Early in my teaching career, I became intrigued by an assignment given by an art historian at Harvard. Jennifer L. Roberts asked her students to sit in front of a piece of art in a museum or archive for three hours before writing a paper about it. The “immersive attention” these distraction-free hours generated was necessary, Roberts believed, for students to truly see the work rather than to simply look at it. Sitting with the art led to “skepticism about immediate surface appearances” and the possibility for deeper understanding, Roberts wrote.
In 2013, when I first read about the assignment, it seemed seductive. As someone educated in a mostly-analogue world and teaching in a one where digital technology is ubiquitous, I was looking for ways to slow students (and, honestly, myself) down. Like Roberts, I wanted to try to create the temporal, spatial, and sensory conditions for learning.
Today, the assignment feels almost subversive. In an age when so much of our learning is done through screens, immersive attention seems disruptive. (Or maybe folly.) Many of the online sites that we visit to gather information are anti-museums. Instead of still, climate-controlled spaces where flashes are forbidden and contents are precious, they are pulsating and unstable. They are designed to titillate and nudge us along rather than to encourage us to pull a chair up and absorb. What we find there is often un-curated. Or, if it the product of some human or algorithmic selection, that selection was aimed at luring us to part with our money or our personal data rather than to nourish our minds.
Yet, virtual spaces are our reality. This is especially true mid-pandemic—when we are spending even more of our waking hours online. If we are going to learn in these spaces, we need to find ways to approach their contents with “skepticism about immediate surface appearances.” We need to cultivate the “critical attention” and “patient investigation” that Roberts asks her students to employ. To do otherwise may mean settling for mere exposure to swaths of content rather than acquiring nuggets of knowledge. Worse yet, it may be to increase the risk of being awash in polluted, even dangerous, information.
But here is where things get hard.
We have been so conditioned by our online existence to expect the quick answer, the immediate gratification. And it would feel very satisfying and good if I were able to offer a speedy fix—the five hacks for extracting wisdom from the Internet while skirting distracting and harmful rabbit holes. But the wisdom embodied in Roberts’s exercise, and my own experience as a teacher and a media-law scholar, is that there are no hacks. Figuring out how to find and access in a deep way information that is true and contextualized and useful while dodging content that is devoid of these things is a wicked problem.
Yet, this does not mean that there are no answers. Roberts offers us some. To avoid the whirlpools of noise on the Internet and linger longer with the signal, we have to be aware of the terrain. We have to be intentional about creating the temporal, spatial, and sensory aspects of learning. We need to stop, be still, and really see. We can think harder about how to create more Walden Ponds among the Times Squares online. And we can also remind ourselves that at times it is OK to just step away.
In the initial piece in this series, Whitney Phillips beautifully illustrates how information pollution doesn’t exist in a vacuum—how we come to it as living, breathing, and feeling human beings. In other words, context is essential.
If we want to suck what marrow there is out of the Internet, it helps to survey ourselves (as Phillips describes). It also helps, as Roberts’s work suggests, to bring the same type of consciousness to the temporal and spatial facets of the experience. That is, if it is true that we best exercise our critical capacities and absorb information over time and in spaces that are not overwhelming us with stimuli, what aspects of that experience, if any, can we proactively recreate online?
For one, we can follow Roberts’s call for deceleration. We can spend more time intentionally looking and reading and less time mindlessly scrolling. (We can axe any doomscrolling—anxiety-producing by its very nature—altogether.) We know from Roberts that purposeful pauses strengthen our ability to critically assess, absorb, and respond. This is true online as well. One recent study found that online readers who were asked to explain why a headline on a news story was true or false were less likely to share false information. The study credited the pause necessitated by answering the question with leading to the reader making a better choice and contributing to the good hygiene of our minds and online spaces.
The call to bring more slowness and patience to our online interactions is, of course, nothing new. There are whole movements built around this desire. For example, the Slow Media Manifesto, published in 2010, argues for consuming information online with “focused alertness.” Even during the pandemic, public radio stations in Los Angeles and New York City have been building short meditation segments and snippets of calming sounds like ocean waves into their broadcasts. As an article from Harvard’s Nieman Lab points out, these pauses within broadcasts are “designed to reduce stress” and “allow a consumer to decide whether or not they’d like to keep talking in information.”
Beyond trying to manually hit our mental brakes, it may also help to simply be aware of the spaces we are wading into. Knowing that we are going to be jostled and manipulated might help us resist those forces. For example, in another recent study, researchers found that they could “inoculate” people against some of the harmful effects of misinformation by teaching them about the very techniques that are used to manipulate online (including impersonation, conspiracy, emotion, polarization, discrediting, and trolling). That is, awareness can reduce our susceptibility to misinformation and increase the chances of us ingesting something useful.
So exercising some awareness about ourselves, consciously slowing our pace online, and knowing the ways in which our attention and energy are being manipulated, all can help us act as wise gatekeepers to our own minds and the minds of those in our networks.
But at the same time as I want to have agency over my online experience and you over yours, I also concede there are reasons you have probably never heard of the Slow Media Manifesto and why what I am proposing seems hard, if not impossible. Slowing down is antithetical to the very structure and ethos of the Internet. After all, once upon a time, it was known as an information superhighway. Speed is baked in.
Plus, many sites are designed to prod automaticity and prevent reflection. As legal scholar Kyle Langvardt explains in his article Regulating Habit-Forming Technology, “successful developers make the barriers to action as low as possible; ideally the user should be able to act without stopping to think before doing so.” This is the theory behind features like the endless scroll of Facebook News Feed. As Langvardt describes, design features of certain sites mimic casino slot machines.
This is to say, our willpower and good intentions are a weak tonic. We are easily strong-armed online.
This all brings me reluctantly to conclude that we (and certainly I) need to actively limit time spent online. I say reluctantly because I know this conclusion can easily (and perhaps somewhat accurately) be perceived as reactionary, simplistic, and just plain cliché. It also undermines messages I have been fed and internalized as a citizen, a former journalist, and a lawyer. I’ve long subscribed to the unassailable rightness of the marketplace of ideas metaphor—that not only is more information is good, that it is essential to arriving at truth, and that it’s our duty as citizens to spend considerable time in that marketplace.
But the online marketplace is not an unadulterated good. Even journalists—devotees of transparency and information—are starting to question the volume of our online information consumption. For example, the editor of newyorker.com (the online edition of The New Yorker magazine) wrote in a 2019 essay that he found his online reading consisted of lots of unsatisfying skimming. “Although I’m reading more than ever before, it feels like I’m understanding less,” Michael Luo wrote. For Luo, spending time offline helped. After experimenting with shifting some of his reading to print he said, “It seems to me that I’ve become better informed.”
If nothing else, we need time offline to recharge. It can provide the yin to the yang of our online experience. As the novelist and travel writer Pico Iyer said in an interview:
I think to be human really means to be connected. I’m a rather solitary soul, and I’ve talked a lot about stillness and silence, but I think that they are just way stations. They are refueling places. It’s funny, when we go to an airport nowadays, there’s so many recharging stations for devices and very few for our soul. … [W]e quickly realize it’s only when we recharge our soul, we can make better use of our devices.
As our grind culture wears us all down, this idea of recharging is unsurprisingly becoming more mainstream. In January 2020, Jenny Odell’s book, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, made a brief appearance on the New York Times bestseller list. Odell is a teacher and artist, and her intriguing and thoughtful book is, like Roberts’s assignment, very much about space, time, and truly seeing. In it, she writes of her concern about the way that “we assault ourselves with information and misinformation, at a frankly inhumane rate.” Part of the solution, she proposes, is not really to “do nothing” as the title suggests, but, in part, to examine the spatial and temporal experiences of being on and offline. She writes, “Obviously the solution is not to stop reading the news, or even what other people have to say about the news, but we could use a moment to examine the relationship between attention span and the speed of information exchange.” And she doesn’t rule out just stepping away. She plays with the hashtag #FOMO (fear of missing out) to coin #NOMO (the necessity of missing out).
So far, my suggestions are exhausting even me. They all call for us to do a lot of work as individuals. But the creation of hospitable online spaces for learning and lingering cannot be all—or maybe even mostly—on us. There are systems at work here. And systemic change is needed. That change needs to get at the temporal, sensory, and spatial aspect of our experiences online.
That means more thought needs to be given to how to build friction into systems—to rethink the endless scroll, the ease of retweeting, the ability to “like” without reading or even looking. Legal scholar Ellen P. Goodman has written powerfully and convincingly about the way in which friction could help preference “high-fidelity information” online. She argues that “[m]edia policy should introduce other forms of salubrious friction to disincentivize and disrupt practices that addict, surveil, and dull critical functions. New sources of friction can slow the pull of low-fidelity information and equip people to resist it.” In other words, slowing down the system can help us to think more and better.
We also need to find ways to create spaces that don’t constantly bombard with stimuli. This means more spaces free of advertising and surveillance. A great example, is the home of the technology news site The Markup. The Markup launched in February 2020 with a commitment not to allow third parties to track its readers. Its website is spare, clean, and advertising free. For me, as a reader, it is an online oasis. It allows the reader to focus on the investigative journalism showcased there.
Finally, we should consider creating diverse and plentiful online “safe havens.” Places that are there to give us information and not to take anything from us—be it our data, our money, or any of our attention that we aren’t ready to freely give. Ethan Zuckerman has called for imagining these types of spaces and “possible futures where surveillant advertising delivered by monopoly providers isn’t the only available option to build a thriving future of democratic communications.” This could involve, he suggests, “an ecosystem of alternative social networks,” that could be used by “a wide range of communities for conversation, deliberation, and mobilization.”
In the opening piece of this series, Whitney Phillips shares an illustrated guide based on an April 2020 talk by the Buddhist psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach. Phillips’s compelling interpretation of Brach’s work prompted me to seek out other of Brach’s mid-pandemic talks. In one, Brach speaks about the power of pausing. She notes that in our present moment we have fallen out of our habits and our tendency toward automaticity. It is in this rupture that, she points out, there is opportunity. She says, “That’s the possibility. If there’s a pause, then we start sensing what matters.”
To my mind, Brach’s message is Roberts’s message, too. It is in the pause that we can exercise our critical faculties, think, see, and understand. What this means to me then is that as truly dark and grief-filled as our current moment is, perhaps it is, at the same time, ripe with possibility. Maybe this rupture in our daily lives and the realizations that come with it might help us to seek out and create pauses in our online experiences. Perhaps now we will imagine virtual spaces and dimensions that enrich us rather than run us dry.