My Cognitive Circus

I’ve just finished reading Clay Shirky’s excellent book Cognitive Surplus. It took me a while, not because Clay is a difficult writer to read (he’s not), but because I’ve found myself reading books less and less. In my mind, I haven’t had time to read but the truth is probably more that I’ve been distracted from reading by many of the technologies that Clay writes about in the book.

In the end I finished the book on a plane to Barcelona with enforced new media silence and since I didn’t want to rack up an extortionate roaming bill on my iphone while I was away, I also found myself sitting in a lovely outdoor cafe reading Steven Johnson’s wonderful new book Where Good Ideas Come From.

This set me thinking about my daily relationship with the cognitive circus of twitter, email, foursquare and facebook. I realised that I have become addicted to the tiny dopamine hits of seeing something new on my iphone or computer in the office or at home. There’s something in my character that likes to know what’s going on which all these things tap into and which I really don’t like.

I sometimes catch myself browsing through twitter and thinking I really should be doing something more productive and close the application, only to find myself absent mindedly opening it again a few minutes later wondering what new messages have appeared.

The editor of Miller McCune John Mecklin puts it well in this piece with the lovely title of The Gadget in the Gray Flannel Suit:

“The gadget-driven opportunity to interact, from almost anywhere, with an ever-expanding universe of people seemed entrancing initially… After a time, though, the gadget’s call — check your e-mail; someone just commented on your Facebook post! — became less a joy and more an irritant that I sometimes purposely avoided.”

I’m certainly at that stage now although it’s actually something I’ve battled with for many years on and off. One of our investors Tim Jackson gave me a copy of Never Check Email in the Morning — I think as a subtle hint about my slightly erratic productivity — and although the book is terrible there is something in the idea of not letting yourself settle into a responsive mode straight away each day.

None of this is a criticism of the platforms themselves. Although they are designed to suck you in and hold your attention, I think it’s the responsibility of the people who use them to find ways of making them manageable. Jamais Cascio is right when he says:

“the technology-induced ADD that’s associated with this new world may be a short-term problem. The trouble isn’t that we have too much information at our fingertips, but that our tools for managing it are still in their infancy.”

I’m really going to focus on getting the right balance over the next few months. If I find ways to get it right I’ll share them around.
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