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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