The TL; DR Generation

by Frost on March 30, 2011

(TL;DR – Technology is killing our attention span and making us stupid, but we can save ourselves with discipline and self-control.)

Millennials have been the test case for a massive experiment.

What happens when you take a human being, and immerse him in rapid-fire sensory stimuli and instant informational gratification from the age of five and up? What happens to a generation that spends the better part of most days in front of a computer screen, glued to a smartphone, or bombarded by the choppily-edited sound-bite television that dominates the mainstream networks?

Answer: That generation becomes stupid. Supposedly, we are tech-savvy, social media, Web 3.0 experts. We are the wired generation. We are Infovores. The lecture hall echoing with the soft clicks of Smartphone keyboards is a valuable case study in multitasking.

Our language is awash in positive-sounding euphemisms for people who spend their lives lurching from one byte of information to the next. But how many of us has read a book from cover to cover in the past month? How many are even still capable of such a feat? Some of us can’t get through a blog post without checking our email.

It wasn’t always like this. Once upon a time, our grandparents read books that were just words on pages. No unnecessary paragraph breaks, no flashy infographics every second page. Crazy, I know. They somehow powered through entire workdays without checking their Email or Reddit once.

As a result – and you can confirm this yourself by reading books written before the age of mass communication – their thoughts were clearer and than ours. They were able to sit, concentrate, and grapple with an idea for an extended period of time.

Our present minds, beaten into easily-distracted mush by information overload, are incapable of such feats. Almost everyone born after 1940 (and especially 1980) has spent their entire adult lives over-stimulated. The result is a shallow, unfocused, unthoughtful world. If an idea can’t be compressed into 160 characters, it’s doomed to live outside the minds of all but the most self-disciplined 21st century thinkers.

So how do we protect ourselves from the information firehose? Here’s my advice:

– Manage your information diet. Don’t be a slave to instant information gratification

Meditate. It’s not hard. Be still, clear your head and think about nothing. Which will make you think about Seinfeld. Which will make you feel guilty for not thinking about nothing, and hey don’t I have to renew my cell phone plan soon? And… OK maybe it is hard. But it gets easier, it makes you realize how little stillness there is in our lives, and its a good time fill if you’re accustomed to an hour of TV every night.

– Commit to Uni-tasking for all but the most basic of tasks, like walking and talking on the phone, or taking a dump while brushing your teeth (wait, what?).

– Avoid mass media as much as possible. Following the news is a colossal waste of time and 95% of television is soul-destroying garbage.

Your goal is to turn down the volume knob on your reality. Submitting to distraction is, at best, a complete waste of your scarce time alive.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

randy March 15, 2013 at 1:08 am

i read a few articals that got me to this one, after reading this im glad i took such an intrest in anne rice novels.

Sunny October 23, 2012 at 3:07 pm

Watching the news has to be the most depressing thing a modern individual can do. It’s as if the networks go for the most negative reports possible, like they’re trying to scare us. There’s an obvious agenda.

Meditation is good for the spiritual and the non-spiritual, too. Glad you added it as part of this post. I certainly need to take more time for it.

Excellent post as always. Keep up the good work.

Turner December 29, 2011 at 1:54 am

I totally thought of Seinfeld. Couldnt agree more. I remember a few years ago walking out on a Zen class introduction bc I was bored. ha. I sometimes feel like I “have” to plug in. Being still and not being entertained is difficult for a day much less a lifestyle. But discipline is what it takes. It is one of the reasons I like going abroad. Watching tv for me is just a break, but I try to spend more of my time socializing and getting out there. I have found though that the more I focus on one task at a time, the better the results of that task are and the happier I feel.

IgotBupkis, President, United Anarchist Society October 23, 2011 at 1:20 am

It’s called “mental discipline”, and it’s not a natural state for humans, we have to learn it.

If you don’t have a natural flair for it, it can be a problem, since our society has stopped inculcating any aspect of it, as a part and parcel of dumbing everyone down to make them good factory workers.

… except we don’t need factory workers, we need technology workers, which requires both the tech savvy in question AND the mental discipline to focus in on a subject and really seriously get some brain focus going.

R.M. Persig describes it in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:
================================================
“Peace of mind isn’t at all superficial, really. It’s the whole thing. That
which produces it is good maintenance; that which disturbs it is poor
maintenance. What we call the workability of the machine is just an
objectification of this peace of mind. The ultimate test’s always your own
serenity. If you don’t have this when you start and maintain it while you’re
working you’re likely to build your personal problems right into the machine
itself.”
================================================
“The material object under observation, the bicycle or rotisserie, can’t be
right or wrong. Molecules are molecules. They don’t have any ethical codes
to follow except those people give to them. The test of the machine is the
satisfaction it gives you. If the machine produces tranquility it’s right.
If it disturbs you it’s wrong until either the machine or your mind is
changed. The test of the machine’s always your own mind. There isn’t any
other test.”
================================================
“Sometime look at a novice workman or a bad workman and compare his
expression with that of a craftsman whose work you know is excellent and
you’ll see the difference. The craftsman isn’t ever following a single line
of instruction. He’s making decisions as he goes along. For that reason
he’ll be absorbed and attentive to what he’s doing even though he doesn’t
deliberately contrive this. His motions and the machine are in a kind of
harmony. He isn’t following any set of written instructions because the
nature of the material at hand determines his thoughts and motions, which
simultaneously change the nature of the materials at hand. The materials and
his thoughts are changing together in a progression of changes until his mind
is at rest at the same time as the material is right.”
“Sounds like art.”
“Well, it IS art. This divorce of art from technology is completely
unnatural. It’s just that it’s gone on so long that you have to be an
archaeologist to find out where the two separated. Rotisserie assembly is
actually a long-lost branch of sculpture, so divorced from its roots by
centuries of intellectual wrong turns that just to associate the two sounds
ludicrous.”

================================================

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
An exceptionally highly recommended book.

You can either buy it in its original form (paper) at many bookstores in new or used forms, or find a legitimate copy of it with a search on the internet, as Persig has apparently placed it into the Public Domain.

In it he strives to convey the idea that there are two “modes” of thought — the Classical and the Romantic. Motorcycle Maintenance, and Zen. Analyzing something and just being in it without thinking about it.

And from there, he tries to convey the notion that people tend to be more comfortable with one mode than the other, which mode depending on the person. And then they attempt to shoehorn all of life’s experience into one mode… and wind up exceptionally frustrated and unhappy because, when push comes to shove, there are situations where the other mode is ALWAYS called for.

If you go out on a dance floor, you don’t analyze what you’re doing, you just DO it. There’s no particular reason to put this hand here, that foot there (queue John Travolta, Saturday Night Fever pose here). Which is why guys, particularly geeks and techboys have a hard time dancing, we’re more commonly wired for Classical mode. So we feel uncomfortable because we WANT to analyze it.

OTOH, you’re riding a motorcycle through the mountains, and you’re in that zen mode, smelling the fresh air, taking in the vistas before you, the blue sky and fluffy clouds and… suddenly the motorcycle starts sputtering… DAMMIT I DON’T WANT TO THINK NOW!!! — Lolz. It’s time to analyze the problem — why is the cycle sputtering? Too rich? Clogged fuel line? Do I proceed or stop and see if I can figure it out? And so forth. Decisions must be made, and that means you have to get out of that zen state and start analyzing things.

Susan Walsh March 31, 2011 at 9:05 am

Great post, Frost. Your description of meditating cracked me up – every time I try it I feel so inept and guilty for not doing it right.

At the risk of sounding new-agey, at my son’s suggestion I recently listened to Eckhart Tolle read his A New Earth. I was completely mesmerized – sat in the driveway listening after arriving home. He is a very gifted teacher, and has put together an extremely effective presentation of the benefits of mindfulness/clearing one’s head. He is also a wonderful narrator of his own material.

NomadicNeill March 31, 2011 at 9:09 am

I’ve read both of Eckhart Tolle’s books after being put off for ages. Seemed like generic self-help fluff.

Even though Eckhart does use flowery hippy language, what he teaches is valuable.

Rob March 30, 2011 at 10:04 pm

What happened in 1980? I was born in 1981 and we didn’t have the internet in my house until I was in middle school. And even then the thing was hit or miss. Children need to spend most of their out of school time playing outside.

Richard March 30, 2011 at 9:05 pm

Oh, dangit. I was gonna say something really intelligent about this article, but the TV distracted me.

dang.

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