Welcome to Digital Divide
Greetings, fellow analog enthusiast, and welcome to the inaugural edition of The Digital Divide, a periodic "special edition newsletter" that I'll be publishing through my blog, The Gentleman Stationer. Why a newsletter? For a while now, I’ve been toying with the idea of branching out and creating a separate website devoted to the analog/digital split. In other words, in an age when everything seems to be “going digital,” why do people still believe that they do their best work by taking notes in a notebook, writing first drafts by hand, and reading paper books as opposed to e-ink? There is something to all this - it's obvious from the sheer number of people involved in the online communities devoted to these things.
I’ve explored a few of these concepts on TGS, but that site was intended to be, and largely remains, devoted to product reviews, link sharing, pen tips, and other “fun stuff.” The idea of a new website is tempting, and may still happen at some point, but right now I just don’t have the juice to generate sufficient content to do both ideas justice in website form.
I have a lot of ideas for The Digital Divide that I plan to test out, so the format of this newsletter may change. While this particular edition contains more of an introduction and broad overview, going forward the goal is to explore a single concept in depth on a monthly basis, and may provide some curated links related to the chosen topic. Consider it a live online journal of the topics that I’m currently interested in and exploring.
First up: Why “The Digital Divide”? For those of you unfamiliar with the term, the Digital Divide is an expression that generally is used to refer to the gap in access to and usage of information and communication technology that exists between different communities and/or groups. Originally, the “digital divide” existed between “connected” and “unconnected” cultures: For example, for a time many believed a “digital divide” existed in the United States between major cities such as New York and San Francisco, on the one hand, and small midwestern agricultural communities that did not have the infrastructure to support a high-speed broadband connection. As the theory goes, businesses and educational institutions in “unconnected” locales were thought to lag behind their connected peers. With the ubiquity of mobile phones and mobile broadband, however, the Digital Divide today is not so stark. It’s become less a question of “whether” and more “to what extent.”
But I digress - these issues, while extremely interesting to me, are not what I intend to discuss in this newsletter. I’m more interested in the concept of a “Digital Divide” in our daily lives, meaning the extent to which we separate the digital aspects of our increasingly plugged-in, online lives, from - for lack of a better term - our “analog” interests: writing, reading, journalling, thinking, and in-person conversation. To the extent we can’t “unplug” and carve out time for activities like these, what effect does that have on our lives, and is it a good or a bad thing?
I came up with this idea about a year ago, after reading the book, The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection, by Michael Harris. The underlying theme of the book is that in the near future, the majority of people alive will not remember a time before the internet existed or, at least before the internet was so widely available. A time when you weren’t able to avoid boredom by whipping your phone out of your pocket and instantaneously contacting anyone in the world or accessing whatever information your heart desires. I remember when I got my first truly internet-enabled smartphone (the original iPhone), and distinctly recall thinking “I’ll never have to be bored again!” Ever since, my phone has become my most-used piece of technology - a constant companion on the couch, at solo lunches and dinners, even in bed at night before falling asleep and in the morning with my coffee when I wake up. It turns out this may not be a good thing, and a common theme among productivity gurus and lifestyle architects - at least the ones worth listening to - is that some degree of boredom is key to creativity and recharging your batteries on a regular basis.
The conventional wisdom, that we hear every day from marketers and corporate career development folks, is that “constant connection,” and the “ability to multitask” using the always-on internet and ubiquitous social networks and communications service, is a positive force. Based on my own reading and, significantly, my own personal experience, I’m not convinced that this constant stream of electronic stimulation is beneficial. Among other things:
- My attention span is a fraction of what it used to be. Over the past couple of years, it’s gotten to the point where it’s affected my personal and professional life to a degree I’m extremely unhappy with. I have a hard time getting lost in books and/or movies for extended periods of time, which is probably the thing I miss most about “pre-internet” (not to mention pre-Twitter and Instagram) life. One of my resolutions for 2016 is to fix this (to the extent I still can).
- Solitude and boredom make me anxious. I hate feeling antsy when I don’t have a phone on me, access to twitter, my blog analytics, etc.
- Shallower personal relationships. On the whole, people have fewer deep conversations if they are constantly distracted by a dozen different alerts and messaging apps vying for their attention. In my own extended family, it’s been a long time since we’ve had any sort of deep conversation around the table at Thanksgiving or Sunday dinner. There are always two or three people simultaneously trying to check their phones or watch television, and to the extent there is any conversation, it’s hard to find common ground among members of a larger group if it doesn't involve internet memes, social media happenings, and of course, the clickbait headlines that pass for “news” these days.
- Decreased work satisfaction. Another big one for me. If you aren’t in a position to be able to do your job well, you’re probably not going to like it very much. If you have a job like mine, that (theoretically) requires long periods of written analysis and unbroken concentration, having a shattered attention span isn’t all that helpful. Compounding things is the reality that “performance” and “productivity” in the bill-by-the-hour service economy aren’t necessarily measured by whether or not you get good results—it’s by how long it takes you to get the work done. Because fragmented attention spans and the resulting inefficiency essentially pad the bottom line, there’s no incentive for companies to help their employees change. (As you can tell, I have some strong opinions on these issues, which is one reason I’d prefer to publish in the semi-private “newsletter” format than in an open blog.)
I don’t pretend to have the answers to some or all of these problems—I haven’t figured it out myself and I continue to grapple with all of these issues on a daily basis. Moving a large portion of my work to an offline, analog format has been one thing that seems to work for me, and I’m lucky that it’s in line with my interests!
What I've been reading:
- The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We've Lost in a World of Constant Connection, by Michael Harris. Reading this was a turning point for me last year, and the book offers a lot of insight, especially if you're from a generation that straddles the "pre-internet" and "post-internet" world.
- Deep Work, by Cal Newport. This book has been heavily recommended all over the place, and Newport has been a frequent guest on the podcast circuit. He dives deeper into the ideas discussed in End of Absence about limiting (or avoiding entirely) certain types of technology in order to better focus on what is truly important.