Last year, while listening to music or podcasts on the metro I found myself addicted to also playing a simple, repetitive game called 2048. I couldn’t do one without the other. I played more 2048 than I am prepared to admit, almost mechanically. Concurrently, I realised that whenever writing a difficult sentence or working on a difficult task, I would open Twitter and begin scrolling, and what began as a break from work would end up being a much longer distraction than I had anticipated. Both of these behaviours worried me.
But so did a third one, which seemed positive on the face of it: I started looking forward to airplane travel purely because I was more productive up in the air. I read more (without having to go back to sentences I had simply run my eyes over without processing). I was able to think through ideas better. Nearly every flight ended with a pad full of notes of things that I couldn’t wait to get to. The worrisome part was this: why was all of this clarity coming only occasionally on flights, and not in the regular scheme of things?
I found answers in an unusual place.
Ezra Klein is best known as a policy wonk. He first came to my attention as a blogger for The American Prospect, after which he moved to the Washington Post to run Wonkblog, and then left to found Vox. Klein’s bread-and-butter is connecting policy to politics, finding ways to add depth to the news cycle and explaining complex subjects to a broad audience. No one would call him a productivity or management guru.
Yet over the past year or so, the Vox editor-at-larger’s eponymous podcast, The Ezra Klein Show, has become a superb repository for fascinating conversations about what the internet is doing to our brains. This is, in the information age, an issue that affects us all, so it makes sense for the topic to turn up on a show in which Klein interviews people who can provide insight into some of the key concerns of our time. But in part because of Klein’s own interest, and having noticed his own brain feeling the need to multi-task and unable to focus in the same way, he has repeatedly brought on guests to look at this issue from multiple angles.
The Ezra Klein Show, a weekly hour-long interview show from the founder and editor-at-large of Vox, attempts to add insight to topics that are currently in the news. Look in particular for the episodes that examine what technology is doing to us:
Episodes to listen to:
- Your attention is being hijacked. Chris Bailey can help.
- Jaron Lanier’s case for deleting social media right now.
- How technology brings out the worst in us, with Tristan Harris.
- What Buddhism got right about the human brain.
- Cal Newport on doing Deep Work and escaping social media.
- Is modern society making us depressed?
- You will love this conversation with Jaron Lanier, but I can’t describe it.
Take the three situations described at the beginning of this article. The episode with Cal Newport, author of Deep Work, a book that attempts to realistically engage with the difficulty of getting work done in a world full of distractions, explains why all those flights were so productive. It was not just the lack of internet, but also the specific time period that a flight offers. If you train your brain not to expect the dopamine hit of new notifications every other minute, if instead you get used to 90-minute periods of focusing on one thing, while knowing you will be able to browse Twitter afterwards, your mental faculties will be sharper for it.
The dopamine hit forms the focus of much of Klein’s two conversations with Jaron Lanier, who helped build Virtual Reality and most recently wrote Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. Lanier breaks down how the internet has gone from a decentralised space to tall apartment complexes run by a few big companies, like Facebook and Google, who monetise your attention since they are built on advertising. Echoing others like technosociologist Zenep Tufekci (another recent guest on the podcast) and former Google “Design Ethicist” Tristan Harris, Lanier argues that big tech firms actively make us worse people because of the way they are designed, and how they are running society.
The episode with Chris Bailey, author of Hyperfocus, a fascinating expedition into research around mindfulness and how your brain works in the guise of a book on productivity, gave me the most surprising insight: There was nothing wrong with my addiction to 2048. Indeed, Bailey argues that doing habitual, mechanical tasks – like folding clothes or playing an extremely simple game – does not take away from your ability to focus on something like a podcast, and is a far better reflex for compulsive multitaskers than checking Twitter, which does hog cognitive resources. Bailey makes the argument so convincingly that I even bought a fidget cube to reach for every time I’m stuck on a difficult sentence, instead of going for my phone.
To be sure, this is not the entirety of Klein’s show. Most weeks, he deals with newsmakers or analysts from across the spectrum, and many of those episodes will not be terribly interesting for those who are not obsessed with the minutiae of American politics. But because of his obsession with the sheer “distractive” power of the information age, and the fact that many of the effects of the machines we carry around in our pickets are still not fully understood, it is this corner of the podcast that will be the most appealing to anyone trying to figure out why a 900-word article – like this one – can sometimes feel like a struggle to complete.