I am a 600-pound digital man

My doctor recently recommended that I change my diet.  It was not related to my weight, but to other nutritional issues.  The nice side effect of paying greater attention to what I eat and how much I exercise has been a 15-pound weight loss that I was not expecting.

Those improvements in my overall health notwithstanding, digitally speaking, I am still a 600 pound man– the kind of man you see on those crazy Discovery Channel/TLC shows that has to be cut out of the walls of his own home in order to go to the hospital.  My daily digital consumption seems like one of those ridiculous diets they put Olympic athletes in training on– 14 eggs, 10 pancakes, 7 sausage links, etc.  For starters, I wake up with about 10-15 emails in my inbox.  Most of these can be deleted with a slight glimpse, but a little less than half are news digests from NYT, WaPo, etc. that get me up to date on the latest news.  About ten or so more of these types of emails will find themselves in my inbox throughout the rest of the day.  And that’s just for the car/bus ride to or from work.  Throughout the day I have sprinkled a hundred or so posts on Google Reader (RSS aggregator), mostly short blurbs on politics, news analysis, general journalism, etc.  Unfortunately, its the kind of volume that if I do not manage to clear it out each day, I practically have to schedule a block of time to work through it all.  At the same time, I am visiting various websites touching on numerous topics of interest– television/movies, science fiction, technology, politics, etc.  And of course, I check Facebook and Twitter more times than I am comfortable admitting.  The truth is, I am not so much browsing the Internet, as I am mainlining it directly into my brain.  The heroin metaphor is not unintentional.

My media issues are not a problem of quality, but of volume.  I actually think that I have pretty good standards when it comes to what I choose to read.  What I consume on a daily basis has none of the following categories: 24-hour cable news, celebrity gossip, low-brow humor websites, or those crazy e-mail forwards from “that” uncle, which are the trans fats of the digital food pyramid.  Then again, if you ask me  each evening what I read, what was good, and what I thought about it, I probably could not offer you any intelligent commentary.  I read so much, and have to do it so fast, that what I am left with are more often mere  fleeting impressions, rather than actual ideas.

I recently read Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brain and it was near-perfect diagnosis.  If you read frequently on the Internet like I do, I highly recommend this book.  Heck, even if you don’t consume digital text the way I do, or know someone who does, I still recommend it.  The gist of the book is that the quantity of information available through the Internet, the way in which it is presented, and the methods with which we have become accustomed to consuming it are fragmenting our minds and our consciousness.  The author recounts finding himself increasingly unable to read long-form prose (longer essays, books) or track lengthy and detailed arguments, due to his exposure to shorter, more frequent bursts of information (e.g. blogs, Wikipedia, etc.)  I am the last person in the world who is going to demonize blogs, Twitter, and their like, but I have seen some of the same problems in myself.  As I stated earlier, I find myself less able to recall things that I have read, even very recently, and much less able to intelligently discuss it.  It is increasingly difficult to read longer, multi-page quantities of prose.

What, then, is to be done?  The immediately prior question is, of course, what do I want to get out of it?  The simple answer is, I want to remain a reasonably (but higher-than-average) informed citizen, but one who is better able to recall, analyze, and discuss what I read on a daily basis.   I aspire to read slightly less, but much better.  I have considered the “digital detox,” but like a complete renunciation of chocolate or Mt. Dew, obsession with quitting would likely lead to some ugly binge/purge cycles not unlike anorexia.  A diet is necessary–but how?  A couple of things I have learned:

1.  Alert plug-ins, reminders, and pop-ups are your enemy, with tabbed browsers running a close second.  I recently disabled the Gmail and Google Reader alert plug-ins from my browser at work.  The constant “ding!” of fresh messages was too much of a siren song for me.  Having to type in “www.gmail.com”, etc. at least gives me time to reconsider whether I really have a moment to check that inbox.  The Google Reader can be checked at certain intervals, for example, once upon arriving at the office, once at lunch, and once in the evening.  Regrettably, because the nature of the work I do and the expectations of my supervising attorneys, the alerts on my work Outlook mailbox and Blackberry must remain on.

In my opinion, tabbed browsing is the single greatest innovation in Web browsing in the past 6-7 years.  I was an early adopter of Firefox and Chrome, and IE eventually picked up on the technology, though I still use it only when forced to.  However, the added ease and convenience of organizing items currently being or to be read is not without cost.  Those six or seven tabs to Slate stories constantly remind me that I really need to plow through this long essay in the New Yorker.  The better solution is to use synchronizing bookmarks (e.g. Google Bookmarks) to keep things that are “to be read but can’t be read right now” in one place for safe keeping.

2.  Time and distance can make the heart grow less fond.  This is particularly true with the vast and varied amount of material I receive through my Google Reader feeds.  Saving 20 or so stories from a website for a day or two before reading them often gives me the opportunity to reflect on whether it is really worth reading in the first place.  When it seems like only one of two or three stories, the threshold is awfully low.  But if it is one of 20+, one ought to be more discerning.  Often the story has moved on from whatever initial notice you received.  Other things sound interesting at the time, but coming around to it again, one often reads some better version of the same item elsewhere.

Will I succeed in reducing my daily kilobyte intake and regain full use of my faculties?  Who knows?  I have been at this an awfully long time, and it has been getting worse and not better for most of my past.  But I am looking forward to trying and seeing how much better I might function when not plugged into the Matrix.

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