An early start today, as I prepare to head out. Not physically, of course – my body will stay slumped in my chair, in front of my screen – but digitally, mentally, there’s a lot of ground to cover. I have trails to follow, sources to gather, answers to find. Tasks are piling up; sidequests dot my map. If I’m to get anything done this session, I must cast myself online.
But one has to be careful on such trips – it’s easy to get lost.
For one thing, the territory is endless. In every direction one can move, horizons expand. It’s infinity out there. It’s tundra, howling wind, verdant forest, deep space. It’s tumbling without a body till pangs of hunger plug you back in. It’s bleary and abstract and, occasionally, kinda beautiful.
But I digress – I was trying to talk about how easy it is to get lost in cyberspace. Maybe an example will help.
Consider right now, when I used the term ‘cyberspace’. After writing that down, I grew suspicious: is that a real word? Where and when did it come from? The thought had barely broken on the shore of my mind before I found myself on the cyberspace wikipedia page, which linked me to an article about internet metaphors. Here, I came across the claim that “over time [internet] metaphors have become embedded in cultural communications, subconsciously shaping the cognitive frameworks and perceptions of users”, which left me wondering ‘…what’s a cognitive framework?’. To sate myself, I followed the link and landed on a page about “frame semantics”.
Frame semantics is a theory in linguistics that – wait, no! No more! This is precisely what I’m talking about. See how quickly and frictionlessly I swung from link to link? How all I had to do was follow my curiosity? That’s how it goes in the informational wilds: let your guard down for even a moment, and the spirit of distraction reroutes you.
I’ve come to think of this spirit not as malevolent or as mischievous, but simply as self-propagating. It seeds distraction for distraction’s sake. Unless actively resisted, it is the natural endpoint for all who enter the wilds; the valley to which everything flows. And since there are few hostile entities around here (beyond the viruses that plague certain sites), it is this metaphysical force, distraction, that is one’s chief adversary.
It takes a thousand forms. Some are obvious, like Instagram and Facebook. Others are more insidious – they masquerade as relevant to the task at hand, but in fact have nothing to do with it. In this category I’d place the countless news stories and controversies that make up the day’s online discourse; as well as things like job adverts and posts from my favourite blogs. These things feel ‘important’, and they might well be, but relative to the quest of the moment, they are often just well-dressed distractions.
Adding to this chaos is the presence of a second screen in the form of one’s phone. A second screen allows one to split their presence across two spaces – with the typical result being that one is not really rooted in either one. And in the informational wilds, such rootlessness renders one easy prey for distraction.
Part of what makes this so frustrating is that, in getting distracted, you have only yourself to blame.
(Well, also the many software engineers, content marketers, and other arcane professionals who have designed the internet to swallow you whole; who are like the sirens that lure sailors to sharp rocks in how they manipulate and seduce; but since there’s little I can do to change these designs, I find it more useful to frame the issue as an individualistic one.)
So what’s an individual to do? The same thing you’d do for any intrepid adventure, I think: pack appropriately. The right equipment is key in not getting lost. In my case, this includes:
- A notebook, whether digital or physical. I use this as a diary, a scrapbook, a quest log; really just to keep me on track. My current favourite is Roam Research. I find taking notes – even inchoate, fragmented ones – turns what is typically a passive experience into a more active one, which is good for retaining control in unfamiliar terrain.
- An audio accompaniment. For me, two categories of sound work particularly well: instrumental music, and natural noise. Both are effective in blinkering my attention, drowning out the external environment, and keeping me zoned in.
- In the former category, I include classical music, jazz, psychedelic rock, house/techno…really anything rhythmic. Sometimes, when in a rut, I just pair a random country/genre (e.g. ‘Cuban instrumental’), search Spotify, and sink in. Most anything works as long as there are no words (or at least none I can parse).
- For natural noise, I find waves, birds, or waterfalls usually do the trick. Mynoise.net is a great resource for this.
- A timer. I use Forest, though I’m sure there are other good ones. Time can dilate online, so it’s useful to keep track of it, and to work in blocks.
- A “reader-mode” browser extension (like this one). This is a new addition to my toolkit, and it’s already proved indispensable. It centralizes and standardizes text, and provides a helpful summary of the length of any article. It’s supremely useful for filtering out the many pop-ups, sidebars, and other distractions that commonly accompany online articles.
- A content filter, to keep viruses at bay. I use uBlock Origin.
- A water bottle. Water: drink more of it!
- Various trinkets. Right now on my desk I have a slinky, a spinning top, a jade egg, and a kaleidoscope. Having stuff to fidget with helps me focus; your mileage may vary.
A fancy note-taking app won’t automatically make you a better researcher any more than a fancy pair of shoes will automatically make you a better hiker. But paired with the right mindset, it can certainly help.
Anyway, enough preamble – to work!
My best-laid plans have quietly agreed to disband. I found myself swept along as if on a river, passing article after article on longtermist thought. I made some notes, I found some answers, and tomorrow’s tasks are cut out for me. Now I am like a diver who’s all but exhausted their limited oxygen supply – I can’t stay in this environment much longer.
I hang up my tools. Tomorrow we go again.