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Low level psychology of goldfish

August 19, 2022

I just finished reading an interesting book (in French), by Bruno Patino, on web and social network-induced attention disorder, and more generally the economy of attention: La civilisation du poisson rouge (Grasset, 2019).

Le poisson rouge tourne dans son bocal. Il semble redécouvrir le monde à chaque tour. Les ingénieurs de Google ont réussi à calculer la durée maximale de son attention : 8 secondes. Ces mêmes ingénieurs ont évalué la durée d’attention de la génération des millenials, celle qui a grandi avec les écrans connectés : 9 secondes. Nous sommes devenus des poissons rouges, enfermés dans le bocal de nos écrans, soumis au manège de nos alertes et de nos messages instantanés.
Une étude du Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology évalue à 30 minutes le temps maximum d’exposition aux réseaux sociaux et aux écrans d’Internet au-delà duquel apparaît une menace pour la santé mentale. D’après cette étude, mon cas est désespéré, tant ma pratique quotidienne est celle d’une dépendance aux signaux qui encombrent l’écran de mon téléphone. Nous sommes tous sur le chemin de l’addiction : enfants, jeunes, adultes.
Pour ceux qui ont cru à l’utopie numérique, dont je fais partie, le temps des regrets est arrivé. Ainsi de Tim Berners Lee, « l’inventeur » du web, qui essaie de désormais de créer un contre-Internet pour annihiler sa création première. L’utopie, pourtant, était belle, qui rassemblait, en une communion identique, adeptes de Teilhard de Chardin ou libertaires californiens sous acide.
La servitude numérique est le modèle qu’ont construit les nouveaux empires, sans l’avoir prévu, mais avec une détermination implacable. Au cœur du réacteur, nul déterminisme technologique, mais un projet qui traduit la mutation d’un nouveau capitaliste : l’économie de l’attention. Il s’agit d’augmenter la productivité du temps pour en extraire encore plus de valeur. Après avoir réduit l’espace, il s’agit d’étendre le temps tout en le comprimant, et de créer un instantané infini. L’accélération générale a remplacé l’habitude par l’attention, et la satisfaction par l’addiction. Et les algorithmes sont aujourd’hui les machines-outils de cette économie…

It is a quick read, go for it if you are interested in the psychology of conditioning and addictive or compulsive behaviors. Overall, the facts reported and discussed by the author agree with what I started feeling a few years ago. Figures speak for themselves, the style is clear, concise and punchy, which is not surprising from a journalist (specialist in new technologies). It would almost make me regret having thrown away most of my psychology books.

TL;DR We spend way too much time on the internet or social networks, for nothing. I mean, there’s no intellectual reward to compulsive activity on those medias, but this has been known for a long time by now. Still, many people and not only teenagers continue this desperate quest toward a virtual world where they may have a more interesting place – where “interesting” is only defined from one point of view, meaning this expectation is the only intra-personal aspect of those compulsive behaviors; the rest is sociology of crowds, or sociology, as you like to call it. That’s my personal take, of course. You may want to take a look at the more detailed perspective of the author who provides compelling evidence of the addiction induced by the raise of social web medias over time.

After four years of “web cleansing”, I am now free of Google, Twitter, Stack Exchange, Signal, Discord, and many other social networks. I can enjoy my hours spent in front of my computer with nothing else to do but produce material, certainly not always useful, but at least staying away from the potential distractions induced by a permanent connection to social networks and the internet. Don’t get me wrong, I spent some time there too in the past. My first phone was a Blackberry, you remember that small device that blinked as soon as you had a new email because Blackberry, the company, had push technology for its email system at the time. And I loved it, I really did. Now I just want to be left alone, and not be disturbed while I’m trying to concentrate.

The main point is that I always spend a lot of times on the internet, but now it is an asynchronous way of using the intertube. I check IRC channels from time to time, when I’m not engaged in public or private conversations, and Matrix is great for that very specific purpose since you get message logs for free – no need for a bouncer anymore. I also read blogs, via random searches on DDG or my loyal newsreader. But that’s about it.

Likewise, I watch TV shows on Apple TV or Netflix, but it’s limited to one or two episodes per night, and not every night. The downside is that I pay the rent for the year. If you don’t want to be brainwashed by tons of commercials on TV these days that’s the price you have to pay to have the choice to watch a series or a movie without being disturbed. I’m willing to pay in this case.

And now, let’s go back to reading good old printed books in hard copy.

♪ Joy Division • Transmission

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