Nick Bilton blogged at the New York Times yesterday about the experience of trying to photograph a San Francisco sunset with his iPhone and realizing that he had squandered a sublime experience trying to capture that it by messing with filters and settings and watching the dramatic fireball through a 3.5 inch screen.
On Sunday morning, the first day of 2012, I woke to this front page:
Look closely at the photograph across the middle four columns: a mob of New Year's Eve revelers experiencing the ultimate NYE experience -- the drop of the ball in Times Square -- and how are they seeing it?
Through their screens, like little computerized periscopes our grandparents used to see over crowds at parades, everyone "capturing" the moment and then selecting "share" to send it to FourSquare, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Flickr, Google + and on and on. I'm happy for them. Everyone is smiling and having a great time.
But it's gone too far.
In 1988 I wrote my first cover story for Forbes Magazine on the topic of information overload. In the course of researching that piece I came across the work of the MIT professor, Ithiel de Sola Pool (the man who coined the term "convergence"). He tracked the growth of information over time -- the massive explosion of media brought about by what the critic Walter Benjamin called "Age of Mechanical Reproduction." The net impact of this is, to quote Wikipedia, that "the modern means of production have destroyed the authority of art: for the first time ever, images of art have become ephemeral, ubiquitous, insubstantial, available, valueless, free."
Edward O. Wilson, the renowned Harvard professor of biology, wrote in Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge that a man of letters in the late 18th century -- the age of Franklin, Jefferson, Priestly -- could reasonably consume most of the published information in any given year across all fields. It was expected that an intellectual in the 1700s would not only be familiar with the classics, but would also have an interest in the sciences. The result was an amazing consilience of knowledge, with the concept of a "renaissance man" exemplified by the leaders of the era. Today? We've fractured into specialists and all we hold in common is some familiarity with the latest pop star, blockbuster movie/tv show, or world news event.
To state that there is more information available today than could ever be consumed is trite and obvious. Just stating the fact is existentially depressing as I'm engaged in the very act that I'm bitching about. I'm referring to so-called authoritative information produced by experts, not my nephew and neighbor who suddenly have, in theory, the same means of production that the Sulzbergers had to themselves 100 years ago when the New York Times was truly dominant.
I found an amazing list on time management, by Dr. Donald Wetmore (I guess the "Dr." means he's an authority. It's an interesting and depressing list. Here's some highlights:
- The average working person spends less than 2 minutes per day in meaningful communication with their spouse or "significant other".
- The average working person spends less than 30 seconds a day in meaningful communication with their children.
- The average person gets 1 interruption every 8 minutes, or approximately 7 an hour, or 50-60 per day. The average interruption takes 5 minutes, totaling about 4 hours or 50% of the average workday. 80% of those interruptions are typically rated as "little value" or "no value" creating approximately 3 hours of wasted time per day.
- 95% of the books in this country are purchased by 5% of the population. 95% of self-improvement books, audio tapes, and video tapes purchased are not used.
- The average worker sends and receives 190 messages per day.
- The average American watches 28 hours of television per week.
- 78% of workers in America wish they had more time to "smell the roses".
- 49% of workers in America complain that they are on a treadmill.
Hence one of the more popular memes in contemporary life is "lifehacking" or the art of "getting things done." I won't point to the obvious manifestations, but check out David Allen's "Getting Things Done" or the excellent Lifehacker.com for examples.
Being early January, it is resolution time. I sense the rising meme in resolutions isn't quitting smoking or losing weight (although the new mob at my CrossFit gym would suggest the new year is indeed a cliche in terms of gym memberships), but in "Information Diets."
I'm getting on the Information Diet bandwagon. My life of screens -- this laptop, my iPad, the television, the Android phone -- is driving me closer to a state of attention deficit disorder than any prescription for Adderall or Ritalin could ever cure.
It's time to become a Stoic again and starting doing more with less. Time to cowboy up, spit on my palms, and get tough.
For the past year I've been engaged in a physical transformation through two "primal" committments. The first was adopting a so-called "paleo diet" in the fall of 2010 following the embarrassing mime attack outside of the Duomo in Florence. I weighed 280 pounds, felt like shit, none of my clothes fit, and I was beset with aches, pains, and prescriptions.
I read some stuff by Robb Wolf, Mark Sisson, and Loren Cordain and came away convinced by their theory of dieting that basically agreed with the controversial hypothesis that my body is the result of 2 million years of evolution, yet my diet is the result of 10,000 years of modern agriculture. Too much processed food, grains, dairy, sugar, etc. and I was going to get fat no matter how hard I exercised. In a year of totally going organic, cutting out all grains (no bread, no pasta, no rice), legumes (no beans), dairy (no cheese, no butter), and sugar I lost 35 pounds without "dieting" in the sense of going hungry. I basically exist on chicken, fish, beef, broccoli, tomatoes, lettuce and good fat like nuts, avocados and olive oil. I eat, in essence, like a caveman.
With nutrition follows exercise and I renewed my commitment to CrossFit, the "open-source" school of functional movement and exercise that was started by gymnast Greg Glassman in Santa Cruz in the early 2000s. As the t-shirt says, I am the only machine at my gym (except for the ergometer). I do short, intense burst of work lifting up heavy things and putting them down again, and lifting my own weight through sit ups, push ups, pull ups, rope climbs, handstand push ups, box jumps .... etc. The Crossfit method is, in 150 words:
"Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar. Keep intake to levels that will support exercise but not body fat. Practice and train major lifts: Deadlift, clean, squat, presses, clean & jerk, and snatch. Similarly, master the basics of gymnastics: pull-ups, dips, rope climb, push-ups, sit-ups, presses to handstand, pirouetts, flips, splits, and holds. Bike, run, swim, row, etc, hard and fast. Five or six days per week mix these elements in as many combinations and patterns as creativity will allow. Routine is the enemy. Keep workouts short and intense. Regularly learn and play new sports."
Now to do the same for my mind.
I talked to a former colleague this morning about attention deficit disorders and he said he manages his through a combination of prayer and exercise. Since he is a man of faith, I can see how prayer fits in his life, but for atheistic me, where is that period of nothingness in my thinking? When do I simply watch the sunset and don't photograph it? Or sit in a chair and stare into a fire with only my thoughts for company?
I'm hanging some things up this year. Here's my information diet:
- No phone in the car. If it rings it goes to voicemail. If I must call I will pull over. I am strongly in favor of an outright ban on phone use in cars. Every moron motorist moment I've experienced is inevitably made by an oblivious idiot with a phone held to their head.
- News once a day, in the morning, over breakfast. From the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Cape Cod Times.
- One hour of moving pictures per day. That includes YouTube, Netflix, network television or sports (with the exception of baseball)
- One email check in the morning. Another in the evening. No emails longer than 100 words. Anything longer: phone call or memo.
- Instapaper all articles and read them in one sitting at one prescribed session. No aimless "surfing."
- Two three-hour periods of focus per day. One in the morning. One in the early afternoon. Writing and thinking. Making, not consuming.
- Books dominate. I will make a list of 100 books I need to read before I die and start tackling it.
- No games. I've outgrown them. I'll play Words With Friends once a day, not on every notification.
- Face to face trumps email every time. Phone call is second.
- No PowerPoint in 2012. It is the Blackberry of our times: doomed, terrible, and pointless.
- Learn something new in 2012. A language? A skill? I am open to suggestions.