Posts Tagged 'technology'

Deadman’s A-Z Guide to Living: Distractions

The ability to focus.

In this modern world of tweeting and texting, channel surfing and Web browsing, instant messaging and status updating, that may just be the most vital skill necessary for success.

It is also, alas, something I entirely lack.

For instance, the astute reader of this blog (yes, I understand there should be readers first before I attempt to categorize them) will notice that this post is being written several months after my last post, a pace that is quite shameful.

Let’s just use very round numbers and say it’s been 80 days since my last blog posting. That’s 1900 hours. Let’s assume that 17 of them every day (less on the weekends, more on the weekdays) are consumed by necessary activities (e.g. child care, working, housework – no snickering, mrs. deadman - sleeping, showering, eating, etc.), which leaves about 560 hours of free time. Here’s how I believe a reasonable breakdown of that time was spent:

  • Facebook games – 100 hours.
  • Other Facebook activities – 20 hours
  • Fantasy Football/Watching Football (or other sports) – 240 hours
  • Other non-Facebook, non-fantasy football Internet activities – 100 hours (and only some of that porn!)
  • Dumb, mindless TV – 70 hours

Ok, maybe i kid a bit, but even if I’m in the ballpark, that leaves less than an hour a day for what I would consider productive use of my free time: exercising and playing sports, reading, thinking/meditating, going out with friends, doing crossword puzzles, watching intelligent TV, chatting with the Mrs., having sex, chatting with the Mrs. while having sex, etc. Totally pathetic and certainly not enough time for me to devote to maintaining an interesting and regularly updated blog, let alone to getting me anywhere closer to achieving my long-held dreams of being a successful fiction writer.

When I was in high school, I had this classmate and baseball teammate who wasn’t the most intelligent, or the most athletic, the most intellectually curious, or even the hardest working, but he seemed to excel at most everything he did because he could be extremely focused when he needed to be. I mean, how’s this for focus: In a math class during our senior year, he showed me his dayplanner, which really was more like a lifeplanner because in it he had mapped out a great deal of what he expected the rest of his early years would look like. Among the predicted highlights: President of the United States in 2020.

Now so far, the guy hasn’t been elected to any public office, but given Barack Obama’s meteoric rise, there’s still time. And his resume sure is an ideal one for the job. Here’s just a brief, incomplete synopsis of what he has accomplished so far:

  • Graduated from Duke University as an Angier B. Duke scholar
  • Worked as an undergrad helping war refugees in Croatia and Rwanda
  • Became a Rhodes Scholar and got his master’s and Ph.D. from Oxford
  • Won numerous amateur boxing medals (and has run a sub-3 hr marathon)
  • Joined the Navy as an officer in 2001 and became a SEAL in 2002
  • Deployed four times as Lt Cmdr, including stints in Iraq and Afghanistan
  • Earned numerous military awards, including the Purple Heart and Bronze Star.
  • Started and still serves as CEO of a charity/mentorship program for returning veterans.
  • Has written a couple of books, including a NY Times Bestseller on his experiences as a SEAL and humanitarian.

Clearly, focus doesn’t have to mean just being engaged in one activity. You can still have – and be successful within – a broad array of interests, but I guarantee you this guy wasn’t spending much time watching reality TV or playing Farmville when he was writing his thesis, or training for his boxing tournaments, or fighting in Iraq.

Now I’m sure the ability to focus has always been an important skill to have, but advances in technology have without question made it even more necessary. We’re now always connected. Distractions are everywhere. Hundreds of TV channels to watch, thousands of emails to read, millions of Web sites to visit (and now the ability to watch, read and visit them at nearly any time on nearly any device from nearly anywhere).

Perhaps the economists are right that technology has made us more productive at work – certainly it has allowed me as an investor to do tons of research much faster than was ever before possible – but I believe it has also eroded our ability to focus, especially over longer periods of times. I actually sometimes feel like modern technology is this actively negative force, maliciously keeping us from focusing on the things in life that truly matter. Technology perhaps helps us engage more fully with the world around us, but it also keeps us from engaging more meaningfully, making us like addicts who now crave – indeed, cannot function without – the quick cuts, the flashing lights, the 140-word summaries, the instant gratification.

I think at times about pulling the plug, going somewhere far away (at least a metaphorical move if not an actual physical one) and getting back to the basics: Reading, writing, raising a family, and just trying to find more productive ways to spend the precious days which remain. I think about that at times, but then I think about how much I’ll miss all the diversions, even if they’re fleeting, and all the connections, even if they’re only surface deep. And then I think … and then I think … now where was I?

Newspaper bailout? Please no … but we do need The Watchmen

What a shock. A reporter (fearing for his own job, perhaps?) asked White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs if the potential imminent closure of the venerable Boston Globe calls for yet another government bailout, this time to save the flailing newspaper industry.

Gibbs was sympathetic to the plight of the industry but at best non-committal with his answer. Yet Clusterstock writer Joe Wiesenthal seems to think such a bailout is coming (although not in time to save the Globe), and that the Obama administration and Congress will justify such largess by carping “about how the lack of a thriving fourth estate posed (sic) ‘systemic risk’ to democracy.”

I don’t think Wiesenthal is right. The public appetite for more bailouts is basically nil, and if the auto industry is now getting the stiff arm from Congress then I can’t see how newspapers are going to be able to feed in any significant way at the public trough. The Obama administration has already rejected calls from house Speaker Nancy Pelosi asking for looser antitrust restrictions created under the Newspaper Preservation Act of 1970.

However, I’ve also seen our government do some stupid and surprising things over the past year, and it did after all once create a Newspaper Preservation Act, so perhaps we will see government intervention in the newspaper industry.

And make no mistake, a widespread newspaper bailout would be a stupid thing to do. No one under the age of 50 wants to read newspapers anymore. So what? Most of these people haven’t stopped staying up to date on current events, but are finding the news – at least the news they want – through other means, such as our beloved Internet and the emerging blogosphere.

As a former journalist, trained at one of our nation’s finest J-schools, I want to be sympathetic to the cry and hue I hear everyday from folks in the industry. But media companies should have to deal with the same technological creative destruction forces that numerous other industries have been forced to confront.

The newspaper industry will have to find a way to stay relevant amid emerging technological (perhaps the new large-screen Kindle will offer one answer) and societal changes, or die the slow death it deserves. I am confident a market will always exist – or at least eventually reemerge – for people who know how to effectively create and/or edit content.

However, I have one important caveat here. There is one function that newspapers perform that I do think is vital to our democratic society: Investigative journalism. I cannot begin to enumerate all of the political and business scandals that would likely never have seen the light of day had it not been for the fine investigative work funded by the newspaper industry.

Indeed, much of that investigative work is already disappearing as the industry adjusts to the new economic realities by paring their operations to the bone. Whether newspapers survive or not, the days are already numbered when editors would allow their best investigative journalists to go off the grid for months at a time pursuing a potential scoop that could net the publication a bunch of Pulitzer prizes.

Other media – like magazines and television – have occasionally shed some light on some very dark corners of American history, and certainly some in blogland would pick up the muckraking mantle of the newspaper industry, but it is possible that the private market will no longer be interested in supporting the important investigative work the newspaper industry has historically done.

If the newspaper industry does not survive, and no other privately funded source emerges to effectively replace the investigative work it once did, then the government should step in to create and fund an investigative agency that would perform that function.

A group of Watchmen, if you will (and Watchwomen, of course).

I haven’t given much thought about the organization or mandate such an agency would have – although it would have to have an extraordinary amount of independence from government interference and electoral politics, even more than the Fed and the Supreme Court currently enjoy – and certainly we’d need to figure out who would watch the watchmen. It could be that the creation of such an agency may be too complicated or costly for the federal government.

In any case, I can live easily in a world without newspapers. But a world without a functioning investigative journalism system would be scary indeed.

The buzz for 3/17/09: Ashton, Oprah and Generation Twitter

I AM DEADMAN. HEAR ME TWEET! (Partial Video Blog Transctript)

Big news today. Ashton Kutcher just attracted his one millionth follower on the microblogging service Twitter, a milestone which has generated a fair amount of fanfare, but it’s only the beginning as cult leader Oprah is going to feature Twitter on her talk show today and send her first tweet over the air.

Oh, how wonderful.

Excuse me if I don’t join in the celebration – if I’m not all, ahem, atwitter with the news – but I have very mixed feelings here …

Now I am obviously no Luddite and as you can tell from the mere fact I am video blogging, I am not immune to the allure of banal self-expression and interactive communication, I enjoy reading status updates from my friends on Facebook – which at its core is all Twitter really is – and even occasionally provide my own update, but somehow Twitter crossed a line that offended my delicate sensibilities …

I realized quickly that what infuriated me the most about Twitter is how beautifully it fits with our time. What a perfect metaphor for our society. Our unquenchable thirst for fame and recognition, our almost pathological need to reveal private, mostly unimportant details of our lives to anyone who will listen, not to mention our rapidly dwindling attention span and deteriorating communication skills.

Twitter is inevitable. Few people bother with books anymore. Newspapers are an endangered species. The letter is a lost art. Real-life contact is an inconvenience. Communities and neighborhoods where we physically look out for one another are artifacts of a distant past.

It’s time to face it.  Whether I use the service or not, I am still a twit who tweets. We are all Generation Twitter. So why not follow Ashton and Oprah and twit boldly into our glorious 21st century. Resistance is futile. I have seen the future, and it has 140 characters or fewer ….

Image: Kutcher wins duel with CNN

Kutcher wins duel with CNN

Playing God and Taking Shortcuts…

This financial crisis is more than what it appears.

It is symptomatic of a society that sometime over the last 30 years lost its way by seeking not the road less traveled, but instead the quickest route.

It is the culmination of a mindset that increasingly became interested in pursuing immediate gratification at any cost.

Look around you. In every area of modern life, the shortcut has become the rule, not the exception.

In sports, we substituted medicine for athleticism as steroids offered the quickest path to success (And I cheered as Mark McGwire belted homer after homer chasing down Maris’ record).

In entertainment, we substituted notoriety for talent as reality television offered the quickest path to fame (And I lapped it up as Richard Hatch ‘survived’ an island and dozens of out-of-control women wooed Flavor Flav).

In war, we substituted power for strategy as shock and awe offered the quickest path to victory (And I couldn’t pull my eyes away as CNN aired its little war video game, the pinball-like sights and sounds of buildings being destroyed and people getting killed).

In friendship, we substituted technology for intimacy as tweets and status updates offered the quickest path to communication (And I blog away, making facile analogies as dreams of writing the Great American Novel slip away).

It goes on and on and on.

We wanted it big, we wanted it all, we wanted it now.

Cheating, if not encouraged, was at least ignored. Just pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.

So is it really any surprise that in business, too, we fell prey to the same phenomenon? In hindsight, it almost seems inevitable that we indulged in this financial alchemy, pursuing policies and practices to make the quick buck while conveniently ignoring the potential long-term negative consequences of our actions.  The no-doc loans, the credit default swaps, the collateralized debt obligations belong in the same metaphorical bucket as the anabolic steroid, Omarosa and gastric bypass surgery.

The funny thing is, the issue isn’t due to a loss of work ethic. Most of the bankers who concocted these weapons of mass destruction worked insanely hard at their jobs, just as our medically enhanced athletes put in long hours at the gym, just as our most vacuous reality stars went to incredible lengths to promote themselves (and just as I am spending way too much time trying to fine-tune this post).

And I’m not about to suggest that this eagerness to seek the shortcut is an entirely new development. People have of course always found ways to cheat or exploit the system – it’s just that in the past, the tools were more rudimentary and thus less dangerous (e.g. the spitball and the corked bat just can’t wreak the same havoc as the human growth hormone).

We became too smart and too powerful for our own good. We acquired knowledge and technology, but not the wisdom to use them productively, or to realize that sometimes we should refrain from using them at all.

And unfortunately, our primary solutions to this crisis so far – the stimulus plans, the bailouts, the monetary injections – offer more of the same. We are still seeking the quick, easy way out. Wanting it all, and wanting it now. Not willing to deal with the consequences of our actions.

Which of course makes perfect sense. In a world where man ultimately controls so little, including the time and manner in which he will depart it, how can we be surprised when he believes he has figured out a better way of accomplishing a goal and overplays his hand.

We have gotten what we deserved.

We have somehow lost our way.

We better find it back.


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