Monday, November 21, 2011

Too Much Tech?

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Okay, we're all wired. Otherwise, we wouldn't be reading this blog on our desktops, laptops, notebooks, or smartphones. And we like it, or at least I do, I freely admit. But there is ongoing--and sometimes less than coherent as well as contradictory--research and dialogue about how constant exposure to digital data is affecting our brains and our lives.

The consensus among most researchers (as I switch from article to article on the internet) is that the human brain was not built for multitasking, and that it has not yet rewired itself. While that may happen sometime in the future, we are now doing many more things at once, and doing them less well. There's an upside, of course. A certain amount of social connectedness may make us more emotionally healthy, but there are limits. (I would like to have lunch with my daughter without her constantly texting someone else and checking in on Facebook. And my husband reads me posts on his Facebook page over dinner... He is, however, talking TO me, so maybe this isn't so bad.)

But in following the comments on our Jungle Red Writer's Challenge check-in the last few weeks, I'm most interested in how the constant deluge of data affects us as writers. Our challenge was to write for two hours every day without checking email, Facebook, or using the Internet in any way other than to do absolutely necessary research. And almost everyone who's participated has found cutting off the data flow a CHALLENGE.

LinkI've started turning off email and Facebook on my computer, not just for two hours, but for big blocks of the day. And I've been turning off the notification alerts on my phone. It vibrates when I get a phone call, but I'm no longer constantly responding to the Pavlovian data ding. (Scientists call this reaction to stimulation a "dopamine squirt", which sounds really disgusting.) Imagine, using a phone as a phone!

Has it helped my writing concentration? Without a doubt. Have I missed the constant connectedness? Not too much. But I'm finding I really enjoy it as a treat a few times a day, and I've stopped worrying quite so much that I'm missing something if I don't check in all the time.

None of us are likely to give up the internet. For me, at least, it's an amazing research tool, although it still hasn't replaced books. But I think a lot about how much time we spend every day doing things that never have our full attention, and that we forget almost instantly. There are few of us, writers and readers, who are going to leave collections of letters or diaries behind for future generations.

So what about you, fellow Reds? How much tech is too much tech? Do you find you have to set limits, and if so, what works for you?

ROSEMARY HARRIS: I definitely have to set limits. There's a powerful urge to check emails first thing in the morning and first thing in the morning can quickly turn into 12pm if I'm not careful. I've taken to writing in another room just to be physically away from the siren song of the computer.

I also had a mini-epiphany when I realized I could turn off the Ping! sound my computer made every time a new email arrived. ( COULD have been Johnny Depp emailing ..) The challenge has been great for me as it's made me more conscious of how wisely I spend my time online. I'm going to do it, but I've been less likely to check out Demi's marital troubles just because the link pops up 100 times a day.

RHYS BOWEN: I'm afraid the internet has become a huge time waster. I used to read my emails before I started work. Now I go on Facebook, Twitter, my own blog, Jungle Red, even check my Amazon and B & N stats before I start writing. I'm trying to cut down but it is addictive. However when I was out of email contact in Morocco for almost a week--guess what? There were no emails of great significance waiting for me. I have to tell myself that it really isn't important who has mentioned me today on Twitter.

And the internet has its dark side too--bad reviews in blogs from ordinary readers not qualified reviewers. (I blog about that on Rhys's Pieces this week) Being slammed on Amazon by those with an axe to grind. I know these things shouldn't matter but they depress me and hinder my writing creativity. So when I start my next book, I vow to keep up the challenge. No online until my number of words for the day is complete!

HALLIE EPHRON: Oh, yes yes yes! The Internet is a demanding and fickle friend. I turn off my wifi when I get serious about writing.

Reminds me of those pigeons in B. F. Skinner's operant conditioning chamber. When a pigeon was rewarded EVERY time it pressed a lever, it learned to press on the lever. When the rewards stopped coming, the pecking behavior soon diminished and stopped. But when pigeons were trained with rewards delivered not with every press but at random intermittent intervals, the pigeons kept right on pressing the lever long after the rewards stopped coming. We are addicted to news, emails, etc. just like old BFS's trained pigeons.

LUCY BURDETTE: Yes it's absolutely weird how sane people (such as ourselves) are turned into rats following the Internet's Pied Piper. I watch myself when I'm beginning something hard (like writing my fresh 1000 words/day)--that Firefox logo is like a giant magnet calling "touch me, open me, something urgent is waiting!" I have an old email address that's now difficult to access, though it still gets tons of spam. Every month or six weeks, I make the effort to check it. Very rarely do I find something I wish I'd had earlier--a few lost friends, but I can reconnect with those. If someone wants to contact me about a movie deal, I bet they'd try a little harder!

JAN BROGAN: The thing about email is this: You get an email: you respond. The sender responds to your response. You think of something witty and you just have to respond one more time. And thus ten to twenty minutes is completely wasted.

Interesting, when I cut way back on my email and Internet exposure, my mood improved. I felt really a palpable brain relief. And more than most people, I am not a multi-tasker. So it makes sense that too much digital data would mess me up. Now I think of email as having a glass of wine or a beer. Once or two you feel pretty good. If you have more than that in a day, you'll get a terrible headache.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: You know, it's funny-and I hope I'm not stepping on an toes. But the thing about answering emails immediately--I used to pride myself on it. Now--unless it's an emergency or something where someone obviously needs an answer--I just wait until I'm finished what I'm doing.

I just took a step to the dark side...and got an iPhone. I LOVE it. But I consciously try to stay away from it. I control IT--it doesn't control me.

The other life-change is how little I TALK on the phone. But that's probably another blog.

DEBS: So JR readers, how about you? Do you answer the bell, or let it ring? (At least occasionally...)


  1. Remember when answering machines first came out... I didn't want one because I didn't want to be 'obligated' to return a call. Now people won't return anything but a textmail...

  2. Answering machines--and their little blinking lights that demanded attention. I had a phone phobic friend who used to call when she KNEW no one would be home so she could leave a message instead of actually talk to someone.

  3. I still have an answering machine because A) I don't want to talk right now; B) Despite the no-call list, it's spam; C) I can pick up if it is an emergency. I've trained family and friends. The same with my iPhone. I...uhm...use it for talking, texting, and as an iPod. I don't do games, computers are for email (unless I'm away from home and internet connection for a long period of time like a trip). I can check my bank balance, use my Starbucks card, or get directions so it's handy. I just received a Kindle Fire as a gift and I'm wishing it was just the Kindle Touch. I don't NEED (or necessarily want) to be connected when I'm reading for pleasure. Yeah, I'm weird that way. LOL Surprisingly, I'm a decent multitasker but I've learned to focus on one task at a time, complete the "thought" involved, move to the next one, return, move, return, so on and so on. Do I prefer to work that way? Nope! And now it's time to go run errands. When I return, I'll keep all the gadgets off, get some writing done, and check in this afternoon with the web-thingster. ;-)

  4. Silver, can't you just turn off the Wi-Fi on the Kindle Fire? My Nook Color needs to be connected on purpose, and I often do not wish to have a strange connection going on, as with hotels, etc.

    We just got back from a trip to Miami. Our youngest daughter got married there, and it was an action-packed five days full of family and friends and fun. The only Internet access I had was via my Nook Color, and that was plenty. I could read my emails, but it's a pain to use the onscreen touch keyboard, so I rarely did.

    I have what I call the dumbest "smart"phone on the planet. It could get email, but I got rid of the Internet access for it. The cost was too high for how I used it, and the only thing I'm really interested in is the GPS function. We can order that on the fly from Verizon: 24-hours, one week, or by the month, depending on our immediate needs.

    I foolishly signed up for the challenge, but the wedding sucked all the air out of the room here. Maybe next time.

  5. Karen, come back! All is forgiven and you can start anew! (I say this because I'm in the same boat. Silly old boat. But more fun if you're there.)

    And Hallie--my old agent (TV agent, not book agent) used to do that. I finally called him and said look--if you call me during the day at home?? I'm NOT there. If you call me at work on the weekend? I 'm NOT there. And you know that. So cut it out. Grr. Did he think I wasn't going to notice that scheme?

  6. I have made an effort to cut back on computer time, especially late at night, I'm a night owl.
    Some nights, I have turned puter off at 11pm, grabbed a book and read for a few hours (or more) before going to sleep.
    I don't check my email as often as I use to as I rarely get "important" emails since everyone seems to have gravitated to Facebook or texting.
    I have an answering machine, even with being on No spam list - we still get several calls a day - if it is someone I know and they need something, they leave a message and or call my cell.
    One thing I never thought I'd give up was TV. We still have cable, but I go days without turning on TV - get my news online (can choose what news I read) and with so many reality shows on (I dislike all of them) There doesnt seem to be much on to interest me. If I turn TV on sat night it's to watch brit shows and if I remember, I watch PBS mystery on Sunday evenings

  7. Sorry for being late to this conversation as I've been out of town, but I wanted to respond to this one. I have failed miserably at the Writer's Callenge. If I wrote faster, I might have been able to do the two pages before checking e-mails or Facebook, but I'm not and I just hate to wait and check because it nags in the back of my mind the whole time that there might be something "important" there.

    Living in the middle of the country, I've struggled with feeling cut off and isolated from the rest of the world, and it made me hate and resent it here. But the internet and texting has given me that "reach out and touch someone" feeling of being much closer to my friends and all the happenings of the world around me. And because of that, I've found a sense of peace and actually love living here now.

    With that said, I do spend WAY too much time on Facebook, Twitter, etc., and do need to find the discipline to limit the time I spend doing them. Finding a happy balance has always been a challenge for me. But to turn off the notifications on my computer and cell just isn't an option. :-)