Put the laptop away & read a newspaper

I’ve cancelled my Netflix account – and that’s just the beginning of the cull

This has been a long time coming but I’ve finally cancelled my Netflix account. I’ve had a Netflix account off and on for years, almost since they started rolling out online streaming and on the whole, it has been mediocre at best. I did enjoy having access to older TV shows such as Bottom and Red Dwarf, which I grew up watching & always enjoy putting on for nostalgia, but I finally decided to end my subscription.

Netflix on the whole is a good service. It is relatively cheap & does have some good content. The problem stems from the one reason for Netflix existence, and that again is content.

In recent years, the tug of war between the tech giants for our attention has intensified. What was once a relatively straight forward transaction between customer & service has become a war to keep us engaged for as long as possible.

Content has become the latest battleground & if I’m honest, my attention span has finally snapped. Like many people, I favour watching content online now as opposed to the more traditional mediums such as TV & radio. My music is stored in the cloud thanks to iTunes match, so I no longer need to worry about syncing music to my devices. Similarly, between Netflix & Amazon Prime I have access to a great deal of premium content. I have my favourite YouTube subscriptions which keep me entertained, and my favourite podcasts in iTunes. I have a newspaper subscription to both The Guardian & The Times in the UK because I support good journalism, but I also read The Verge, The Register, Minimalism Life, Mac Rumours, Macworld, Ars technica and Revolver on a daily basis online. I read Mini Magazine each month & Mini World. I have countless kindle books on the go & I’m working through my paper book collection thanks to my quest to be a minimalist. Then we have the DVR, and my Xbox Games Pass. The list is endless.

That last paragraph is a small example of the problem I’m talking about, and the composition of the paragraph just goes to show what’s going on with our attention. It’s a mess.

When I was completing my bachelors degree around 2006, I had a paper subscription to Mini magazine & Mini World, along with a paper subscription to Custom PC magazine. I had a few TV shows recorded on the DVR which I’d watch at my leisure, and I’d have one book at a time, normally from the university library. I had a fairly large DVD collection but this was limited by both my income & my desire to actually go out and buy the DVD. Same with Xbox games.

The inherent problem with modern media delivery is the lack of in-built stopping cues. From my two examples above, you can see that in 2006 I had in-built stopping cues. A stopping cue is anything that brings a natural conclusion to a task.

If I finished a DVD box set for example, I’d have to physically go and buy the next series. That was a stopping cue. Something to nudge me into thinking ‘that’s probably enough TV, now go and write that essay’. Similarly with books, I’d have a library book limit of 5 books, so I’d take out a few texts at a time & struggle home with them in my backpack. I’d read the books & return them. I listened to a few podcasts back in 2006, but I’d listen to these on my iPod, which was offline at all times, meaning I’d single task the listening of podcasts while walking somewhere.

Contrast that with 2018. If I finish an episode on Netflix, the helpful UI auto plays the next episode or the next series. If I finish all episodes in a series, it will algorithmically recommend new content based on my viewing habits. Without a stopping cue, I’m encouraged to waste all of my time wanting to watch everything which looks interesting on Netflix. Similarly, for such a low monthly fee, the further stopping cue of cost is removed, meaning another barrier to me binge watching has been removed.

Netflix isn’t the only guilty party here. Amazon do exactly the same thing on Prime Video. It used to be that a friend or colleague would personally recommend something to read or watch, or perhaps an album to listen to. These where valuable recommendations given to me by trusted third parties with a good understanding of my tastes and placed within context. The algorithms of today are just a brute force tool to keep you engaged on their platform.

YouTube is another prime example. I personally run an ad blocker, so I don’t see Google Ads on YouTube (say what you will, but I control my browser & choose not to allow advertising at a network level), but YouTube & parent Google are in the ad business, meaning the more engaged you are the more ads they can show you. This means they throw psychologists, neuroscientists, UX gurus and everything but the kitchen sink at their platform to maximize eye-ball time & engagement. The longer you are hooked, the more ad revenue they can yield.

There is an old school of thought in computer science which suggests that with any free service, you are not the customer but the product. These platforms don’t’ exist to serve you, they exist to sell your attention to advertisers. Tim Wu highlights this brilliantly in his book The Attention Merchants.

I read & research a lot about ethical computing and ethics online, and even I was sideswiped by the realisation that I’d fallen into the attention merchants trap. I’d gone from a productive computer scientists, reading journal articles, learning, formulating new ideas & examining web technologies to just another consumer of content.

As a self-employed academic & business owner I am solely responsible for my time management. From scheduling time to write, to completing work for clients, it’s down to me when & where I work. This also means that if my attention is disrupted, I become less productive & less able to do my job. If you work in a regular workplace, you will have targets & rules, perhaps you aren’t allowed your phone, or perhaps your internet usage is monitored. I have none of that & I need to rely on my own self discipline.

I’ve got to admit that my discipline has been tested & destroyed thanks to the modern content platforms such as YouTube and Netflix. It got to the point where I had Netflix shows running on my laptop sat next to my desktop, so I could try & catch up with shows while working.

I watch YouTube videos while I’m supposed to be concentrating & my attention is fragmented. This has had an effect on my workload, the speed at which I can get things done & also my general motivation.

This attention sapping extends across all popular ‘content providers’ as we should now refer to them. Instagram takes up too much of my time & attention, as does Twitter. I’ve actively wiped my Facebook account & stopped using it, but still use Whatsapp to keep in touch with friends on Android.

The news websites have been tweaked to always rotate headlines. Headlines are modified throughout the day based on metrics until the most engaging ones are found. News is delivered in Real Time and is never-ending & always inconclusive. This sort of news delivery, via websites, social media or the TV news channels is frenetic, chaotic and by far the most distracting & anxiety inducing part of my day. The age of outrage is truly upon us & its present in most aspects of our internet usage.

Twitter is alive with the sound of trolling & political discourse, often descending into pointless fighting. Polarization and outrage are favored by the platforms as the psychologists at Twitter and Facebook know this is good to keep you jacked in and checking for updates. Trump is golden for Twitter engagement & Twitter stock prices.

Netflix & Amazon prime don’t rely on advertising dollars, but they keep you hooked with auto play and recommendations to keep you as a customer, paying monthly fees & to amass more data which they can sell to content producers. The bigger their numbers, the better the content they can get from the studios.

Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music. They use algorithms to recommend more music. You have so much music to listen to that you need to dedicate more of your time to listening. The art of single album listening is dead. The data they collect can then be used to profile customers & probably sell to third-party advertisers.

Podcasts have taken off big time, but now they are full of advertisements and the content normally reflects the distracted nature of society, generally a bit lackluster, repetitive and shallow. Research is a thing of the past. There are now so many podcasts that I can’t keep up with the ones I’ve listened to for years, never mind find new ones.

So this argument isn’t just about Netflix, it’s about tech companies in general in 2018. The obsession with content creation for the sole purpose of engagement has led us down a dangerous path. If we are all so distracted by trying to keep up with all of the content, who is doing the deep work? Who is thinking of solutions to the major problems we face?

The work I do now in a week I could have completed in a day in 2006. Back then, when my magazine was done I’d have to wait until the next month for a fresh copy. Cost constraints and availability where my natural stopping cues. Now, with an almost infinite amount of content being generated, reaching the end of anything has become a thing of the past.

I honestly think this is leading to a spike in anxiety in our societies & is also the reason for higher levels of depression and lower self-esteem. With all of this content, all of these amazing lives in front of our eyes day & night, how can we ever feel content?

I know I still have the ability for deep work, I just need to reclaim my attention. Back in the mid noughties I finished my Degree, worked in the city as a web developer for a few years & then went back to do a masters Degree. Funnily enough, in 2008, as the social media platforms started to appear & Web 2.0 was the buzzword, I did a Masters thesis on combining an E Learning environment with aspects of a social media platform. I even built the prototype. Shortly after, social media became the big thing & more pervasive in everyday life.

After studying it for my masters I fell for social media Big Time. Since then, for one reason or another, I’ve delayed completing my doctorate. I now firmly believe that the distraction of social media, and the modern internet giants, coupled with their manipulative & psychologically perfected platforms have sapped a lot of my attention and ability to complete deep work. I also believe that my self-confidence, self-esteem and anxiety levels have all been affected by Social Media and the distraction technologies.

But no more. After committing to reading a long reading list of relevant books throughout 2018, I’ve realised how these platforms work & also the polarizing & damaging effects they are having on society. I’ve decided to take action and reset to a more manageable online life.

So far I’ve already cancelled all music streaming. I have an extensive MP3 library & any albums I do want, I’ll buy in second-hand shops or via the iTunes store. This means I’ll actually value those albums, instead of blindly consuming. It also means I’ll choose carefully which albums I introduce into my collection.

With regards newspapers, I now buy a physical copy of the Sunday papers and catch up on the week’s news curated into proper stories. I still checkout the headlines online, but I do this once a day in the morning & never follow the live news blogs.

I’ve uninstalled all news apps from my iPhone & I’ve also removed all music & video apps with the exceptions of the Music app which I use with my MP3 collection.

I’ve cancelled Netflix & I’ve unplugged my Amazon Fire Stick. If I want to watch a TV show, I’ll buy the DVD or pick it up on the iTunes store and watch it via the Apple TV. I’ve just done that with the BBC series Detectorists & enjoyed it much more watching on my own schedule and without the crazy algorithms trying to snatch my attention. Without Auto play, we watched 2 episodes each evening with a break in between. The simple task of having to click the next episode is enough for us to call it a night with the TV. And I’m going to do that old-fashioned thing & recommend Dectectorists to everyone.

I’ve subscribed to Mini Magazine & Mini World on my iPad. I await each months issues just like the old paper magazines.

I use the Forest App on my iPhone to plant trees and stop me from picking up the phone. I do the same in Firefox on the desktop & laptop to stop me checking news & social media sites for upto 2 hours at a time. It has really helped to rewire my brain.

Curating my own collections has slowed down content consumption for me. I still use YouTube but now only subscribe to a select few channels. I watch YouTube via the Kodi app, which pulls in only my subscriptions and no recommended content.

I’ve unfollowed a lot of people on Twitter, including all news agencies & most brands. I only use the Tweetbot app on iPhone and Mac now, which syncs my timeline position, removes all ads, keeps everything in chronological order & allows me to mute certain keywords forever. I’ve also disabled all retweets from all users. This has reduced my Twitter usage to around 10 minutes a day from what was around 3 hours a day.

I no longer use Facebook but keep an account just in case anyone needs to contact me. I’ve not logged in now for almost a year. I still have an Instagram account, but only check it a couple of times a day. I’ve accepted the fact that if I miss posts, I’ve missed them. Changing my attitude to content has really helped.

I’ve cancelled the Xbox games pass and buy used games from CEX. The act of going looking in the shop for a bargain has really helped me to buy games with intent. No more giving things a go just because it’s free. My time isn’t worth it for a freebie.

You can apply these techniques across most content platforms. Think about the content you are consuming & equate it to time well spent. Ask yourself if the time you will spend watching something or consuming something for the sake of it is worth it? even if the content is free.

Also, when producing content, either in blogs, social media or for any other purpose, create the stuff you want to create. Don’t just create what you think will be most popular or most engaging. This is having a negative effect on the internet as a whole, with each of us producing near identical content to try to engage. Forget your audience & produce stuff which you love. Even if you think nobody in the world will be interested in it, stay true to your ideals and your passions & forget the magic formulas.

So I say, dump the attention merchants & reclaim your head space. Next time you leave the house for a walk, leave the phone at home. It’s liberating. In the evening, forget the curated playlists of rubbish & instead pick an album with intent & purpose & enjoy the whole thing as an experience. Ditch the algorithms & trust your own taste & judgement. It’s such a nice feeling nowadays to listen to an album from start to finish as the artist intended, and then it ends & you get that natural stopping cue to do something else.

Introduce stopping cues wherever you can. If you want to write a blogpost, turn off your wifi & set a timer. Just see how much you can get done. The same goes for household chores, set a 20 minute timer to clean your house & you will get it all done against the clock. Without that timer, it could take an hour with distractions.

Consider buying movies & ditching the streaming. You might lose access to a plethora of content, but you will regain your attention & so much of your valuable time. You may spend a little more money, but a lot of the good TV & Movies aren’t available to stream anyway, so you will be choosing quality content over quantity of content. You will also change your viewing habits & reclaim your time.

Use an adblocker.  There is enough stuff that you already want without getting new ideas.

Ignore algorithmic recommendations, you already have enough to get done.

Buy a newspaper or magazine & enjoy some time offline.

Visit a record shop. They are still amazing & the people you meet may become great sources of inspiration.

Set times for tasks. For me social media is when I sit at my desk for 10 minutes in the morning, and again after lunch for 10 minutes. If you use it for business, create a buffer account & schedule your posts in a single sitting once a day.

Read news in a single sitting! There will be new news every time you check back, but any real news will still be on the website tomorrow.

Reclaim your time, your self-esteem & your smile. I guarantee you will feel less anxious & more content with life. You will also get more of your things done & feel like you have extra time, as opposed to too little time in your day.

It truly is liberating to reclaim your attention & I can’t recommend it enough!

John Large

My name is John Large. I am a Web Developer, E-commerce site owner & all round geek. My areas of interest include hardware hacking, digital privacy & security, social media & computer hardware. I’m also a minimalist in the making, interested in the Tiny House movement & the experience economy along with a strong interest in sustainability & renewable energy. When I’m not tapping on a keyboard or swiping a smart phone I can be found sampling great coffee, travelling the world with my wife Vicki (who writes over at Let’s Talk Beauty) & generally trying to live my life as unconventionally as possible.

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