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March 23 2012

My Paleo Media Diet

I've been on a train to New York City for about 20 minutes and it just occurred to me that I haven't checked Twitter today. In fact, I sat on a bench in the station for 30 minutes without even touching my phone. I watched people walk by, I daydreamed, thought about my plans for tomorrow, stared at the ceiling and generally just sort of zoned out. That would be no big deal except that later I realized I didn't get that itchy urge to check my phone and do the circuit: email, Twitter, Yammer, G+, Email, Twitter, Yammer, G+ … my little socmed treadmill.

That's huge! This is the first time I can remember sitting down somewhere in at least three years without immediately feeling the urge, or more like compulsion, to pull out my phone and twiddle with it. And this was at the train station, for 30 minutes! I feel like a smoker just realizing that I forgot to light up when I stepped outside for an afternoon break.

For too long I've been killing time on that treadmill, which would be fine if I had time that needed killing, but that's rarely the case. Plus, once that circuit gets started it tends to keep on going well into time that really should be better used. After a while I began feeling like I was never really present anywhere. Whether I was riding the train, sitting at dinner, watching a movie, whatever … every few minutes I'd get that tug. "See if there's a pellet. Give the bar a push."

Maybe you'll scoff at this, but I'm an addict. I have been for a long time, and I'm sick of it. I'm tired of having the attention span of a meth addict. I'm tired of reaching for my phone at every red light because the urge has been building inexorably since the last one. I'm irritated that my first impulse after any real world human experience is to tweet it. What the hell? Narcissist much?

I'm tired of walking down busy sidewalks full of interesting people and places with my head down staring at a rectangle. I want to be present, in the moment and the place. I want to experience mental flow by the river full and I want to be more productive. And above all, I want to nurture the relationships I have with people that I actually see and touch in all of their materialized-in-atoms glory.

If you have never experienced addiction, be happy. This post isn't for you. But I'm addicted to those little bursts of pleasure that pile into my inbox, or are prefaced with an "@" in my stream. Each one a new affirmation. "You mean something to someone" they seem to say. Although they needn't even say that to adequately stimulate. A Skinner Box really doesn't take much. Hell, I'd probably reach for my phone if it actually dropped little pellets from a chute.

If you've read Clay Johnson's thought provoking book "The Information Diet" you know that he describes his diet in terms of infoveganism. While I get what he means by that, I think it's the wrong analogy, at least as it relates to my addiction. Going vegan is a moral choice. An approach to food designed to satisfy first and foremost the conscience. Which makes a lot of sense in the context of government and political ideology in which he uses it. But my problem isn't one of extremism, or TMZ, or empty calorie media of any kind. Most of the pellets I chomp are just fine, probably even nutritious. It's the fact that I immediately crave the next one so much that is driving me crazy.

So a few weeks ago I decided to take advantage of a mini-sabbatical and go paleolithic. I guess I'll call it the Paleo Media Diet because for me it's not about the content per se, but its medium of conveyance. The medium is the message, and the stimulant.

I'm not doing this to satisfy my conscience, I'm doing it to satisfy evolution. Or more specifically, my evolutionary state. If my ancient and maladaptive wiring, that evolved in a different time, can't resist the lever and the pellet, then I figured I was going to have to get rid of the damned lever. So I did.

Now I own the world's dumbest smart phone. I removed all of the "social" apps - Yammer, Twitter, G+, LinkedIn, Path ... all gone. I open up preferences and turn off "cellular data" for long stretches of each day. If there is a specific email I'm waiting for I'll go through the multiple steps to turn it on and check, otherwise data stays turned off. I'll get my mail when I'm at my computer, with intention. But I turn my computer off when I'm not actively using it too, and leave it off for most of each day. The first time I turn it on is at lunch. I don't check anything electronic in the morning — that was the first thing I needed to stop. Compulsively checking messages before brushing my teeth is just ridiculous.

If I'm using my computer to write (like right now) I turn off the Wi-Fi. Sometimes I turn it off at the router to make it a little bit more difficult to "just check that one thing." In fact, maybe I'll make a T-shirt with this on it:

NoFi icon

Who knows, maybe it will become the symbol of a movement.

Oh, also, out of a sense of new media / old media fairness I'm leaving the TV off too unless there is a specific thing I planned to watch. No more flicking it on to just see what's on. After all, for the first 30 years of my life we railed against the "tube" as a flood of stupid coming into our living rooms. There's no point in letting it off the hook now just because there is a new even raw'er media that has a pellet bar attached to it.

To fill the time I'm getting back I'm meeting people for coffee, drinks, dinner, whatever. I'm spending time face to face with old friends and making new ones. I'm going to great lengths to try to make my social interactions more "around the campfire" and less mediated by a glowing rectangle. I'm reading, a lot.

The inspiration for this change was simple. First, I was getting nothing done. My productivity had been decimated by my inability to focus for more than a few minutes at a time and I desperately had to do something about it. So when I had the chance to take a break from work I knew I had to detox, and more importantly, change my habits permanently. This can't be a temporary "cleanse." This has to be me taking control of my interactions with media again, for the long run. These new habits have to be ingrained before I get back to work and back in front of my computer all day.

Second, I started a paleo-inspired dietary regimen in December in response to a different set of addictions: sugars and gluten. I started following the Perfect Health Diet because it seemed reasonable that during the bulk of our evolutionary past we ate very differently than we do today. As a result, the way we are eating now is poorly aligned with our biology and is probably killing us. We simply haven't had enough time to adequately adapt to what we actually eat in the mere 10,000 or so years of agriculture. Especially as our recent style of agriculture is being warped by farm subsidies into producing huge quantities of cheap fructose.

With three months' worth of results I think there is something to the theory. It was brutal to get off of sugar. It took two painful weeks of feeling like my head was made of wood, but then it passed and I'm eating and feeling better than ever. Energy is up, weight and body fat are down and blood work is trending in all of the right directions.

Once that basic idea — that in the timeline of human history and pre-history we simply haven't had time to adapt to our new circumstances — took root in my brain it seemed natural to apply it to other domains besides food. I think "going paleo" is going to be the catch phrase of an emerging counter culture and it isn't going to mean just diet. For me, at this point, it means a variety of lifestyle choices that recognize the limitations of my physical self to adapt to modern life. My approach now is going to be: "Where I can, adapt to my surroundings, where I can't, adapt my surroundings to me."

I know that we've always worried about the development of new media and what impact it might have on our culture. "The loss of oral culture will devastate us" etc. etc. I know I run the risk of getting lumped in with Nicholas Carr and all of the other Internet pessimists. But really, that's not what I'm saying. I just believe that my brain is maladapted to the networked Skinner Box, so I want out. My brain is plastic, but not in a sufficiently adaptive way. In fact it's probably adapting just fine, but in a fashion that creates a destructive feed forward loop.

I'm not trying to get all Walden Pond on you, and many of you will no doubt see this as nothing more than faddish crazy talk, but I'm going to work really hard to be both present and informed. I'll keep taking advantage of networks to live a better and more productive life, just as soon as I get through the part of my transition that makes my head feel like wood, but they're not going to keep taking advantage of me. And well, if a paleo media diet sounds stupid, do what works for you. We're probably different. But I'm turning off, opting out, and disconnecting as much as I can to save my brain for more of the things I really want to use it for. I'll let you know how it goes.


June 27 2010

A New Era of Post-Productivity Computing?

Glenn Fisher recently posted on software that disables bits of the computer to make us more productive and to minimize distractions. Programs like Freedom, Isolator, RescueTime, LeechBlock, Turn Off the Lights and others were mentioned, with more coverage going to Freedom, a tool that blocks distractions. Freedom users can choose to disable Internet access and/or local network access. Users claim that software like Freedom makes them more productive by blocking tempting distractions.

I’m not opposed to using technologies to support us in reclaiming our attention. But I prefer passive, ambient, non-invasive technologies over parental ones. Consider the Toyota Prius. The Prius doesn’t stop in the middle of a highway and say, “Listen to me, Mr. Irresponsible Driver, you’re using too much gas and this car isn’t going to move another inch until you commit to fix that.” Instead, a display engages us in a playful way and our body implicitly learns to shift to use less gas.

Glenn was kind enough to call me for a comment as he prepared his post. We talked about email apnea, continuous partial attention, and how, while software that locks out distractions is a great first step, our ultimate opportunity is to evolve our relationship with personal technologies.

Personal technologies today are prosthetics for our minds.

In our current relationship with technology, we bring our bodies, but our minds rule. “Don’t stop now, you’re on a roll. Yes, pick up that phone call, you can still answer these six emails. Follow Twitter while working on PowerPoint, why not?” Our minds push, demand, coax, and cajole. “No break yet, we’re not done. No dinner until this draft is done.” Our tyrannical minds conspire with enabling technologies and our bodies do their best to hang on for the wild ride.

With technologies like Freedom, we re-assign the role of tyrant to the technology. The technology dictates to the mind. The mind dictates to the body. Meanwhile, the body that senses and feels, that turns out to offer more wisdom than the finest mind could even imagine, is ignored.

At the heart of compromised attention is compromised breathing. Breathing and attention are commutative. Athletes, dancers, and musicians are among those who don’t have email apnea. Optimal breathing contributes to regulating our autonomic nervous system and it’s in this regulated state that our cognition and memory, social and emotional intelligence, and even innovative thinking can be fueled.

Our opportunity is to create personal technologies that are prosthetics for our beings. Conscious Computing. It’s post-productivity, post-communication era computing. Personal technologies that enhance our lives.

Thirty years ago, personal computing technologies created a revolution in personal productivity, supporting a value on self-expression, output and efficiency. The personal communications technology era that followed the era of personal productivity amplified accessibility and responsiveness. Personal technologies have served us well as prosthetics for the mind, in service of thinking and doing.

Scientists, like Antonion Damasio, Daniel Siegel, and Daniel Goleman, are showing us that aspects of our intelligence come from sensing and feeling and that our bodies offer a kind of wisdom.

Here at #Foo10, Sara has just pointed out that, for the first time she can remember, people are sitting in sessions, taking notes on notepads, laptops closed. Laptops are out of sight. It feels different. That’s another option. We can use technology to help enable Conscious Computing, or we can find it on our own, through attending to how we feel.

How do we usher in an era of Conscious Computing? What tools, technologies, and techniques will it take for personal technologies to become prosthetics of our full human potential?

January 04 2010

Skinner Box? There's an App for That

If you are reading this post it means that after countless misfires, I finally kept my attention focused long enough to finish it. That may seem like no big deal, a mere trifling effort, but I'm basking in the moment. In fact, I'll probably tweet it.

It didn't start out to be about digital Skinner boxes. It was a Radar backchannel email about the infamous Web 2.0 Expo Twitterfall incident. I got all curmudgeonly and ranted about continuous partial attention, Twitter as a snark amplifier, and the "Ignite'ification" of conferences (with apologies to Brady). In short, I demonstrated myself unfit to contribute to a blog called Radar.

I swear I'm not a Luddite. I'm not moving to Florida to bitch about the government full time and I'm not in some remote shack banging this out on an ancient Underwood. However, I guess I count myself among the skeptics when it comes to the unmitigated goodness of progress. Or at least its distant cousin, trendiness.

Anyway, I sent the email, inexplicably Jesse said "post!", and I tried reworking it. I still am. This piece has been grinding away like sand in my cerebral gears since, and along the way it has become about something else.

In The Anthologist, Nicholson Baker describes writing poetry as the process of starting with a story and building a poem around it. I try to do that with photography and build pictures around narrative and metaphor. After the work takes shape the story is carved back out and what remains hints at the story's existence, like a smoke ring without the mouth.

He says it better: "If you listen to them, the stories and fragments of your stories you hear can sometimes slide right into your poem and twirl around in it. Then later you cut out the story and the poem has a mysterious feeling of charged emptiness, like the dog after the operation." Don't worry about the dog, it lived and it isn't relevant. My point is that this post isn't about the Twitterfall fail story, that was just a catalyst. The inchoate uneasiness still twirling around in here is what's left of it.

This all began with these lingering questions: "Why are we conference attendees paying good money, traveling long distances, and sitting for hours in chairs narrower than our shoulders only to stare at our laptops? Why do we go to all that trouble and then spend the time Twittering and wall posting on the overwhelmed conference wifi? Or, more specifically, why are we so fascinated with our own 140 character banalities pouring down the stage curtain that we ignore, or worse, mob up on, the speakers that drew us there in the first place?"

As I kept working away on what has become this overlong post, the question eventually turned into, "why the hell can't I finish this?" This has become the post about distraction that I've been too distracted to complete. It's also about ADHD and the digital skinner box that makes it worse, narcissism's mirror, network collectivism and the opt-in borg, and an entropic counter-argument for plugging in anyway. So, here goes...

My name is Jim, and I'm a digital stimulusaholic

A few weeks ago I was watching TV from across the room in the airport and I couldn't hear the sound. The missing sound track made the cuts more obvious so I timed them. They averaged about 1.5 seconds while ranging from about a quarter to at most three. The standard deviation was pretty tight but there was plenty of random jitter and the next cut was always a surprise. Even during the shortest clips the camera zoomed or panned (or both). Everything was always in motion, like a drunk filming dancers. Even though I've known this was the trend for a while it surprised me. Without the dialog to provide continuity it was disconcerting and vertigo inducing.

In his book Blink of an Eye, Walter Murch describes movie editing as a process akin to adding eye blinks where they naturally belong so that film works for the brain like a dream. It's a lovely book by the way. I think these frenetic transitions alter how we experience that film-induced dream state, and for me at least, can make film feel a nightmare during exam week. Unfortunately, much of my daily experience mirrors this new cultural reality.

Before I discovered Twitter I used to joke that coffee was at the root of a personal productivity paradox. I could drink it and stay alert while wearing a path in the carpet back and forth to the men's room. Or I could stay stimulant free and sleep at my desk. That was a joke, but the information-sphere that we live in now is like that. I can either drink liberally from the fire hose and stimulate my intellect with quick-cutting trends, discoveries, and memes; but struggle to focus. Or I can sign off, deactivate, and opt out. Then focus blissfully and completely on the rapidly aging and increasingly entropic contents of my brain, but maybe finish stuff. Stuff of rapidly declining relevance.

We have such incredible access to information, I just wish it wasn't so burdened with this payload of distraction. Also, I wish my brain wasn't being trained to need these constant microburst's of stimulation.

Email was the first electronic medium to raise my clock speed, and also my first digital distraction problem. After some "ding, you have mail," I turned off the blackberry notification buzz, added rationing to my kit bag of coping strategies, and kept on concentrating. Then RSS came along and it was like memetic crystal meth. The pursuit of novelty in super-concentrated form delivered like the office coffee service. Plus, no one had to worry about all that behind-the-counter pseudoephedrine run around. "Hey, read as much as you want, no houses were blown up in Indiana to make your brain buzz."

It was a RUSH to know all this stuff, and know it soonest; but it came like a flood. That un-read counter was HARD to keep to zero and there was always one more blog to add. Read one interesting post and be stuck with them forever. In time keeping up with my RSS reader came to be like Lucy in the chocolate factory with the conveyor belt streaming by. From my vantage point today, RSS seems quaint. The good old days. I gave it up for good last year when I finally bought an iPhone and tapped Twitter straight into the vein. Yeah, I went real time.

Now I can get a hit at every stop light. Between previews at the movies. Waiting for the next course at a restaurant. While you are talking to me on a conference call (it's your fault, be interesting). When you look down at dinner to check yours. Last thing before I go to sleep. The moment I wake up. Sitting at a bar. Walking home. While opening presents on Christmas morning (don't judge me, you did it too). In between the sentences of this paragraph.

I am perfectly informed (I will know it before it hits the New York Times home page) and I'm utterly distracted.

Here are just a few of the things I learned yesterday while I was working on this post. Scientists are tracking malaria with cell phone data, there is an open source GSM base station project, I need to bend over (and touch my toes) more, WWII 8th Air Force bomber crews had brass ones (seriously, read this pdf), Erik Prince is probably graymailing the CIA, and electric motorcycles seem to be on the verge of being popular.

So here I am at the nexus of ADHD, AMS*, and digital Narcissism. I'm in a Skinner box alright, but I don't smack the bar and wait for pellets, I tweet into the void and listen for echoes. There it is now, that sweet sweet tweet of instant 140 char affirmation. Feels good. RT means validation. I think I'm developing a Pavlovian response to the @ symbol that borders on the sexual.

And I remember to give RT love too. Even if the tweet didn't really grab me as much as I let on. After all, you have to grease the machine to keep its pellet chute clear. Give to get. I won't RT cheeky_geeky though, gotta draw the line somewhere. No preferential attachment help from this tweeter. Better to RT the ones that really need it; they'll be more grateful and they'll come through later when I'm jonesing hard for 140 characters of meaningful interaction.

And Twitterfall! I've only experienced it once, but holy shit, it's a Skinner Box spitting champagne truffles. It's real time plus real place. Back channel my ass, this is narcissism's mirror mirror on the wall, who's the twitteringest mofo of them all? And it's big. Don't have to wait for the echo, I can see it right there! And so can everyone else. A perfect cybernetic feedback loop of self. A self licking ice cream cone of the mind. I didn't know it till I experienced Twitterfall, but ASCII echo isn't enough. We're still flesh with pumping hearts after all and we want to feel the response. Listen to them shift in their seats as my last twitticism wends its way down the wall. Slow down you bastards, let it hang there a bit, it was a good one. Hear that? Yeah, they saw it.

This brave new inter-networked, socially-mediated, post-industrial, cybernetically-interwoven world is an integrated web of Pavlovian stimulus and response and I'm barking at the bell. Turns out, this isn't a Skinner Box. No, "box" is too confining for this metaphor. This is a fully networked, digitally rendered, voluntarily joined Skinner Borg. It doesn't embed itself in us, we embed ourselves in it. It's Clockwork Orange, self served.

For the last couple of years I've jacked in to this increasing bit rate of downloadable intellectual breadth and I've traded away the slow conscious depth of my previous life. And you know what? Now I'm losing my self. I used to be a free standing independent cerebral cortex. My own self. But not any more. Now I'm a dumb node in some uber-net's basal ganglia. Tweet, twitch, brief repose; repeat. My autonomic nervous system is plugged in, in charge, and interrupt ready while the gray wrinkly stuff is white knuckled from holding on.

The singularity is here, and it's us... also it's dumb, snarky, and in love with itself.

Everyone is worried that the singularity will be smart, I'm worried that it will be dumb, with a high clock speed. Any dumb ass can beat you at chess if it gets ten moves to your one. In fact, what if the singularity already happened, we are its neurons, and it's no smarter than a C. elegans worm? Worse, after the Twitterfall incident, I'm worried about what it will do when it discovers its motor neural pathways.

The human brain is brilliance derived from dumb nerves. Out of those many billions of simple connections came our Threshold of Reflection and everything that followed. But consciousness is going meta and we're being superseded by a borg-like singularity; intelligence turned upside down. Smart nodes suborning ourselves to a barely conscious #fail-obsessed network. It's dumb as a worm, fast as a photo multiplier tube, and ready to rage on at the slightest provocation. If you're on stage (or build a flawed product, or ever ever mention politics), watch out.

We don't plan to go mob rules any more than a single transistor on your computer intends to download porn. We participate in localized stimulus and response. Macro digital collectivism from local interaction. Macro sentiment from local pellet bar smacking.

We're pre-implant so I plug into the Skinner Borg with fingers and eyes that are low bandwidth synapses. When I try to unplug (or when I'm forced to in an airplane at altitude), my fingers tingle and I feel it still out there. I'm a stimulus seeking bundle of nerves. I experience the missing network like a phantom limb.

So where's this going? Like I said, I'm not a Luddite but I'm no Pollyanna Digitopian either. Age of spiritual machines? Whatever. Show me spiritual people. When the first machine or machine-assisted meta-consciousness arrives on the scene, it's going to be less like the little brother that you played Battleship with and more like a dumb digital version of poor Joe from Johnny Got His Gun. Barely sentient but isolated from sensation. Do we think that a fully formed functional consciousness is going to spring to life the first time sufficient processing power is there to enable it? I'm not worried about it replicating and taking over the world, I'm worried about it going completely bat shit crazy and stumbling around breaking stuff in an impotent rage.

My Dilemma, Evolution, and Entropy

All this talk of borgs, singularities, and addiction doesn't address my very real and right now dilemma. The world is changing and we all have to keep up. Mainlining memes is AWESOME for that, but at what cost? It's a bargain that I'm trying not to see as Faustian.

We don't have parallel ports so we have to choose. Lots of bite sized pellets or slow down and go deep? Frenetic pursuit of the novel or quiet concentration? Can I stay plugged in without giving up my ability to focus? I don't want to be a donor synapse to the worm and I don't want to have to intravenously drip Adderall to cope.

At root, this is a question of breadth vs. depth and finding the right balance. This conversation was started by a conference. Organizers have to choose too, and they base their choices on what they think we prefer. Do we want to listen to Sandy Pentland for an hour and come away with a nuanced understanding of his work on honest signals, or would we rather have six twitter-overlaid ten minute overviews in the same hour? Are we looking for knowledge? Or suggestions of what to investigate more deeply later (assuming we can find some "later" to work with)? Can we sit still for an hour even if we want to?

We humans and our organizations are open dissipative systems evolving memetically in the information realm and genetically on intergenerational time scales. Living organisms beat entropy by remaining in a perpetual state of disequilibrium - they absorb energy from their environment and exhaust disorder back into it. The greater their disequilibrium, the more energy that is required to maintain an internally ordered state, but paradoxically, the more adaptive they are to changing surroundings.

If we work in a domain in flux we require a higher rate of information consumption to maintain our ability to adapt while maintaining an internally ordered state. The U.S. Army is experiencing this now as it tries to adapt to the difference between a Fulda Gap standoff and the current counter insurgency mission. Moving from a period of relative stasis to a tighter evolutionary time scale, it's adapt or lose. As a learning organization its emphasis has to shift from transmitting and conforming with existing knowledge, to consuming and processing new.

The pursuit of novelty in this context isn't just fun, it is the foundation for a stocked library of adaptive schemata that support intellectual evolution. Since memes and the seeds of synthesis can come in compact packages, a broad, fast, and shallow headspace can work in times of rapid change. This isn't just an argument for fast paced conferences with lots of breadth, but it also explains why twitter, RSS feeds, and broad weakly-connected social networks (e.g. Foo) are so valuable. It's also one of the arguments that I make in enterprises like the DoD why they should promote rather than discourage social media use.

However, I don't think the evolutionary / entropic argument is the only one in play. The cultural and cognitive domains are relevant too, and speaking personally, I feel like I'm bumping hard up against some relevant limits. My memetic needs are increasing faster than genetic barriers can evolve. Obviously, in the cultural domain we are becoming more accustomed to fast paced transitions and partial attention. However, anecdotally it seems like I'm not the only one wondering about the impact of all this stuff. Early signals are popping up in the strangest places. When I attended the Gov 2.0 Summit more than one participant commented that the fast paced format was intellectually exhausting.

By nature I'm an abstainer more than a moderator. It's hard for me to limit a behavior by doing just a little bit of it. Just check the empty quart ice cream container in my trash can if you doubt me. So, frankly, I am stumped on what to do. I simply don't know how to proceed in a way that will keep the information flow going but in a manner that doesn't damage my ability to produce work of my own.

Which Singularity?

In the early years of the last century the Dadaists observed America's technological progress from their Parisian perch and recoiled artistically from the dehumanizing eruptions of concrete and steel in the machine age capital of Manhattan. Paintings like Picabia's Universal Prostitution were comments on how our culture (and perhaps selves) seemed to be merging with machines. Having observed the early machine age's ascendance first hand, Duchamp would have understood our uneasy fascination with the singularity.

I'm trapped in a cybernetic feedback loop. That much is clear. However, these loops operate at different scales in both time and space and maybe Twitter itself solves at least one larger conundrum. As we join the Skinner Borg in droves, and our ability to concentrate is compromised at scale, who is going to develop the technologies that evolve the worm?

When astrophysicists use the term "singularity" they mean that edge of a black hole where the decaying-from-the-center gravitational force just balances the ability of light to escape. Along the surface of that sphere, some distance out from the hole itself, light just hangs there in perpetual stop motion.

The very technology that makes our collective integration possible also distracts us from advancing it. In equilibrium, distraction and ambition square off at the singular point of failed progress. If the next generation of Moore's, Joy's, and Kurzweil's are half as distracted as I am, we are going to find ourselves frozen right here, nodes in a wormy borg that never becomes a butterfly. (yeah, I know, worms don't become butterflies, but I'm desperate to finish...). Anyway, maybe Twitter is just God's way of making sure we never manage to finish creating our future oppressor.

p.s. There really is an app for that.

*AMS = Afraid to miss something

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