View Comment Highlights

Comment

Just do nothing: An inconvenient digital truth

As addictive and stimulating technology proliferates across society, we are losing our most ancient and coveted ability. Join us as we explore the loss of our ability to do nothing and how stand-up comedians have become the unlikely torch bearer of an inconvenient digital truth.

Image for post

Have you ever tried sitting in a room and doing nothing? And when I mean nothing, I mean absolutely nothing. Chances are you won’t last very long and that’s mainly because the human brain has a ferocious appetite for information stimuli. It’s why meditation is so hard and yet advocated by so many. Fundamentally, we aren’t very good at quieting our brain and the past decade of technological advancement has been anything but helpful.

According to the basic fundamentals of human computer interaction (HCI), there are three main ways or modalities by which we interact with computers:

Visual (Poses, graphics, text, UI, screens, and animations)

Auditory (Music, tones, sound effects, voice)

Physical (Hardware, buttons, haptics, real objects)

Regardless of what computer type you are using — whether it’s a smart phone or laptop — physical inputs and audio/visual outputs dominate HCI. Indeed, these forms of interaction and feedback are the very foundation of how humans have developed computers to function alongside them.

Now take into account another fundamental theme of HCI development because with every successful iteration of technology, there exists a main defining principle: Mainly, people who use technology want to capture their ideas more quickly and more accurately. Keep this in mind for later.

Whether it’s 1839s’ Joseph Jacquard who used programmable weaving looms to create a portrait of himself using 24,000 punched cards or WWII military agencies that invested in the development of the first ‘monitor’ to allow radar operators to plot aircraft movement, the development and evolution of technology is largely predicted by this theme of speed and accuracy.

Image for post
Portrait of Joseph Jacquard next to his iconic weaving loom computer

So let’s go back to my introduction: doing nothing. Like I said, it’s real hard, but my hypothesis is that it’s much harder than it used to be. If you read one of my past articles on human brain development, I explored the idea of the modern brain not being so different to how it was 2,000 years ago. In other words, there simply hasn’t been enough time for evolution to weed out certain mutations of our brain genealogy. Therefore, how we develop as an individual and functioning person, is just as much nurture as it is nature.

Now, I’m aware that my argument will be formed by a series of ‘sweeping & shallow statements’, but I’d like you to picture what most modern societies of both the past and present would have done when confronted with the reality of doing nothing. Whether it’s a pilgrim town in colonial Virginia during the 1600s preparing for the harsh winter or a small present day Tibetan village nestled in the Himalayan mountains going about their usual day, both isolated societies, if not for the menial tasks of survival and hardship, are generally confronted with the reality of doing nothing on the daily.

Image for post
Children playing with toys during 17th Century Colonial America

For the children of both these societies, once most chores are done, they would generally be allowed to go out and play. In doing so, they had to quickly confront the idea of doing nothing. Sure, they had games, they had toys, but the realm in which these tools of time reside are largely within the imagination. In fact, playing with others for a vast majority of mammalian species is an essential form of growth and development.

Today, we are plagued by bright screens, sharp sounds, and intruding notifications. From the very first pager beeping, to the early 2000s MSN Messenger nudge (I can still hear that sound in my head), and the evolution and proliferation of the Facebook notification beep, we have slowly grown accustomed to be alerted by our technology. Most notably, is the proliferation of the newsfeed, which has largely evolved to lure us into a web-like slot machine of personalized and attention grabbing media.

Image for post
MSN Messenger user interface with symbolic ‘knock’ nudge

If you reflect back on your historic usage of Facebook, it generally follows this path: status text (2007) → photo post (2010) → video/story stream (2012). Remember that earlier theme and it’s three modalities? I believe it has dominated the evolution and usage of our most prolific technologies, especially when it comes to sharing aspects of ourselves and others across our various digital networks.

Moreover, this digital game of carrot & stick has greatly been exacerbated by how quickly modern society has shifted its fundamental functions to the current dominant technology. From how we consume our news, to monitor our work, and even order food, every function is now app based and by virtue, notification based. The consequence is that we are quickly being trained to look to our our phones to understand our life.

Image for post

This is not to say that all this is bad. As I’m sure many of you reading this are thinking, social media networks can be a great source of social good. Even a company with as a bad a reputation as Facebook does not deserve the ‘shtick’ (for lack of a better word) it gets. Thanks to Whatsapp and Messenger, you are allowed to communicate with your friends and loved ones no matter where you are. Google helps you gain knowledge and explore your interests by allowing you to quickly scan the web and find the information you are looking for. Did I mention this is all for free?

But there is an inherent danger when we grow too dependent on a certain technology. Texting is great but have you tried actively listening to a conversation? Google searching is fantastic but have you tried reading a book from start to finish? Indeed, most of us joke about our dwindling attention spans but I fear none of us take it very seriously.

If our attention is to be monetized for ads by Silicon Valley, we need to also start seeing it as our currency to how we learn and grow as individuals. The less attention we are willing to give, the less personal development we will get in return. From clickbait journalism, to the inherent shallowness and distraction of social media, the examples for this argument are numerous and worrying.

Image for post

I believe I can speak for most generation Zers when I say we were lucky to have barely avoided the advent of social media while growing up. Because, by and large, as children, we were forced to confront the same idea of doing nothing as most other past societies. We had to use our imaginations and our social skills to play by ourselves and with others. Of course, critics will say we had game consoles like the Playstation and cable television like Comcast, but it wasn’t as enslaving. Today, video platforms like Netflix let you binge, game developers like Electronic Arts let you win, and social media companies like Facebook steal your time.

Because even gaming , which I believe represents superior elements of story-telling and cooperative strategy, has been tweaked for profit by executives and developers to be addicting. Once upon a time, triple-A video games were simply great for their 1 player or 2 player story mode. Like opening a book, you could dive into a world, play, learn, and explore but there was no mechanism to constantly lure you back besides the gameplay itself. It was just as easy to stop as it was to begin. Today, you have loot boxes and pay-to-win features which aren’t truly about the game. It’s about hooking you emotionally and getting you to pay more money.

Image for post
Screenshot of mobile game Jam City.

Yet, I digress, because this article isn’t about the exploitation of gaming as a medium or even how most platforms today function as a social slot machines. No, this article is about how many of us are slowly becoming incapable of doing nothing. It is how we are slowly but surely being re-wired by tech-based companies, whose bottom line is not to make you a better or more informed person, but instead to keep you glued to a screen and push advertisements and paid services.

There’s a quote in a 2001 stand-up act by the late-great comedian George Carlin who I believe really drives this point home. Although he is speaking about the proliferation of overbearing parents, I believe the same logic can be applied to my discussion. Just a quick disclaimer, there is profanity in this video but as you already know, he’s a comedian.

“You know, [talking about overly concerned parents organizing playtime] something that should be spontaneous and free is now being rigidly planned, when does a kid ever get to sit in the yard with a stick anymore, you know, just sit there with a ******* stick, do today’s kids even know what a stick is?”

— George Carlin

The idea of children no longer being taught or given the opportunity to simply sit in the yard with a stick is humorously worrying. Whether it’s hyper vigilant parents who coddle them for their safety or frustrated parents who shove a screen in their face to keep them from being annoying, children today are the victims of societies rush to quicker and more accurate technology. Although the theme of speed and accuracy has served us well, skyrocketing productivity from the punchcard, to the mainframe, to the PC, and now to the smartphone, I believe there is an inherent danger in our chase for quicker and more accurate technology.

I am not writing this article to give solutions. That is not what my primary intent was when I set out to write this. I’m not here to tell you to meditate, or to stop you from using social media, or even to limit the use of your phone. Moreover, I am conscious enough to realise that much of what I’m saying is rooted in personal hypocrisy, because I am just as much a slave to my inability to do nothing as most of you are.

But if there is one message I’d like to get across, it’s that we should embrace the nothing. The idea that maybe we don’t need to be stimulated by our looping relationship with the physical, visual, and audio modalities of modern technology. You can silence your phone and put it in the other room. You can sit in a train and not scroll through a newsfeed. You can stare at a wall and do nothing.

Because if you force your brain to be quiet, you’d be surprised how much it will start saying.

“The thing is, you need to build an ability to be yourself and just not be doing something. The ability to just sit there and be a person. Underneath everything in your life, there is that thing, that forever empty. That knowledge that it’s all for nothing and you’re alone…”

“And sometimes when things clear away and you’re in your car, and you start feeling it — this sadness, life is tremendously sad, just by being in it — That’s why we text and drive, people are willing to risk taking a life and ruining their own because they are unwilling to be alone for a second ”

— Louis C.K.

Alessandro Penno

Alessandro Penno

In today’s tool-driven world, technology is at the forefront of human ambition, interconnectivity, and understanding. As a keen humanist, with a mind for product and an eye for design, Alessandro's ultimate aim is to deliver a fresh user experience in the journalism space.