A couple of weeks ago I read Cheri Lucas’ “Instapaper and My Ideal Intellectual State” with a certain empathetic resignation. Lucas was finding that a new work situation made it increasingly difficult to keep up with the daily torrent of online information coming through all the usual channels — Twitter, RSS feeds, etc. She looked to Instapaper as a way of keeping up a semblance of keeping up, but to no avail. Instapaper quickly became a repository of what might have been read in some ideal world. A site of aspirational knowledge, a kind of Pinterest for the mind (without all the graphical flair).
I get it. This is where I now live too. I haven’t posted in over two weeks. For those of you who have recently started following The Frailest Thing thanks to the whole toilet paper thing — well, first of all, welcome and thank you. Secondly, I have ordinarily kept up a better clip. Right now it seems to me that the best I’ll be able to do is something like a post each week. Perhaps as things get a bit more routinized, I’ll be able to pick up the pace.
Or maybe not. I’m beginning to think that perhaps a post per week is a pretty good pace to aim for. I’ve been impressed again by the preciousness of attention. Because I have less time to devote to the Sisyphian task of keeping up with the daily digital deluge, I’m becoming increasingly draconian in deciding what deserves my attention. I’m ruthlessly ignoring whole swaths of Twitter-time and savagely gutting my RSS feed.
(As Nick Carr pointed out some time ago, the problem isn’t filter failure. My filters work wonderfully. Everyday they collect swaths of interesting, stimulating, entertaining material. It’s just too much.)
I told some students recently that the most important skill they may ever learn is that of wisely deploying their attention. For the most part we seem to do so carelessly, hearkening every call upon our attention with Pavlovian alacrity. It’s a ruinous habit, better to be misers with our attention.
In other words, we need to impose a regime of attentional austerity to counter continuous partial attention, the default mode arising out of our media environment.
It’s sometimes assumed that in the world the Internet created, those who excel at multi-tasking and endlessly partitioning their attention will have the advantage. I’m not so sure. It rather seems like we are turning our digital devices into horcruxes of the mind. Instead, I’m betting the advantage will go to the person who is able to cancel out the noise and focus with ferocity.