Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Tuesday 11 October 2016

The Fine Art of Distraction

We were away for a few days last week. We do that from time to time, for stimulus, to work and do research… for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes we just take a couple of days off to recharge our batteries.

When we go away, we try to find places that have little or no wi-fi, no tv, no landlines… No distractions. That’s a good thing, I think. We all need a break from the constant bustle of the internet.

As it turned out, we did have a little bit of intermittent internet while we were away, and it’s a good job, too, because work came in for both of us; the husband had stuff to do on Monday and Wednesday, and I had stuff to do on Tuesday and Thursday. We were four for four… That isn’t unusual.

So, we did try to hook up to the internet when we needed to trade e-mails. Like many people, I have the habit of checking my social networks any time that I’m on-line. This is partly to do with work, but also because it’s an innocent distraction: there are kittens. 

It’s not difficult to spend quite substantial chunks of time being distracted by FaceBook posts, by Twitter, and by all manner of gifs and photos and other ephemera. Because, let’s face it, all that stuff is ephemeral: There and gone in no time.

With my intermittent, unreliable wi-fi last week, I still clicked and scrolled, but the clicking and scrolling was slow, and I gave up pretty quickly. There was nothing I couldn’t live without.

So, the next question had to be, Why on Earth do I spend time clicking and scrolling, and looking at stuff? If waiting a second for something makes it undesirable, what was the attraction in the first place?

It’s not that I don’t ever find anything worth finding; the point is we give little value to that which comes very easily, and the internet makes everything come to us very easily, particularly when the wi-fi’s going at full-tilt.

Stimulus is good, and browsing is good. I like to browse bookshops, and I like to flick through newspapers and magazines. Of course, it’s possible to find things that you’re probably not looking for in bookshops and newsagents.

The problem with the internet is the filter bubble that comes with it. We are constantly being second guessed so that the web can deliver the things it thinks we will like most. This isn’t just dull, it’s also dangerous.

If we are only shown the things closely adjacent to things we’ve seen before, we’ll all be funnelled into tiny little compartments. Our brains, our imaginations will atrophy.

But that’s not the worst of it. The worst of it is that our thoughts, ideas, ideologies, politics etc will all be filtered down.

I buy a pair of white sports socks on the internet, and suddenly, when I type in ‘socks’, I get more sports socks. I like the white sports socks, so I buy some more. Suddenly, when I type in ‘socks’, I get white sports socks… Buy two pairs in the same brand, and suddenly all I’m offered is white sports socks from one brand.

The truth is, when I bought the socks, they might have been an aberration. I might not, as a general rule, be a white sports socks person. I might be a multi-coloured toe-sock person. Trouble is, now, I feel as if I must be a white sports socks person, because that's what the internet perceives me to be. Now, it becomes increasingly difficult to find any other sock in any other colour by any other maker.

Now think about that in terms of politics.

Let’s just suppose I’m a Republican (yeah… I’m really not. Smiles), so I look up that man Donny Trump on the internet. The more I look, the more right wing, Donny-loving reports come into my sphere. My field of view is narrowed. I stop seeing Democrats, let alone independents. I’m persuaded to think that Donny is the only man out there. I might not be a natural Trump supporter, and had I been offered a more balanced diet, I might choose not to vote for him. The trouble is, that’s what the internet thinks I am because that’s where the filter bubble has taken me.
Widely available, and well worth the read

No wonder politics is polarising.

I don’t think anyone believes that Trump would have made it this far, even a decade ago, let alone twenty or fifty or a hundred years ago. But, the internet wasn’t as influential even a decade ago, the filter bubble wasn’t nearly as sophisticated as it is now.

Is this a coincidence? I don’t know.

I do know that I plan to do a lot less idle clicking and scrolling, and any steps I can take to defeat the bubble, I’ll be trying very hard to do.

Read The Filter Bubble by Eli Pariser. It’ll scare the pants off you. 

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