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.