Sunday, May 29, 2011

Reducing Facebook : Increasing Attention

After a long pondering over the problem, I decided today to reduce my time on Facebook - to a visit per every 3 days. Facebook now commands a lion's share of my time spent on the internet. This is natural since I, like any other person, value updates from my friends a lot more than other events. However, unlike a physical visit to my friends that always makes me feel better, a visit to Facebook often ends up making me feel worse and confused. Part of this is due to the inadequacy of virtual communication. But I believe part of this is also due to how stupidly Facebook is structured; and how that constrains meaningful engagement. In the rest of this blog, the reader can substitute Facebook for any social networking website; the problem is similar.

To understand this, we first have to go to the earlier times of the web when Yahoo was the dominant search engine. In those days, the home page of the search was cluttered with thousands of news snippets and gadgets. This distraction of attention was clearly annoying when the user had a definite purpose - to search for something. Then Google came along and introduced the clean search page that has become the standard for all search engines today. With Facebook, we face a similar problem today, but which is deeper and more menacing. The culprit is the destruction of one's attention.

I have blogged earlier about how the very nature of the internet (the hyperlink) shatters one's attention. This problem is manifest at a higher order on Facebook, which requires the user to post status updates in 420 characters or less. "What's on your mind ?" Facebook asks. Either you have something interesting on your mind which is often impossible to convey within the character limit, or you say something uninteresting and reaffirm to yourself that your life is boring. The end result is frustration. The replies from your friends, and your replies in return are necessarily shallow, owing to the character limit. But even if it is scarce, you do enjoy the positive feedback when it comes. Mostly, this comes from your friends clicking the Like button on your status updates or on photos. This marks the high point of your Facebook experience, and you get addicted to it like one gets addicted to coffee. The day is not long when neuroscientists shove people into an fMRI machine with an iPad in their hands, and measure their neurotransmitter levels when their friends click the Like button, and thus proving the obvious and getting their paper accepted in Science. But I digress.

The reason for the seemingly inane 420 character limit is simple : the guys at have no better ideas on how to pull updates from your various friends into a single webpage. So they push all and sundry in uniformly sized packets, and clutter them onto your face, knowing well that you will be watching that page several times a day. Thereby, you surrender your most valuable resource - your attention, to Facebook which destroys it completely.

Here, I should write something about attention, a topic few people are aware of. Often, people who talk about it are cognitive psychologists or new-age meditation practitioners. Both the groups outdo each other in scaring an unwitting reader to his wit's end. I will try to introduce the problem in a more straightforward way : imagine that you are shaving to a mirror. If your mind gets distracted for a second, you might end up with a cut on your lip. Luckily it doesn't happen often, since the impulses in your muscles get accustomed to these lapses of attention, but sometimes they cannot cope and you end up with a bloodied lip. As a second example, think of yourself baking something in the oven and taking the dish out. If your mind is distracted, you may end up with a burn on your fingers as you absentmindedly touch the hot grill. Or think of the scenario where you are leaving for work in the morning and keep your keys somewhere - so that you can grab your coat, bag or something else. It can happen that you forget where you left your keys, and spend several minutes frantically searching for them. The problem in all these examples is that you are not fully attentive in your present moment of experience.

These lapses of attention can cause more serious trouble. When you are working, you might miss hearing something very pertinent to the discussion. If you are a researcher like me, you might miss a crucial point in a paper that you are reading. If you are a computer programmer, you might miss a bug in the program. People who are normally competent can underperform because they are not "fully" present.

In eastern religions, especially Buddhism, being present in the "now" is considered a highly virtuous thing. People spend several years trying to improve their standing here, through practicing rigorous meditation. It is said that one whose attention is perfect feels a supreme happiness. I don't know about that, but I think being attentive to your own mind is quite similar to being attentive to the surroundings. A man wearied by fatigue or illness may not appreciate a magnificent natural scenery when it passes before his eyes. Similarly, a man whose palette is ruined by unwise food choices may not later appreciate the sublime taste of a wine. Starting with a clean slate is important for perceiving the fullness of an experience. This is also true for perceiving one's own mind - and for experiencing one's natural creativity. A man with low attention will not be creative and will succumb to the habit of yesterday. At a practical level, this will reflect in him being boring and not funny. At a deeper level, this causes an existential crisis and panic.

I think it is ineffective to speak of attention in the absolute - either there or not. It is better to speak of attention as a finite resource that can be measured. Then it becomes money. It can be invested and greater rewards be earned. Or it can be squandered and the person becomes poorer than before. There is an old saying, "time is money". But I think it is missing the point. One can have plenty of time, but still make nothing out of it. What I think was meant there was that "attention is money". When one is more attent, one saves time; and with the saved time, focuses attention on something more important. Just like with money, one can be rich in attention by cultivating good habits and by investing wisely.

Of all the five senses, hearing is the best friend when it comes to attention. This is because one's mind is completely focused on the incoming sound signal, and steps together along with time. This automatically reinforces the attention of the listener, and the attention-money thus earned can be spent on other things. These days, I listen to radio podcasts when I commute to work. They always make me feel better. When it comes to the sense of vision, distraction is easier. But this becomes a friend when it is coupled with the more stabilizing sense of hearing. So the second tip I have for you is to see things that you hear (either externally or internally in your own mind) for stretches of long periods of time. It does good to follow this in other senses as well : hearing, touching, seeing, tasting and smelling (each reinforced by the earlier one in the order). This rules out flipping channels on TV, browsing without a goal on the internet, or coming back to the topic of the blog - spending time on Facebook.

Facebook is essentially the opposite of meditation. Metaphorically, one is giving all the attention that one earned during the day (and in one's sleep at night) in a bowl to Mark Zuckerberg, who then spills it all over. One's mind is very similar to one's house : it periodically needs cleaning and keeping things in order. It needs open windows so that sunlight and air can pass through. But this shouldn't mean the trash from the entire city should be poured in. So I decided to let this happen just once every 3 days. This is a hard decision for me to take, as I am a single person in a foreign country and do not have many other respites for filling this vacuum. I do crave for the "like"s from my friends, and I am quite worried how long I will stick to this policy of limiting Facebook. But give it a try, I do nonetheless. Here is me hoping for an increased attention. :)