered in mainstream media, at least) was the “digital detox”.
Then there was the digital detox backlash (“say ‘digital detox’ one more time …”).
And in various podcasts I’ve listened to of late (more on podcasts shortly), really intelligent, successful people I admire like Ezra Klein (founder of Vox, blogger turned Washington Post journalist among many other things) and Kara Swisher (also founder of a media company, and also a journalist) and Stewart Butterfield (co-founder of Flickr and Slack) have all lamented how they are addicted to social media like Twitter and the immediate dopamine hit of updates, the sense that you’re on top of a stream of important things that are constantly happening, or managing the sense of anxiety that comes with the sense you are missing out.
I’m sure they are far from alone in feeling this (I also noted in each case this was not an judgement by these folks about what they saw in other people, but what they saw in themselves).
But today I want to tell you a little story about how my relationship with digital media has changed, quite markedly, without an overarching deliberate plan in recent weeks and months. At no point did I decide to detox, or even to change they way I use my time to consume information. And yet …
It starts with a significant change to the pattern of my days about three years ago. I live about 75 minutes (on a good day) outside Sydney, and for years I worked from home, travelling into the office a couple of days a week. But the truth was I was always at home, and always at work: never really properly focused on either. Work leaked into weekends, domestic duties into the working day.
The change toward a clear demarcation between work and home life really has been beneficial to both, but that’s not the focus of this piece. My commute involves a drive of about 25 minutes, a walk and then about a 40 minute train ride.
For a year or so after I started the daily commute, I’d get in the car, and listen to Radio National–serious, important, very politically focused news and opinion. On my half hour drive there’d be two or three experts speaking on the issues of the day, an interview with a member of the government or opposition, super concentrated news reports on whatever was so important that day. I was keeping up with what was important, staying informed with the serious issues that mattered.
On my 10 or so minute walk from the car to the train station I’d read Twitter, then Facebook, then back to Twitter. Twitter I mostly use professionally, so it felt like work – what are we all talking about today? What inflammatory article about native versus web has someone posted that I need to respond to?
On the train, ostensibly I’d look at email, perhaps look at my RSS feed, dipping into Twitter and Facebook again.
And I’d arrive at work already exhausted, my focus atomised into tiny fragments of time.
My commute home was in many ways the reverse, and then at home – in between spending time with the kids, getting them ready for bed, sitting with them, reading to them – I’d snack on more Twitter, maybe a bit of Facebook, my time sliced and diced into a minute or two here for one of the kids, a minute or two for an update. I know, right?
Writing this down now, it seems incredibly unhealthy, but at the time it didn’t at all. It simply felt like life.
Then, a bit over a year ago, I was planning to visit Japan for the first time in a couple of years (ironically, the trip didn’t eventuate). It pains me to say that having visited Japan perhaps as many as eight times in the last few years, I speak barely a word of Japanese. And so it made sense to use my drive to perhaps learn a little. Every day on the way to work (and typically on the way home, too) I’d do a 30 minute lesson.
Now, my drive was less of a focus on the breathless excitement of whatever issue of the day seemed so vitally important to the nation that we’d all forget in a week. My other activities seemed to be affected by this change. I found myself using the commute time better – or at least, to be less focused on these minute slices of time, and more on reading longer pieces.
Later in the year, when the Japan trip fell through, I cast around for ways in which to use the drive without reverting to the frenetic, anxiety inducing drive-time news. I can’t exactly recall why but I started listening to podcasts, and found they fit the bill perfectly.
Some would last me a week, 30 or so minutes at a time (Sam Harris at times has fascinating, several hour long discursive conversations with extraordinary people like the physicist Max Tegmark). I don’t think I’ve listened to news radio more than a handful of times in a year or more now. I honestly can say too, as someone who’s always had a very broad range of interests in science, the humanities and, increasingly, business, I’ve probably added to my range of interests and knowledge more in the last year than in the entire previous decade.
I also found myself on my home commute sadly not infrequently having to stand for 40 minutes or so. Physically I almost prefer this, having sat at a desk a lot during the day, but being trapped with just a small screen, and the myriad social media apps thereon meant 40 minutes of frenetic consumption of fragments of information.
Now, as many folks with young families will tell you, watching television and movies becomes a challenge. But with the arrival of Netflix in Australia, I found myself watching initially movies, then series (never a huge fan of superheroes, Marvel nonetheless sucked me in with the really well written, acted and made Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, and Daredevil). And it turns out one episode is almost exactly my train commute home.
But Twitter and Facebook were still woven into my life, particularly before going to sleep, when I woke during the night with an unsettled child, and first thing in the morning (an early riser, I’d find myself reading tweets and posts and tweets for half an hour or more many a morning).
Just before Christmas, after reading something late at night that somewhat spiked the cortisol levels I simply deleted the Facebook app from my phone. Because I rarely take my laptop out of the bag while home, and as I was on a break over the holiday period, I simply didn’t look at Facebook for several days. When I did, it was an act of volition: open the laptop, login, open facebook.com. And yet, I barely felt its absence.
My Twitter use (in fairness, several multiples of my Facebook use, by any measure) continued largely unchanged, until about a week after returning to work, when more by choice (though still not part of a grander “digital detox” plan) than on impulse I deleted the Twitter app from my phone as well. Now, I’ve used Twitter extensively for over a decade. It’s been an integral part of my professional life for all that time. I’ve posted over 39,000 times, and spent literally countless hours reading tweets.
From being always no more than a few seconds away, woven more directly into my life than almost anything else, Twitter went to being something I needed to access on a laptop, with an act of volition, and no small friction. I’d estimate my use has dropped more than 90% (in terms of time spent staring at Twitter onscreen). And yet, for something so integral to my professional – and to a reasonable extent – personal life as well, this really considerable decrease lead to no real withdrawal symptoms. The time I would spend frittered on Twitter is much more purposefully used now.
I have long had a roster of “go to” longer form writing sites, and sites which suggest deeper more engaging pieces of writing, but for the first time in possibly years I’ve added to these (I list some suggestions at the end of this piece). And my overall time spent looking at a screen has fallen significantly, too.
What’s interesting to me as I reflect on it is not actually that my time spent in front of screens has dropped significantly. More interesting is that the average amount of time I spend on any given chunk of information has risen extraordinarily, from seconds to low minutes per engagement (a tweet, Facebook post) to tens of minutes – longer form writing, books, TV episodes (sometimes more than one even, late at night after everyone else has gone to sleep), movies.
I don’t think it’s too long a bow to draw to observe that if there’s been a macro trend in what we horribly term “content consumption” over the last 20 years or so, it has been toward shorter and shorter chunks (the album was atomised into individual tracks, blog posts became tweets and Facebook posts, articles became listicles, TV shows became YouTube videos). These are trends driven by economics, and the rise of mobile devices, creating whole new chunks of our time where previously we would rarely if ever have consumed information (walking along a street, waiting for an elevator), or consumed it very differently (in the car listening to radio, as opposed to glancing at social media while stopped at traffic lights).
It’s also driven by fundamental human brain physiology. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is associated with many brain functions, and has long been associated with our sense of pleasure (though we are realising now it’s perhaps more closely associated with our sense of want–for food, physical pleasure, or other reward). Its role in habit formation and addictive behaviours is being increasingly studied in relation to social media use, and product designers deliberately design interactions that are habit forming, and which hijack this aspect of human psychology.
But perhaps there’s another macro trend emerging, a swing from atomised, momentary interactions to these longer kinds of engagement with information. With video: not just from short viral pieces to 40 minute ad-free episodes, but whole series consumed over a week or even a weekend. With music: from songs back to albums, or the entire body of work by an artist.
With the written word: from tweeted screen grabs of one or two paragraphs and listicles to five thousand word long form articles and entire books (there;s also the intersting possibly related phenomenon of a return to the printed book over ebooks). From febrile five-minute radio interviews with experts about the issue du jour, to hour(s) long discursive conversations on podcasts.
Not for a moment do I make the claim that we’ll abandon tweets and Facebook posts, Snapchat, and Instagram, and the myriad other short form, continuous streams of information that have so profoundly changed our lives (and the economics of the media) this last 10 to 15 years. But I see some hope (yes, a value judgement, there) that this type of consumption (and creation) might find a counterbalance in longer, more complex, considered pieces of work.
Certainly, my personal experience is I feel less anxious in the weeks since I largely accidentally, and certainly with no master plan, diminished my day-to-day use of social media. And over the year to 18 months that I’ve made longer form, less time sensitive media more central to my life, I feel I’ve learned more and been exposed to many more ideas than I have for years now.
Places I find interesting things to read
Here are some places I frequently – indeed, habitually – check in to find interesting longer form reading across science, economics, business and the arts.
Eclectic well chosen excerpts of interesting longer-form articles. A destination in itself, or jumping off point for further reading.
Original longer form articles on matters cultural and scientific.
Both summarises and links to high quality long form writing across a broad spectrum, as well as commissioning original writing.
The long running site of the polymathic Tyler Cohen, that I imagine as the cheat sheet for the the American intellectual classes. Find yourself at a cocktail party in New York or Washington? You’ll never feel out of the loop if you read this.
I can’t find a way to describe this that does it any justice nor indeed even makes sense. A continuous jumping off point for making yourself a better human, in every way.
I subscribe to the print edition (it’s my parents’ annual gift to me, one I genuinely cherish). Highly recommended.
I pay Ben Thompson every month for his daily insights into the business of technology. An antidote to the breathless announcements of funding rounds and product launches that characterise much of the business/technology ‘press’, it’s considered, thematic thoughtful writing, with ideas that evolve over weeks, months and even years (see “aggregation theory”). But there’s also a free weekly post and a podcast, Exponent (see below).
Podcasts I listen to regularly
I’m aware that below are almost all male voices. I’m always looking for recommendations, so please do add any in the comments, particularly for non-white-male podcasters.
The moment an episode drops, I listen. Around an hour, each week, where Ben (Stratechery) Thompson and James Allworth discuss ideas at the intersection of business and technology.
Ezra Klein was a student political blogger who took political blogging mainstream at the Washington Post. He co-founded Vox media, and among many other things has this podcast where he has hour-long or more conversations with some of the most interesting people on earth, in business, technology, culture, science and politics.
Kara Swisher is in many ways similar to Ezra Klein, though from a slightly earlier generation. Journalist turned media empire founder, she similarly interviews leaders in business, technology, media, and politics.
Yes, he’s beloved by many of the Silicon Valley “bro” types. I find myself from time to time quoting my favourite line from the film “The Castle” aloud to him in my car, “Get your hand off it, Darryl”. He could up the number of women he interviews several fold. But you’ll also find numerous very interesting folks interviewed in a very relaxed style. Dumpster dive through the back catalogues – there’s definitely valuable conversations there.
Malcolm Gladwell polarises, but I’ve long found his writing stimulating, and very readable. Revisionist History is quite different from most the podcasts I listen to – in essence, they are short, highly produced radio shows, around 25 minutes each, tied together by a theme: what do we think we know well, something uncontroversial, that maybe we don’t know well at all? I suspect the future of podcasting, at least a big part of it, looks more than a little like this.
In a similar vein, by the author of one of my favourite books ever, The Ghost Map, Steven Johnson, is Wonderland, a series of terrifically produced radio shows, only around 20 minutes each. Each episode explores an aspect associated with his recently published book – Wonderland: How Play Shaped the Modern World. From the first video game at Berkeley in the late ’60s, to the origins of bouncing balls, you’ll learn more than a little each episode.
Like hopefully everything on this list, you’ll go away smarter, not dumber, by listening.