The most inspiring thing I’ve read this week comes from Harjeet Taggar, a partner at Y Combinator. For those unfamiliar with it, Y Combinator provides money for the people who build the internet — in other words, they and their partners have about as much web credence as once can have without being Mark Zuckerberg.
Taggar’s essay, No Email, describes the changes he’s noticed in his life after removing email from his phone. He details some of the effects: a feeling of liberation, a lengthening of his concentration, a normalized perception of time. In the six months since he began his experiment, he has proceeded to remove social media apps from his phone as well.
It’s easy to delude ourselves into thinking that constant access to social media is essential — after all, everyone else has it, and what could be wrong with a little more human interaction in our day? The thing is, social media isn’t social — it’s a way to mimic human interaction through the safety of a screen. In the words of media theorist Douglas Rushkoff:
We are all together, out on the Internet, alone- or alone out on the Internet together, right? I mean, do virtual worlds really bring us together with others, or do they just make being utterly alone a little more bearable?
Google Ventures partner Joe Krauss goes farther in his incredible talk SlowTech:
My favorite summary line on this whole topic comes from Sherry Turkle, an MIT professor who studies technology and society. “We are lonely but fearful of intimacy. Digital connections offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. We expect more from technology and less from each other”. At the most basic level, we’re losing manners. At the heart of manners is a consideration of others. An acknowledgement of each other. How many times, guys, have you been barked at by your wife because instead of giving full attention to what she was saying, you were looking at your phone. What’s the message that’s getting sent? “There is something more important than you and it’s not here in this room.”
The sentiment that social media can be dangerous for our humanity has been growing for some time. We’re in the habit of pretending that the internet is unilaterally good because it’s progress, but just because something is new does not make it valuable. The internet may be our greatest invention, but it also has an immense capacity to get out of hand. Cars, as an extension of our legs, can never damage more than our bodies. Computers, as an extension of our minds, can do damage much deeper. We let these devices into our heads, depositing pieces of ourselves into them — our memories, our knowledge, our ability to think — and wonder why we find ourselves less able to think and function in the real world.
Social media is addictive because people are addictive; we crave their attention and approval. We each need to monitor ourselves to make sure our relationship with media remains healthy; for some people, getting rid of Facebook or Twitter on our smartphones might be the way to go. The best answer would be to increase one’s self control, but just as a recovering alcoholic makes an effort to avoid situations with even a little temptation, a recovering socialholic should avoid the constant temptation of the smartphone.
As designers, entrepreneurs, and writers, the stakes are especially high. Our best thinking takes place when we are focused, undistracted. Krauss talks about this at length:
The second thing I think we’re losing is creativity and insight. Think about your own examples when you felt at your most creative or your best performance. Maybe it was your best round of golf, maybe it was solving a tricky computer science problem. Whatever it was, likely, you were LOST IN THE MOMENT, completely absorbed in what you were doing. It was long-form, not quick twitch. You were in the zone. Your attention was fixed, calm, present. Once people experience the zone, most of us want to get back there. It’s a feeling of peek performance, peek creativity, peek aliveness. Simply put, at the heart of creativity, insight, imagination and humaneness is an ability to pay attention to ANYTHING – our ideas, our line of thinking, each other. And that is what’s most threatened.
When we’re distracted, locked to our phones, we’re not only less effective designers, entrepreneurs, and writers — we’re less effective human beings.
I’m not going to tell anyone how to live their lives, online or offline. But I would encourage you to check out the video of Joe Krauss’s exceptional talk on this very subject. If you don’t think you have a media problem, this may convince you otherwise. And if you see that it’s 15 minutes and immediately think, “that’s too long”… well, you’ve made his point.