May 272011

Technology: Tune Out, Turn Off: A Mantra Needed for Our Times?

Technology: Andrew McAfee, 9:13 AM Monday April 25, 2011  |  Harvard Business Review

The 2011 Pulitzer Prizes were announced recently, and I was thrilled to see that Nick Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains was a finalist in the general nonfiction category. I’ve known Nick for many years, and have become a fan of his writing and thinking. He’s one of the world’s most thoughtful observers of modern technology, bringing a well-stocked brain and a lively pen to his work.

He’s usually more pessimistic than I am about technology’s effects on business and society, so I started reading The Shallows (which has been called “Silent Spring for the literary mind”) with a lot of skepticism. I thought I was in for a standard polemic about how “technology is rotting our brains,” and I’m kind of tired of reading about how fill-in-the-blank is rotting our brains.

As I read his book and reflected about my own habits, though, I started to get the uneasy feeling that he was on to something fundamental. The brilliant technologists of the 2.0 Era have succeeded at getting us hooked on their offerings. They’ve rolled out hardware and software that are always available, that put us immediately in touch with friends, family, colleagues, and strangers, that are intuitive to use and inherently multimedia, and that present us with a constant stream of new content.

This is potent, addictive stuff, and as Nick points out it does not lend itself to deep thinking and sustained concentration. Instead, it leads us to frolic blithely in the shallows of his title, flitting from one activity to the next. This is fun and can be effective for getting some kinds of work done, but I think he’s right that it’s fundamentally incompatible with writing the Great American Novel, the insightful paper or report, the tight code, or the beautiful song. Wading in the shallows, in short, is incompatible with generating work of any depth, and deep work is more important, not less, in the complex world we’ve built.

As I’ve discussed these ideas, I’ve heard back from more than one Millennial that our shallows are their depths — that skipping among online communities and activities is actually contemplative for them, and that they can get sustained thinking done this way. To which I reply, as gently as possible, “nonsense.”

The research on multitasking is piling up, and its conclusions are consistent and not optimistic. We need to stop kidding ourselves that there’s a lot of intelligent life in the shallows.

So what can we do to bring back deep thinking? The remedy is easy to state and hard to accomplish: tune out and turn off. In an earlier post advocating this approach I quoted St. Augustine, and in Hamlet’s Blackberry, one of the other great tech-related books of 2010, William Powers shows how it’s been adopted by great thinkers from Plato to Thoreau.

I know this isn’t easy when the technologies of distraction are so seductive, but it is important. I’ve heard of companies that turn off the Net during a set time each day to give their employees time to think, and I’ve had to learn to grab a good old-fashioned paper notebook and walk away from all my screens in order to get some real thinking done. Powers and his family go as far as disconnecting all weekend, every weekend. I’m not nearly that strong…

What have you learned to do to escape from the shallows? What personal or organizational policies have you found to be effective? Leave a comment, please, and let us know.

And when you’re done, turn off the computer and pick up a book or a pencil.


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