The co-founder of AOL and longtime resident of the Washington region shares his vision for the future of tech.
The rapid expansion of wireless technology keeps the Internet at our fingertips everywhere we go. Even corners of Antarctica and the deep wilderness are now coming onto the grid. Kojo explores how the expanding reach of the Internet is affecting our experiences offline and whether it’s still possible to completely unplug.
- Nathan Jurgenson social media analyst and blogger, Cyborgology; doctoral student, University of Maryland
- Paul Miller technology writer, The Verge
- Fred Stutzman founder and software developer, Eighty Percent Solutions; visiting professor, University of North Carolina School of Information and Library Science
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's Tech Tuesday. It's a dividing line between our digital and analog worlds. In Internet speak, the acronym IRL stands for in real life, a way to distinguish between our identity on Facebook, Twitter and email, and the people we are when we power down the computer or put the smartphone on airplane mode or venture into one of the few corners of the wilderness beyond the signal of a wireless tower.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut all distinctions between our real worlds and our virtual worlds are beginning to collapse when the Internet is literally one click away at all times and when we feel the constant urge to check our email or post a status update at all hours of the day. This Tech Tuesday, we're exploring those blurring lines between online and offline worlds.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWe'll also meet a tech journalist, who has voluntarily taken himself off the Internet. And we'll explore new tech products that help us manage our time and re-enforce our offline spaces. Joining us by phone from New York is Paul Miller. He's a tech writer and senior editor at The Verge. He's currently spending a year without the Internet. Paul Miller, thank you for joining us.
MR. PAUL MILLERThanks for having me.
NNAMDIAlso joining us from studios at the University of North Carolina is Fred Stutzman. He is a software developer and creator of productivity software, Freedom and Anti-Social, which turn off parts of the Web to eliminate distraction. He's also a professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Fred Stutzman, thank you for joining us.
PROF. FRED STUTZMANOh, thank you for having me.
NNAMDIAnd joining us in studio in Washington is Nathan Jurgenson. He is a social media analyst, writer and doctoral student at the University of Maryland. Nathan Jurgenson, thank you for joining us.
MR. NATHAN JURGENSONHi, Kojo. Excited to be here.
NNAMDIYou, too, can join us at Tech Tuesday conversation, 800-433-8850. Have you found your online life collapsing into your life offline? What strategies do you use to keep your online and offline worlds separate? 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org, send us a tweet, @kojoshow, using the #TechTuesday. Nathan, there are an increasing number of scholars and authors who warn that we are losing the balance between our online and offline lives, but you say there isn't even an offline. Why do you think we are never truly disconnected?
JURGENSONYeah. I mean, I was listening to your intro, and I have this -- I disagree with the idea that there is a real world and a virtual world. I think that's how we talked about the Internet. I think of early movies like "Tron" and "The Matrix" and this idea that we're going on to this cyberspace, this other space. And I don't really think that that kind of dualism between the online and offline really make sense.
JURGENSONThis IRL to mean in real life, I disagree with that because I think Facebook is real life. Facebook is real. It comprises real people with real bodies and identities and histories and politics. And so what I'm trying to do is push the idea that we live in one reality, and we -- it's augmented by many different flavors of information, the book in front of us, the newspaper, the television, the Internet, all these different kinds of information that impact this one reality.
JURGENSONAnd so in that way, we're never really offline. You may not be in front of Facebook right now, you may not be logged in, but the impact of Facebook on your life is still there. Right now, I'm not logged into Facebook, but I'm right -- I'm thinking of a cool status update. Oh, I'm on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." That'd be a cool status update. So in that way, Facebook is still influencing my life just because I'm not in front of the screen.
NNAMDIBut you are logged on to Twitter, are you not?
JURGENSONA confession, yes, I do have my phone.
JURGENSONI was told that I wouldn't be, and I'm excited that I am. So I'll be watching the Tech Tuesday hashtag.
NNAMDIBut what do you say to people who bemoan the lack of actual physical contact, seeing other people in what's known as the virtual world, who feel that the extent to which you are not actually socializing with real people in person is the extent to which this is not in real life?
JURGENSONRight. And I -- that's a real worry, and I think we hear that a lot, that people are trading real connection for something virtual. And in keeping with my idea that Facebook is real, also, I'd like to point out there's a whole literature right now in academic research that's showing that people that are connected on Facebook more are also connected offline more. And this idea that we have these two separate worlds, the offline and the online, leads to this zero-sum understanding.
JURGENSONBy zero-sum, I mean the more that you're online means the less that you're offline. And instead, what the research are showing it's more and more. People that are online more are also offline more. And that's counterintuitive to people who have this two separate worlds' understanding. But understanding them as part of one enmeshed reality, I think, that makes a whole lot more sense.
NNAMDIWell, Paul Miller, on to you. On April 30, you began a year-long experiment away from the Internet. That was, oh, about seven months ago. But somehow you're still blogging on the Internet for The Verge. Can you explain how that works? How is your experimenting working?
MILLERWell, I think I'm probably a pretty good example of how just because you don't have a device on the Internet right now doesn't mean the Internet is not impacting your life. I write for a technology blog, and I submit my stories on a thumb drive. And they put them on the Internet, but then somebody, you know, comes up to me at a party the next day and says they read my story and they read that on the Internet and -- or somebody sends me a letter based on something that I wrote on the Internet. So, you know, the Internet is very much a part of my life. I just don't actively engage with it personally.
NNAMDIIt's my understanding that you do not even go to the public libraries in New York because that would violate your experiment. How so?
MILLERWell, that was a real bummer. They -- the Internet -- the card catalogue at the New York Public Library is all Web-based, so they have, like, a card catalogue for, like, books prior to the '70s. But, otherwise, I'm pretty much useless at the library unless I'm bugging someone all the time.
NNAMDISo why are you doing this? What is the idea behind this, Paul?
MILLERWell, I think I was using the Internet incorrectly. I don't think it was making me more connected to people. It was a lot of times my excuse to avoid hanging out with people. I'd kind of -- I'd binge on different Internet activities, and I wasn't doing what I prioritized. I would just sort of just click and click and click.
MILLERAnd, as a younger person who grew up with the Internet, I'm -- I know how to live my entire life on there. It's not just a utility for me. It's something that I would kind of overuse. So I wanted to read some books and spend some time just doing some personal learning. And I was like, if I remove that distraction, maybe I can be a little more productive.
NNAMDILater we'll talk some more about how that's working out for you, but time for me to bring in Fred Stutzman. Fred, last month, NASA scientists live-tweeted their ice bridge mission while flying 31,000 feet above Antarctica. We can connect almost anywhere anytime. Do you think it's possible to unplug?
STUTZMANI think it is very difficult to unplug. And the reality is that the devices that we carry with us -- the cellphones, the BlackBerries, the iPhones -- these things are constantly connected. And it's very, very difficult to actually separate when one is offline and one is online. It's an increasing challenge of the day.
NNAMDIWell, technology has allowed us to pay attention to so many things at once. We're not just multitasking. We're hypertasking. How do you think this is affecting our concentration, Fred?
STUTZMANWell, I think that the idea of multitasking, research shows that there are very few people that are good at it. And while we all aspire to be multitaskers, there's increasingly an argument that there may be a benefit in slowing down and focusing on single tasks to sort of break away from the notion of the multitasker and move to the idea of somebody who is really giving focused attention to work. And I think that is a movement that is catching on.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. If you'd like to join us for this Tech Tuesday conversation on unplugging from the Web or not, 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com. You can also send us a tweet, @kojoshow, using the #TechTuesday. And in a tweet, Madeline called Fred Stutzman the patron saint of writers. Fred, tell us a little bit about why writers love you because authors like Dave Eggers and Zadie Smith and Robin Sloan all give you credit for your software called Freedom for helping them finish their novels. How so? How does it work?
STUTZMANOh, it's wonderful to hear to that. And how it works is it's software that disables the Internet. And the very quick backstory is, when I was in graduate school, I was working and finding myself distracted by social networks. And I would go to a coffee shop where there was no Internet. And one day, the neighboring shop set up a wireless access point, and I found that I was distracted again. And I said, well, what if we could make some software that would completely lock us off the Net?
STUTZMANSo I sat down one day, and I wrote that. And it's called Freedom. What it does is you tell it how many minutes you'd like to be offline. You type in your password. You make the contract with yourself. And you're offline, and you're forced to focus on work. And I think that's something that appeals to writers and to anyone who really needs to do focused work.
NNAMDIYou make a contract with yourself. That would be the honest me making a contract with the dishonest me. That might not work too well. 800-433-8850, how healthy do you think your online habits are? Which devices and what Internet sites are you most dependent on? 800-433-8850. But, Fred, as we do work more and more online, how can we figure out which parts of the Internet are distracting and which parts are useful?
STUTZMANThat's an individualized question. But I think that when we look at what's distracting online, we're often pointing our fingers at Facebook and Twitter. And, you know, it's only natural that we find these sites to be so engaging. They're -- we're fundamentally social beings, and these are sites that engage us socially. They are things that, you know, we feel obligated and we want to go back to.
STUTZMANSo I don't want to say these are the bad parts of the Internet. But these are parts of the Internet that perhaps we can use a little bit of help in regulating our access to them in a sense that we're blocking off time for socializing, and we're blocking off time for getting productive work done. But I think everybody listening out there has a site that is their little trap that sucks away their time, whether it's Wikipedia or Facebook or what have you.
NNAMDIPaul, how do you work as a journalist now that you're disconnected from the Internet...
MILLERWell, I will say...
NNAMDI...and can't use the public library?
MILLERI actually didn't know that Fred was going to be on this. Before I left the Internet, Freedom was the primary way that I got things done. I would go to a coffee shop without Internet, or I would use Freedom to get some undistracted time. But now I just basically have to call people. I can't do research very well without just talking to people on the phone, which is -- it's actually interesting being on a radio show because that's more typical.
MILLERBut in a lot of journalism, especially sort of a high-speed journalism that I'm involved in, a lot of stuff is just done through Google and press releases. And there isn't as much human contact.
NNAMDINathan, if disconnection is not really possible, why do you think many people express relief when they take breaks from their devices?
JURGENSONI think that's entirely natural. What we see with research is that people do that. Of course, there are some people who are very distracted and don't have the self-control to limit how they use the devices. And maybe this technology -- some software, some apps to help you become less distracted, maybe that's necessary.
JURGENSONI'm always a little dubious of identifying a technological problem and then creating a technological solution, that the problem with too much technology is, you know, we need -- the answer is more technology. I think maybe, you know, self-control can be developed in other ways that maybe aren't technologically based. That said, I think there's some amount of irony here in that -- you know, for instance, you know, looking back in time, Plato said that writing was a distraction from conversation...
NNAMDIAt one point.
JURGENSON...from face to face, like you and I are having in the studio. We're having a face to face conversation, and Plato was very worried about writing, taking ideas and removing them from time and place. And that was considered a distraction in much the same way that we're talking now. So there's a little bit of, I think, irony here. That said, what I don't want to do -- what I think a lot of people do and what I want to correct here is that there are some people who are outliers that are very, very distracted. They can't get anything done without checking Twitter or checking Facebook.
JURGENSONThat's problematic use of those devices or those tools. And we shouldn't take those outliers and then make judgments about social media in general based on those outliers. We should kind of look at general trends. The general trend is that people do disconnect. People do take -- turn off, just close their email tab so can get their story written or something like that. So we shouldn't judge all of social media based on the most quasi-addictive uses of it.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here's Beatrice in Washington, D.C. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BEATRICEYes. Hi. Thank you. I was very happy to hear that there is a device called Freedom or a software that someone developed because that enables us to disconnect time. What I find as I've been working as a freelance -- and I'm a writer, and I've been trying to focus on a research. But I have other clients that sort of, like, expect me to be online all the time and almost get upset if I'm not checking my emails.
BEATRICEAnd it's like managing the expectation. It's almost like a bad thing to be disconnected, and people will, like, disapprove of you and say, how come you haven't checked your Facebook? How come you haven't checked your email? What about your text? And it's like, I'm trying to work. So it's very interesting, and it is difficult to disconnect also because of expectations of whoever you're interacting with that expect you to be online all the time.
NNAMDIFred, have you experienced any backlash, so to speak, as a result of Freedom, the kind that Beatrice is experiencing?
STUTZMANMm hmm. Well, it's interesting because the case that I hear about often is exactly this. You know, we talk about being sort of addicted to being online. But there is also the social obligation, whether it be answering emails or checking those status updates or responding to messages online. So it's a two-way street.
STUTZMANAnd in a way, a software like Freedom or simply taking yourself off offline or developing a set of practices to do so gives people a way to step away from that obligation. And, you know, it's just another part of this idea of being constantly connected. Not only are we searching for information, but people are searching for us.
NNAMDIGo ahead, please, Nathan.
JURGENSONYeah. I also think that this is a real problem, especially when work places are requiring their workers to be accessible at any given moment. I do think that's a problem, and the solution isn't just to look at the workers and to look at individuals to disconnect, but instead to look at those institutional pressures that are, you know, placing these pressures on to people and to ask them to change their habits.
JURGENSONIt -- there is some amount of privilege involved with being able to shut off information, shut off connection, shut off communication. Not everybody has that privilege. And I think we need to look at how those demands are being placed on people. And instead of asking the, you know, individuals to solve these issues, instead look at who's making these demands and ask them to maybe tone it back a little bit if it's a problem.
NNAMDIBeatrice, thank you very much for your call. You, too, can join the conversation. I'm going to ask some individuals how they deal with this issue. How do you manage to get work done while you're online? Do you think the Internet has made you more or less productive? 800-433-8850. You can also go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our Tech Tuesday conversation on unplugging from the Web or not. We're talking with Nathan Jurgenson. He is a social media analyst, writer and doctoral student at the University of Maryland. Paul Miller is a tech writer and senior editor at The Verge. He's currently spending a year without the Internet.
NNAMDIAnd Fred Stutzman is a software developer and creator of productivity software Freedom and Anti-Social, which turn off parts of the Web to eliminate distraction. He's also a professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. We got a tweet from George, who says -- oh, I'm sorry. George tweeted, "Get me off the grid." Kat tweets, "A year without the Internet? Kill me."
NNAMDIChristina tweets, "Can we completely unplug from the Web? Can I eat dessert without Instagramming it first?" You can also send us a tweet, @kojoshow, using the #TechTuesday. Terrence in Germantown writes, "I don't have Internet access at home. I don't own a smartphone. That means my entire life away from work is offline -- more time for cleaning, more time for cooking, more time for movies and video games.
NNAMDI"Yes, you can still experience these things offline." Although, I'm not sure many people want to get offline in order to clean. But that's a whole another matter. Back to the telephones. Here is Andrew in Washington, D.C. Andrew, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ANDREWYes. Thank you, Kojo. Well, for me, one of the easily identifiable groups of people that's kind of forced offline for often a specific amount of time is deployed military members. And I'm curious, has there been any research done on the effects that that separation has for them? And if there has been research done, what does it say?
NNAMDIYou know anything about that, Nathan?
JURGENSONI don't. There is a burgeoning field of military and social media use. But as far as soldiers being offline, that, I'm not sure about. But I will look into that and tweet it if I find something.
NNAMDII know that active duty personnel have regulations which, in some cases, prevent them from going on to certain social websites and the like. Paul, at the beginning of your experiment, you said you've often jotted down offline tweets. But does the Internet still affect how you think about things?
MILLERIt slowly faded away. I would write tweets in my head for about the first month or so. And then I just stopped thinking along those lines. I don't compose my thoughts in the form of a tweet first. I just say them out loud to somebody. I recently had an experience where I've perceived myself as my social media identity. If I think of myself in my mind's eye, I think of my Twitter profile. And I've started to sometimes see myself just as a human being, which is interesting. So it's just little tweaks that have slowly -- I think that thinking has a little -- has faded a little bit.
NNAMDINote to self: Get Paul a mirror for holidays.
NNAMDINathan, you wanted to say...
JURGENSONI'd like to ask Paul a question. Is -- I mean, when you're not online and you understand your life as not online, isn't that still being influenced by the online because you're seeing your life as not online? It's still with respect to the outliner -- the online or compared against the online?
MILLERWell, and that's what I was trying to say is that, I think, for most of this year, that's how I felt, seeing myself as this person who whatever experiences I have, I'll write about them, would go in the Internet. And then they'll matter, and then people comment on them. And then that's my identity. But I just had this experience -- I was in a bar. It was during Sandy. The electricity was off. It was candle lit. I got really mad at this guy who I was arguing about cameras with.
MILLERAnd I just saw myself as just a human being with these sort of emotions and sort of this impatience and see myself as somebody, I don't know, I guess, in, you know, the frontier times getting in a fight in a bar or something like that. I didn't get in a physical fight over cameras, but that was a different experience for me since I was maybe 13 of just seeing myself not in the context of the Internet.
NNAMDIOn to Steven in Washington, D.C. Steven, your turn.
STEVENHi. I'm sort of laughing about this that this guy had to go and write an application to turn off his Internet when there's a little switch at the top of your screen that already does that. Perhaps it's more symptomatic of the problem than the solution.
NNAMDIInteresting question, Fred. Why did you feel the need to develop this software?
STUTZMANWell, to the question of being able to turn your Internet back on or turn it off easily, that is something that we all can do. Of course, the moment we turn our Internet off, we can then flip the switch and turn it back on. What is a little bit different about this software is it enforces your offline time. And that is certainly symptomatic of the issue, the fact that, well, we like to -- you know, we work for 10 minutes. We get that work done. We write that paragraph, and then we want to reward ourselves with getting back online and checking and seeing what we've missed.
STUTZMANAnd I think that this app breaks the cycle of that somewhat, this little problem that we have with sort of getting that dopamine rush of going and checking the messages. And the most interesting thing about it is, you know, when you use the software or when you're offline for an hour and you realize, I haven't checked the messages, you come back an hour later, you haven't missed anything. The world hasn't changed for most part. So it's addressing that problem that may be a problem of human nature.
NNAMDIWell, Paul, there is a type of anxiety that social media users experience when looking at their friends' activities on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. It's called fear of missing out or FOMO. Has disconnecting made you less worried about missing out?
MILLERI did not actually know that was the official term until...
MILLER...till after I looked into it…
NNAMDIWe just made it.
MILLER...and people started telling me about it. I think missing out is -- it is a fear-based reason to connect. And Nathan mentioned some research on Facebook lately, and there's an article in The Atlantic about, is Facebook making us lonely? And it sort of said, you know, it doesn't make people lonely, but it might make lonely people more lonely.
MILLERAnd I think there's people who are dissatisfied with their level of connection who keep searching for that connection online, and then they don't find it and they makes themselves more dissatisfied. So it's not that the Internet is the problem. We have the problem, but we're misdiagnosing it and putting ourselves in a worse position by trying to solve our problems online.
JURGENSONYeah. I think that's very accurate of what the research says. A lot of times people say, you know, is Facebook making us lonely, is Facebook making us narcissistic? And people that are lonely and narcissistic happen to -- they're also lonely and narcissistic online. If they are offline, they are online as well 'cause, again -- I hate to keep saying this over and over again -- they're not separate worlds, the online and offline. They're very much enmeshed.
JURGENSONThe article did kind of cherry-pick a lot of research to try to make the case that Facebook is making us lonely. There's a really great article that kind of debunks that. It's also in The Atlantic, on the website rather than the print edition by Zeynep Tufekci, and has a much less sensationalist title. It's something to the effect of social media's small but significant role in increasing human sociality. It's a very well-researched article, so I think people that -- if they want to -- if you want to look into what the research says on that topic, that's a very well-researched post with lots of links.
NNAMDISorry, Paul, you won't be able to read it. Please go...
JURGENSONI'll mail it to you.
NNAMDIIt's online. But, Paul, it's my understanding that you yourself used to have FOMO, that is, fear of missing out. How has that evolved, if you will, since you've been offline? You used to run around going from place to place trying to find the best party. What do you do now?
MILLEROh, that was me? I'm sorry.
NNAMDIYeah, that was you, Paul.
MILLERI wasn't a party-to-party guy. I actually, I would go to a party and -- if I would leave the house, I'd go to a party, and I would sit there on my phone. But it wasn't because I was really interested in what was happening in the phone. It was because I was scared of engaging with people around me, just, you know, meeting new people.
MILLERSo I wasn't as much scared of missing out in that sense. Mine was more the living online sort of thing of scared of missing out on the latest GIF or, you know, scrolling on from Tumblr, scrolling on Reddit where you just -- there's an endless scrollbar, and you keep on scrolling because you might just find that one funny thing, that hilarious, awesome whatever link, that Atlantic article that you didn't read yet. So there's always that search, and I think that's where my fear -- at least just the time suck that happened for me.
NNAMDIBack to the telephones. Here is Brian in Alexandria, Va. Brian, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BRIANThanks for taking -- Kojo, thanks for taking my call. I always enjoy listening to conversations in this or I'm not quite sure what I feel about -- 'cause I guess I'm one of these people -- I mean, to hear you talking about unplugging from the Web, you know, I'm continually baffled and then as well as increasingly annoyed by the people I see who just feel that they seem to be -- need to be connected all the time.
BRIANI realize in some professions that's part of it, and I understand that. But when I see kids and teenagers and just people in the grocery store, I just want to -- what do they possibly need to be communicating, you know, every minute of every day for? I mean, I'm on -- I'm at work. I've got my computer on. I've been sending emails all morning, receiving emails. I'm communicating. But at the end of the day, I don't check my emails until the next day. It doesn't even occur to me to do anything before that.
BRIANI have a regular phone. I don't have a smartphone. I mean, I'm not cloistered away, but this constant -- I see people -- I went to the movies over the weekend. People had their phones on until the absolute last minute. They now have five different announcements in the theaters to tell people to turn off their phone, and that's not even enough 'cause I kept seeing little blue screens pop up at different times during the movie. What can you possibly need that you can't wait two hours on? I can't understand these people who do that.
NNAMDIHave you ever asked any of your fellow patrons in the movie that question?
BRIANI have. I've had to nudge people and say stuff, and I usually, oh, fine. I haven't had any confrontation where people haven't put it away. But it's still -- the fact that the theaters now -- you go in there. They have announcements to turn off. They have the little video -- they have a little animation that's telling you to turn it off. They have the announcement to turn it off. I mean, and still people don't do it. And you still -- these people try to hide it, and they'll see those things. But you see the little blue glow as people are in the movies.
BRIANAnd I just -- when I hear conversations like this, what -- who are these people that constantly need to be -- 'cause I'm living life just fine. Again, I'm not cloistered away. I have email. I've got -- but I'm not -- I don't have a Facebook account. And I haven't done -- I've never tweeted or have received a tweet. I'm living just fine without that. Most of my friends are like that, and we kind of share these stories and see these articles and like, who are these people? And, I mean, most of the younger...
NNAMDIWell, you know what they say. Birds of a feather flock together. Most of your friends are like you. If you had a lot of friends who were on Facebook and Twitter, then you might not really be who you are.
BRIANI have a lot of friends, but we -- they send an email. I send pictures. I hear about vacations and things from people. But we either -- you know, I don't know what's wrong with an email. I send it -- when I send pictures and I come back from an event and I'll send them out to people, I'll attach two, three, four -- I don't need to post them...
NNAMDIWell, you allow me...
BRIAN...for everybody to see.
NNAMDIYou allow me to invite people to call us, 800-433-8850, so they can answer the question of why they feel the need to check their devices just before the start of the movie, 800-433-8850.
BRIANI go for days without checking email.
NNAMDINathan, Fred, Paul, some talk about the Internet -- and it certainly seems that way when Brian was talking -- that the Internet has an agenda. Does technology want us to use it in a certain way? Are we using the Internet, or is the Internet, as Brian seems to suggest, using us?
JURGENSONCan I go first?
NNAMDIPlease go first.
JURGENSONIt's -- well, of course, the answer is both. And we can use the Internet. We have ways, you know, for instance, using the Freedom software or -- I know when I'm writing, I have to close email, Twitter, Facebook 'cause the moment zero turns into one in my tab, I just need to check that 'cause I just think it could be anything, could be something great. So I just close all that off. So, in some way, we do have agency, but in academia, we often use this word around technology called affordances.
JURGENSONAffordances are just what you think you can do and can't do with any given technology. And certainly this discussion has been brought back up with the gun debate on, you know, the adage of guns don't kill people, people kill people. That's the idea that we have complete control and the technology doesn't control us in any way. That's what that adage means. Whereas, I think, most researchers look at, also, the way that technology can control us, be it with guns or also with the Internet much less dramatically.
JURGENSONAnd so social media does have a certain set of affordances. Cellphones have a certain set of affordances. And they do push our behaviors in certain ways. So we have an ability to control the technology. The technology can also control us. So it's very much -- the fancy word would be a dialectic, a conversation, between those two influences.
NNAMDIFred, same question?
STUTZMANYes. What I would say is, you know, people see software like freedom, and they say, well, look at this. This is the end of humanity. You know, we -- if we can't control ourselves, then, you know, how are we going to move forward? And coming from my background as a -- as somebody who studies the interaction between humans and computers, I come to the problem a little bit differently. It's natural for us to sort of reflexively look at ourselves and say, we're the problem.
STUTZMANBut there's also an issue of, why is my computer not supporting my productivity goals? If we think about how computers have changed over the past five to 10 years, they are multimedia machines. They're our gateway to constant social connection. And they're also these machines of work where we need to get our schoolwork done, or we need to write our books and so on and so forth.
STUTZMANAnd so there's a very real sort of set of challenges and (word?), really, within the computer. And so it's actually, I think, a very underserved market, and people are increasingly starting to think about how do we turn the computer back into a device of work when we want it to be a device of work, because right now it is a little bit of everything, and that is challenging for productivity because, as we know, we're not great multitaskers.
NNAMDIPaul, how has being off the Internet for seven months -- and, Brian, thank you for your call -- off of -- being off the Internet for seven months changed, in your view, any obvious elements of your behavior?
MILLERWell, I think I might be a good example of sort of both opinions in that right after I left the Internet, I was very productive, and I was doing what I wanted to do, which was reading, was writing more. My co-workers were saying I was more productive. But I was also more happy with my own productivity and what I was getting done. But over time, after I've left the Internet, over the months, I slowly learned new techniques for wasting time. I've, you know, I've always used the Internet to waste time. I just didn't really have any hobbies that were real good time sucks outside of the Internet.
MILLERSo now I've developed some, and I'm not as productive anymore. And so I know the problem, in a lot of ways, is me. But, you know, there are things -- I do think technology can get better at being more sensitive to us, and we are so early in Internet technology. I mean, if you look at the TV, we have DVRs, and they time-shift things because they know it's annoying to have to sit in front of your TV at a specific time. That doesn't mean we watch less TV or that we're better with our time, but, you know, at least there's a technology helping us manage.
NNAMDIPaul Miller, he is a tech writer and senior editor at The Verge. He's currently spending a year without the Internet that is causing him to discover, when he is online or offline, he is still Paul. Nathan Jurgenson is a social media analyst. You wanted to add something to what Paul was just saying?
JURGENSONOh, I just thought that was right. I really want to make that clear, that obviously that distraction and all of -- and time wasting weren't invented with the Internet. There's a whole history before the Internet. We were very good at doing all that, especially with television and obviously before television as well.
JURGENSONAnd the other thing that that made me think of also is -- and I don't think we've gotten to -- is actually in praise of distraction, in praise of getting lots of divergent ideas that are unpredictable all coming at you at once can oftentimes lead to very creative ideas and can really help our writing as well. So I just wanted to make sure that I got that in there.
NNAMDINathan Jurgenson, he's a social media analyst, writer and doctoral student at the University of Maryland. And Fred Stutzman is a software developer and creator of the productivity software Freedom and Anti-Social. He's also a professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. We're going to take a short break. If you have called, stay on the line. We will get to your calls. If the lines are busy, shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or shoot us a tweet, @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWe're talking about unplugging from the Web with Fred Stutzman, Nathan Jurgenson and Paul Miller, and taking your calls at 800-433-8850. You could send email to email@example.com. We got an email from Charlotte in La Plata, who said, "I found it extremely difficult to get anything done because of the Internet, and when I was a software analyst, it was a big problem. It got to the point where I decided to make a career change: going back to school to be a nurse, a career where I'll work with people and be too busy to sit on the Internet."
NNAMDINathan, some lament that in our hyperconnected lives, we have lost the ability to live in the moment. How is technology keeping us from experiencing the so-called here and now?
JURGENSONI think that's a really valid critique of social media. One of the things I work on is photography theory. And when you look back at the invention of photography of 150 years ago, maybe even 100 years ago, Zola, a famous writer on photography, talked about how everything in the world comes to take the status of a photograph, or things aren't real until they become photographed.
JURGENSONAnd the idea was that you had this new technology that could document the world in new ways and in permanence, and I think social media has a lot of parallels to photography in that way. We can document what we're doing. During break, there was two photographs taken of me by -- and, you know, probably going to be posted on Facebook, and I'm tweeting. And so I'm -- as I'm living right now, I'm documenting what I'm doing.
NNAMDIYou're so busy recording the moment.
JURGENSONRight. And obviously I'm on public radio right now, so there's that level of documentation. And in photography, and anybody who knows, have taken a lot of photographs, they know what the camera eye is. If you take enough photographs, even when the camera is not in your hand, you see the world as a potential photograph through framing and lighting and aperture and things like that.
JURGENSONAnd what I think that -- I think we've developed something similar to the camera eye is the Facebook eye, where we see more and more of the world as a potential document: a check-in, a tweet, a status update or a photograph. And so that really -- we do now live, I think, a little bit differently. Think of if you've ever taken a vacation without a camera and then with a camera.
JURGENSONIt's a little bit of a different experience traveling with and without the camera. Right now, if you're a social media user, I think you are literally and metaphorically always have -- you always have the camera in your hand. You're living with that potential documentation. So I think that's a really interesting critique of social media.
NNAMDIPaul, has it been easier for you to live, so to speak, in the moment without the Internet?
MILLERYeah. I think that's an interesting effect. One of the most bizarre things that someone's told me -- and I've actually heard it multiple times since I left the Internet -- that I'm intimidating to talk with because I'm not checking my phone. I am fully focused, and I think that's a little -- maybe a little scary for people. Sherry Turkle have just the most amazing book on this called "Alone Together," you know, why we expect more of our technology and less of each other. And she talks about this sort of a fear of vulnerability in the moment.
MILLERAnd then if you have the defense of a device in front of you, if -- as soon as someone starts to neglect that, you can go back to the device. So the horrible downside of that is that every time, if you're talking to somebody, you get a text message. If you check that text message, you're saying that you value that. That thing that you don't know what it is that is coming from a place that isn't where you've chosen to be right now is more important than that person right in front of you. And it -- I know it sounds really mean to say it that way, but I really think we're saying that to each other all the time.
MILLERAnd I've started -- I try not to get mad because I was the worst offender before, you know, but I'm starting to be increasingly offended by it because I notice it so much because I don't have my phone out. Something I noticed really early on is that when my friends would go to reach for their pocket and start to pull out their phone, I'd instantly reach for my pocket and pull out my phone because it'd be saying, oh, well, you have something else going on? Well, I got something else going on, too.
MILLERAnd I'd reach for my phone. And so I had this muscle memory thing, and I'd reach for my phone. I'd pull my phone out, and I have a dumb phone now that has nothing to do on it. And so I would just open the menu and close the menu over and over while my friends are using their phone. And it took me a while to untrain that. But it's -- I think it's a defense mechanism because we're ignoring each other in person.
NNAMDINew rules and practices for being anti-social. What if living in the moment is not all it's cracked up to be? Here is Ken in Gaithersburg, Md. Ken, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KENGreat. Actually, that segues right into the point that I was about to make. From a neurophysiologic and neurocognitive point of view, using social media gives us a constant stroke. In another words, every time we connect with somebody on the media, we're giving ourselves a little burst of serotonin, so there's a reward there. The downside is that when you're not connected to the social media, that reward isn't present, and it accentuates feelings of isolation and being outside of society. So it's a self-reinforcing behavior.
KENOn another similar point, speaking of the tragedy that occurred last week, we've become a society that has become so accustomed to playing games that are filled with tremendous amounts of violence that actually inure us to feeling anything about the violence that I'm not surprised to see more and more horrific acts by people who have grown up consistently exposed to this sort of thing.
NNAMDIWell, that's not violence that we necessarily access online, so I'm going to make that a part of another conversation. But the first point you made -- Nathan Jurgenson, he makes the point that some of us have a lot of boredom in our lives. Being able to be online connects us to people and enhances the quality of our lives 'cause most of it is boring.
JURGENSONYeah. I agree with that. I think a lot of this -- there's a whole genre of writing about disconnecting, and so I would include Sherry Turkle's "Alone Together" in this, that sort of valorizes boredom a little bit too much, where I argue in my essay in The New Inquiry that it sort of fetishizes the reality of being disconnected, of being bored, of slowness a little bit too much because, first, people that are online are still offline.
JURGENSONThey still go offline. We're still meeting face-to-face. But also, this offline really isn't as offline as we like to say it is. And so I think we need to be a little bit more realistic about how we're using the Internet. And I certainly don't share this idea that being bored is necessarily a great thing to have all the time.
NNAMDIFred, is there an optimal balance between boredom and engagement when you design software?
STUTZMANOh, well, I think that there is. There's certainly a need to be engaged and to manage that engagement. And I was just sort of thinking back to the previous point about the beneficial aspects of social media. When we talk about social media, it's often sort of -- we think about it as this frivolous time that we spend online. But much of the time that we're spending online is interacting. It's planning. It's interacting with others in a way that leads to productive physical interaction.
STUTZMANAnd in the cases where there isn't an ability to have physical interaction, there is, you know, being able to be together with people that are at great distance. So this idea of the time on social media being a frivolous time, I think, you know, that is being increasingly debunked. And, you know, is boredom a good thing? I mean, there is -- the reason people use software like Freedom, I don't think it is so they can bored. I think it's so they can actively manage their time and devote time to the most productive uses.
STUTZMANAnd who's to say that, you know, your four hours of working or your four hours of coding or working on your art away from online isn't as useful as, you know, the hour you spend online engaging in sociality with individuals who are at distance, you know, getting social support or just a little bit of time wasting. I mean, these are all essential parts of life.
NNAMDIPaul, before you left the Internet, a Reddit user warned you that unplugging can be dull. Has your life been less interesting without the Web?
MILLERWell, in ways, yes. I wanted to follow what Fred was saying. I think if it's hard for you to understand why Freedom is a good app, it's probably because you're a productive person. And when people ask me, should -- you know, if leaving the Internet would help them be productive or if they should take a break from the Internet, I tell them no.
MILLERJust decide what you want to do more than the thing that is using up all of your time right now. And if the thing that's using up all of your time right now -- I have a friend who -- she said she obsessively follows all these workout blogs, but she doesn't -- she wishes she worked out more. And she...
MILLERYou know, and so it's obviously good that she's following those blogs, and she gets information. But there's a point where she's going too far. I do think boredom is a very valuable thing. Maybe it's the wrong word for it. But there's something about you get to the end of yourself, you get to the end of your methods of squandering your time, and you're like, well, I guess I have to do something, you know, productive, you know?
MILLERYou know, your mom could always spot it if you were being rambunctious and stupid around the house. She's like, well, it's time for you to get outside, you know? There's kind of a way to spot if you're just using your time in a wrong way. And for me, that was just eliminating entirely -- and I don't really recommend that for everybody. But there's a way to spot the bad times...
NNAMDIWell, you have about four months left without the Internet, Paul. Could you stay offline for, like, another year?
MILLERI really could, but a lot of it is because I feel like I haven't been productive enough yet.
MILLERSo maybe that's the wrong reason. You know what? I want to go back on the Internet. I want to check Twitter. I want to say hi to people. I miss that interaction, and I miss the commonalities there that, you know, the common ground that I'm really lacking now with a lot of my friends because it is real life, the Internet.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid we're -- we are in an aspect of real life that is governed by time, and we're out of it. So, Paul Miller, thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDIPaul Miller is a tech writer and senior editor at The Verge. He's currently spending a year without the Internet. Fred Stutzman, thank you for joining us.
STUTZMANOh, my pleasure.
NNAMDIFred Stutzman is a software developer and creator of the productivity software Freedom and Anti-Social, which turns off part of -- parts of the Web to eliminate distraction. He's also a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Nathan Jurgenson, thank you for dropping by the studio.
JURGENSONThanks. It was a great conversation.
NNAMDINathan Jurgenson is a social media analyst, writer and doctoral student at the University of Maryland. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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