Unplugging (from the bad stuff)

Last fall a friend sent me a link to this blog post by Cal Newport, a computer science professor who is “particularly interested in the impact of new technologies on our ability to perform productive work and lead satisfying lives,” according to his About page. Newport points to another blog post by expert woodworker Christopher Schwarz explaining why he had stopped interacting with the public via email:

Trust me. It’s not you. It’s me. I had multiple public email addresses for 17 years and answered every damn question sent to me – no matter how odd or how much research it required. I helped lazy students with their papers on hand craft. I found links for people too lazy to use a thing called Google. I answered sincere but incredibly time-consuming emails from people who wanted to tell me their life story and get detailed advice on the steps they should take to become a woodworker.

It all became too much, so Schwarz simply deleted his public email address, and now rigorously ignores any emails from the public which happen to find their way to him. Which earned him Newport’s admiration.

Mine, too! I spent some time looking around Schwarz’s website, in part because our son Jerry has shown some interest in woodworking. Remarkable work, beautifully photographed. I was also delighted to discover that he has publicly declared himself to be an anarchist. That goaded me into scheduling a road trip to Schwarz’s workshop on the proper Saturday of the month, with Chris and Jerry in tow. We didn’t talk anarchy—it was actually a bit awkward, since I couldn’t think of much to say that wouldn’t come off as fanboy-ish—but we bought some of his books, and perhaps there will be more opportunities down the road.

Newport’s final paragraph got me thinking.

In more detail, what impresses me about Schwarz is that he rejected the fear of missing out — on a new lead, on a new opportunity, on a new fan — that permeates so much of our digital age business culture …

No question that FOMO is a much bigger problem than any of us suspect–not only does it put us in a position of weakness and dependency, but I don’t think people are aware what vast amounts of time they devote to avoiding missing out.

Early last year I once again took the pruning shears to my information feeds, this time cutting away anything that made me the slightest bit agitated, irritated, or bored (not much left!). Afterwards I was startled at how much less I knew about the news of the day (I was barely aware of the two hurricanes last fall, and didn’t hear about the Mexico City earthquake until three days after the fact) and how much time opened up as a result. And I’m less agitated, irritated, and bored–how sweet is that?

… and started instead from a simpler question: how do I get better at what I do best? Honest answers to this query rarely involve spending more time online.

Well, depends what you mean by “spending time online.” Socializing, commenting, following controversies, contributing to controversies, posturing or following on Twitter/Facebook/Instagram … all true. But of the time I spend getting better at what I want to do well, or more knowledgeable about what’s important to me, a large proportion is spent in online research and study. Chris would say the same, I think.

We live in a golden age for autodidacts, where experts share their knowledge freely and anyone with an internet connection and the proper search skills can do a deep study on just about any topic they choose. Lots of time-wasting temptations mixed in there, of course, but easily avoided if you pay attention to what you’re doing.

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3 thoughts on “Unplugging (from the bad stuff)

  1. The whole situation is such a problem for someone who seeks to soak up information of all kinds, I think. I sympathized with a lot of this. I’ve always cared a lot about public affairs, but the fact that the current president wants to dominate every single news cycle (following the principle: even bad publicity is good publicity) has sent my usual news sources into overdrive. Add to that the fact that I live far away from most of my friends, which makes certain social media important to me. And finally, I have the problem of the career teacher: it’s very hard for me to offer a flat “no” as the answer to any question. But at the same time, most of the reading I want to do right now is much more easily available on the Internet than anywhere else. And I teach online, so I have to have those screens turned on.

    I’m not at present especially worried, but I have really dialed down my relationship with news.

  2. Servetus,

    The whole situation is such a problem for someone who seeks to soak up information of all kinds,

    The dilemma for me is that I can’t (or choose not to) solve the problem using my favorite approach, simply walking away. The massive increase in available information is beneficial as well as harmful—or can be, if you know how to thread your way through the maze. There’s way more chaff to deal with, but also way more kernels for those who are able. Or as Ronald Reagan might have said, more manure means more ponies.

    I’ve always cared a lot about public affairs, but the fact that the current president wants to dominate every single news cycle (following the principle: even bad publicity is good publicity) has sent my usual news sources into overdrive.

    Even though this isn’t an issue for me, I’ve had similar rude shocks when the cultural ground has shifted under me, and I had to suddenly rethink from first principles social pressures and currents I had once counted on to carry me and my family in the direction I wanted. I always ended up grateful, though, because I ended up seeing many new things about how the world actually works. Awakened from my dogmatic slumbering, I suppose.

    Add to that the fact that I live far away from most of my friends, which makes certain social media important to me.

    Freud had a passage in Civilization and its Discontents mourning how technology seems to take with one hand while it gives with the other. But even if we might have been better off without some innovation, that’s no reason not to acknowledge its staying power and then make the best of it. Social media may be pernicious when it’s used as a substitute for face-to-face contact, but it is surely better than no contact at all.

    And finally, I have the problem of the career teacher: it’s very hard for me to offer a flat “no” as the answer to any question. But at the same time, most of the reading I want to do right now is much more easily available on the Internet than anywhere else. And I teach online, so I have to have those screens turned on.

    I spend most of my days and a good part of my nights sitting in front of internet-connected screens. A good part of that time is spent in earning a living, a good part of the rest in study, and some—always more than I’d like—in entertaining myself. But I try to choose wisely at every connected moment, and there are many things I do that are unusually disconnected—no portable phone of any kind, no radio listening in the car, no earbuds at the gym, no multitasking while interacting with others. And I’m always monitoring the situation, and tweaking the balance as needed.

    Christopher Schwarz’s approach seems like a healthy one to me: focus on the goal rather than the tools, and always be wary of becoming an unwitting slave to those tools.

  3. I’ve so long been a stranger in a strange land that I don’t feel like I was ever out of touch with how things really work (I’m a liberal, but every single member of my extended family has voted GOP their entire lives, including in the last election; I’m a cosmopolitan, but my family is rural; I’m (was?) an academic *and* religious and that’s a real conundrum). I was never one of the people who leave their small town and don’t look back, and my real life people have always made it clear that my preferences don’t reflect how most people in the U.S. see the world. I *do* think what’s changed is how much more open people have become about some things in the last year or so, so that it’s clear that it’s not only “my” world that’s changing (or my perception of it) but also the worlds/perceptions of people with whom I have strong disagreements. Although that depresses me in some ways, I feel obligated to look the world in the face just as much now as I ever used to. The issue for me now is more that the news keeps suggesting to me that things that i don’t think of as public affairs material are now somehow politically significant (e.g., the president’s sexual behavior; how well the First Lady speaks English; who wants whom to attend or abstain from attending his funeral; the jokes that people tell). It’s not the first time that’s happened, I guess, thinking back to 1998; but I do think politics is turning strongly towards entertainment among media of all political stripes, and I find this really disturbing. It’s like somehow our views on entertainment and spectacle have become part of how others see our character.

    I’m blessed by not being able to put anything in my ears too long — it’s itchy! And I can’t stand phones. I have a dumb phone, but only three people have the number, so if it rings I know it’s a crisis. I agree, we all somehow find our balance with these things. What works for one might not work for another. I don’t think I could get completely off the information grid but there’s so much I could easily dispense with, and then there’s the hard category of “stuff that interests me but might not be essential.” I guess that’s the point of your earlier posts about not collecting material on certain subjects any longer b/c you don’t think it will fulfill your demand for utility.

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