READ/WRITE ERROR: Death by Notification

Have you ever unplugged an external hard drive without ejecting it first? Do you remember the angry message saying, “Don’t Do That!”. Why is it bad? Mostly because you don’t want to interrupt it while it is writing information to the disk. You might corrupt the data.

TL;DR - this post is that angry message. The hard drive is your mind.

Urgent Notification For You!

When was the last time you had even an hour of completely uninterrupted time to work on something? Anything: work work, a personal project, a hobby, yourself…BING! The notifications are corrupting your data, aka your mind.

Let me break down exactly how your notifications are killing you. There are only three points, I recognize that you won’t likely get past three without getting another notification.

  1. You cannot unread something. Unfortunately, we are really good at compiling information from our surroundings. While our conscious memories are not perfect, it is simply impossible to unread. I dare you, right now, to unread this sentence.

  2. There is a switching cost of changing your focus of attention. Let’s go back to the hard drive analogy. Your hard drive does not read and write at the same time. It is doing one or the other, to make sure not to corrupt the data. However, it is able to switch back and forth so fast that on a human time scale it mind as well be reading and writing simultaneously. In other words, the switching cost of a hard drive is very low. Your switching costs are much higher, sorry! Try typing your next great blog post while you read the rest of mine. Good luck.

  3. Attention is the scarce resource of today. The biggest companies in the world are desperately fighting for your attention. They find PhD physicists, biologists, and mathematicians, then pay them 3-5x what they could make in any societally-meaningful job to do ‘data science’ on how to get you to spend more of your attention on them (and eventually buy something through their links). Guess what? They are really good at it. What is the current weapon of choice? Notifications. Notice how every single app on your phone (& desktop too these days) repeatedly begs you to turn on notifications? Maybe you didn’t notice, because you are already being notified by all of them all of the time.

What is the worst part about all of these notifications? Every single app for every single device for every single interest you could possibly have in your life has them: notifications for Slack for work, notifications for driving to work, notifications for chat for friends, notifications for your fitness, notifications to remind you to be mindful, notifications to turn off your notifications. The notification apocalypse means your brain never knows whether you are at home or at work, hanging out or hammering it out. (Please take your phone out of your bedroom.)

Let’s put this all together now into a simple formula:

(unreading is impossible)

+(high mental switching costs)

+(mass monetization of attention)

= mind control.

Your data has been corrupted. All your base are belong to them. We are hyper-connected and we are suffering as a result.

There is a time for communication and a time for quiet. Oops! Even our (e)books and note(i)pads are connected to the internet. The problem with today’s avalanche of notifications is that the interruptions are changing the way we read, write, think and act. My bet: 99% of the people who visit this page won’t make it to this line.

Instant communication is addictive. We are an inquisitive species, it is only natural to keep coming back for more (notification gratification). It makes us feel smart. It makes us feel informed. It makes us feel productive. It makes us feel like we belong. The problem is that we have forgotten how to read. We have forgotten how to write. We have forgotten how to be bored. We have forgotten how to daydream.

Notification-free Notebook

Social media is making you stupid - turn off your notifications and get bored. Slack is slowing you down, stop typing to the people you see every day and do your actual job. Every notification triggers a READ/WRITE error in your mind. All of your dopamine is tied to these tiny little messages that are impossible to control or unread. Notification gratification. The fake productivity of checking them feels good because the software is designed to make you feel like you have resolved an urgent issue. The problem is that you have just derailed whatever activity you were doing at the time and you probably don’t even realize how long it will take your mind to get back on track. We get so accustomed to these micro-emergencies that the notifications themselves masquerade as the work. This is the source of the false productivity I am referring to.

First: stop expecting your friends, colleagues, lovers, and employees to respond instantaneously to your every communication. Collaboration on the internet is a beautiful thing…but I think we were healthier with dial-up. The very act of “connecting to the internet” was work…and it made a horrible noise! You really had to have an intention about what you were going to do online…like logging onto AIM after school to tell your best friend that you think you are in love.

That’s really what this boils down to: intention & love. If you are happy being a reactive, retweeting fanboy (or troll) without an un-notified second in your waking life - may the Flying Spaghetti Monster have mercy on your soul. But, if you have even an inkling of intention about how you might make the world a better place - I guarantee you will need some uninterrupted time to read/listen/feel/absorb and some more uninterrupted time to write/talk/think/make.

The bottom line is this: notifications are not going to save you from the brutal truth that you need to choose how you will spend your time on this planet. You need to become the architect of your own attention. May your notification settings allow you and all living beings to be free from suffering.