Dr. Charlton’s new book is out. It’s Addicted To Distraction: the Psychological Consequences of the Modern Mass Media.
I read some of the drafts of material in the book. I recommend it. I would describe it as a book of genuine aphorisms—self-validating crystallized wisdom—if aphorisms could sometimes run to paragraph length or even page length. Arguably, book length.
One of his points is that avoiding bad media isn’t enough to avoid bad effects. That’s trivially true. You can hurt your wrists typing away incessantly posting positive messages to your Twitter feed; you can hurt your eyes staring at updates from good friends and family on Facebook. Or, Dr. Charlton points out, you can hurt your mind by accustoming it to a constant superstimulus gorging of mostly trivial information and sociality. It’s right there in the title.
Every few months a study goes the rounds showing that prolonged internet use makes it harder to concentrate. The latest popped up just a few weeks ago.
But what got my attention was General Conference.
Elder Perry talked about the old family circle and family neighborhood where he grew up. The sociality of that world without social media surpasses what we’ve got now.
There were a couple of talks that suggested more thoughtful use of internet and social media. I can’t find them right now because the Church’s search function is completely broken.
And there was Elder Randall Ridd’s sermon. He laid it down with zest. A few choice quotes:
*on the nature of even ‘good’ social media and internet use—
endless loops of triviality
*on ironic nomenclature–
Owning a smart phone does not make you smart
*on checking your phone for updates—
Wherever you are, be there.
There is also the meta-message of conference itself. I shut down the internet for that weekend and that way I benefit from it the most.
I came out of conference thinking about my internet and other media use. I noticed one thing right away—I was less likely to sit down and read an essay or a book through without interruptions. Concentration didn’t come as naturally to me. But when I noticed the impulse to jump to something else, I could dismiss it with an effort of will.
I noticed that part of the reason for constant consumption is that the things you do read aren’t as attractive if you aren’t doing it constantly. The appetite wanes.
I also noticed that media wasn’t hurting the quality of my thought. An information-rich diet gave me lots to think about and lots of connections to make. What it was harming is hard to explain. Charlton has an essay on a trichotomy between head, heart, and gut. In that schema, it was my heart that was being harmed. Another way of putting it was that media weren’t making me less smart—they were making me less wise. We’ve had an interesting discussion in the Religious, Not Spiritual thread about the relationship between spiritual feeling and the unemotional daily grind of private life and of running the Church. In defense of the daily grind, I pointed out that I wrote my Easter sermon, full of spiritual feeling, while mowing the lawn and spraying for crabgrass. But it was the original spiritual feeling from General Conference that made those mundane chores full of spiritual feeling; I was able to think through the sermon out in the yard because I wasn’t listening to an MP3 book like I normally would, because of what I learned from General Conference.