Just Sitting Here

What do humans do when they do nothing? They think about their social life. So what happens when all idleness is more and more cleverly suppressed by the attention economy and its apps on the smartphone? About the antisocial side effects of the uninterrupted distraction through social media.

The old­er ones among us cer­tain­ly remem­ber the Ger­man come­di­an Vic­co von Bülow alias Lori­ot, whose favourite top­ic was the dys­func­tion­al human com­mu­ni­ca­tion. In this grandiose scene in the life of an elder­ly cou­ple, for exam­ple, such com­mu­ni­ca­tion fail­ures come to a dra­mat­ic end. And all this only because the man sim­ply wants to sit around seem­ing­ly inac­tive­ly, the woman can­not under­stand this and tries to encour­age him to be more active. (The scene is only avail­able in Ger­man, but there is a great trans­la­tion in this com­ment.)

In a time with­out inter­net and long before the ubiq­ui­tous dis­trac­tion of smart­phones and social media, this short scene was exag­ger­at­ed but not absurd. Today it would be com­plete­ly incom­pre­hen­si­ble, because the role of the woman in this scene has long been tak­en over by the smart­phone. Just sit­ting here is no longer an option, because Face­book and Co. only earn mon­ey if we pay atten­tion to them. That’s why they con­stant­ly moti­vate us to new activ­i­ty: read me, click me, wipe me. And this with much more sophis­ti­cat­ed meth­ods and more effec­tive tac­tics than the some­what clum­sy appeals of the wife in Loriot’s scene.

In recent years, brain research has clear­ly shown that our brain has no pause func­tion. It is always busy – or dead. How­ev­er, it has two dif­fer­ent work­ing modes: con­cen­trat­ed atten­tion on the one hand and what is called the Default Mode Net­work on the oth­er. Although the brain is not work­ing focussed and active­ly on a prob­lem in this mode of relax­ation, it is nev­er­the­less very pro­duc­tive. For a long time, how­ev­er, it was not at all clear what the brain is occu­pied with when idling and why we humans use so much ener­gy for this purpose.

Psy­chol­o­gist Matthew D. Lieber­man addressed exact­ly this ques­tion with his team and sum­ma­rized the sur­pris­ing results in his book “Social: Why our brains are wired to con­nect” (Ama­zon Affil­i­ate-Link). The brain regions of the default mode net­work are iden­ti­cal to the regions that are active dur­ing exper­i­ments on social per­cep­tion. Thus, when our brain is idle, it is by default think­ing about our social life.

At first glance, this insight does not seem sur­pris­ing, since we humans are social beings and our well-being and sur­vival for a long time depend­ed on our mem­ber­ship and posi­tion with­in our group. In this respect, it is obvi­ous that these ques­tions occu­py us. How­ev­er, Lieber­man actu­al­ly was able to show that causal­i­ty is reversed: It is not because we are social beings that we con­cern our­selves with these ques­tions, but because our default mode net­work instinc­tive­ly and reflex­ive­ly con­cerns itself with them, we are inter­est­ed in the social world. So just sit­ting here is not as worth­less as it may seem to the wife in Loriot’s scene.

In Zen it says: “Our mind is like murky water, the dust set­tles by itself if we just stop con­stant­ly stir­ring in it.” Moti­vat­ed by smart­phones and the apps of the atten­tion econ­o­my, we have been stir­ring our minds more and more from morn­ing to night for the past few years. But with­out idle­ness, the default mode net­work will not be active. And when you con­sid­er the impor­tant func­tion of this net­work for our social life, it is easy to con­clude that social media only appar­ent­ly pro­motes social qual­i­ties and that the long-term effect could be rather anti­so­cial and isolating.

Ini­tial research results also exist for this con­nec­tion, as Cal New­port writes in his book Dig­i­tal Min­i­mal­ism (Ama­zon Affil­i­ate-Link): “The data spoke a clear lan­guage. The more time you spend ’net­work­ing’ on such ser­vices, the more like­ly you are to iso­late your­self”. At least when it comes to gen­er­al usage. In fact, there are oth­er stud­ies — spon­sored by Face­book — that focus on spe­cif­ic behav­iors, such as fol­low­ing sta­tus updates from close friends, and come to the oppo­site conclusion.

And then you have to have time to just sit there and look at yourself!

Astrid Lind­gren

And this is the crux of the mat­ter: the ser­vices of the atten­tion econ­o­my lure with the unde­ni­able ben­e­fits of these par­tic­u­lar behav­iors and then quite delib­er­ate­ly draw the unsus­pect­ing user fur­ther and fur­ther into their spell. Like Alice in Won­der­land, they fall deep­er and deep­er down the rab­bit hole, where they get lost in the unin­ten­tion­al use and aim­less brows­ing through end­less streams of more or less irrel­e­vant updates mixed with lucra­tive adver­tis­ing. This is how Face­book and Co. cap­i­tal­ize on these moments that are so impor­tant to us humans, when once you could just sit some­where and look in front of you — if it was con­ve­nient for the woman of the house.

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