Saturday, May 07, 2011

Living In the Stream

It used to be that "stream of consciousness" was a pejorative. It was a phrase you used to put down the type of person who talked endlessly with little connection between what they said and what anyone else said or even between what they had just said. Nowadays, the way live our lives is in a stream of consciousness.

Text messages demand to be answered. If you do not answer a text within ten or fifteen minutes the sender complains that you are ignoring them. Emails keep arriving, and a popup in the corner of the screen heralds their arrival. The popup contains an excerpt of the message designed to make you read the whole thing immediately, even although you know that it is junk or something that you should handle later. Instant message boxes pop up whenever you are on line and cannot be ignored. Sometimes people call you on the phone, although good form these days is to IM someone first to see if you can call them on the phone. Finally there are the two great streams of consciousness that captivate our attention: Facebook and Twitter. Random stuff arrives in a random order and as you have subscribed to the feeds you keep looking at them to see if anything interesting happened. In practice it is most likely to be a video of a cute animal doing something stupid.

How people survive and get anything done with these constant streams of distraction is a mystery to me. I do software, and sometimes I need to concentrate on a problem for a good period of time without interruption. It is not that I am necessarily thinking hard all the time, just that it can take time to investigate a problem or think through all the ramifications of a solution and any distraction just breaks the groove, meaning I have to start over. When this happens endlessly in a day my rate of getting stuff done drops towards zero.

So how do we fight back against constant disruption? The answer is to take control and do not let others dictate the agenda. Firstly, establish that there are periods when you are off-line. I do not take my phone to the bathroom, or when I work out or when I go to bed. Also, I do not answer the phone when driving alone, and have my passenger answer when I am not alone. All our means of communication apart from voice have a buffer so that they do not need to be answered immediately, for voice there is a thing called voicemail. On the other hand, voicemail introduces us to the game of telephone tag which is fun for those who like playing it and exceedingly annoying for the rest of us.

Secondly, you do need to "return your calls" as they used to say. Which brings to the crux of the matter. If you want to be part of the conversation, you need to take part in it. Unfortunately, these days what you have to do is "return your calls", respond to your texts, answer your emails, react to IMs, post to Facebook and Twitter to show that you are a conscious sentient being, and finally do something to make a living. So it comes down to picking conversations, and thinking hard about which conversations you want to join. Do this right and we become Islands in the Stream, which is the most we can hope to be these days.

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