cultivate attention in a hyperlinked world

It’s hot, very hot and attention is hard to muster. After much toing and froing and regretting my inability to concentrate, I’m here at my dhyperlink 2esk for the first of several half-hour stints of writing. 30 minutes of work followed by a little movement, a glass of water, a couple of chores.

Yet almost as soon as I sit down to get started, I realise I haven’t yet checked my favourite news website or the price of some shoes I’m thinking about buying. I can feel myself wanting to flick over to surfing the web as though there were hyperlinks right there on the page as I type.

Yet the very topic I want to write about is avoiding hyperlink seduction!

The Economist, whose articles offer incisive background information on aspects of the world’s problems, has a stated policy of avoiding hyperlinks. They seek to make everything they publish understandable from first principles and take a very conservative approach to links. In a 2010 blog post, T.S. confirmed their policy:

At The Economist we do our best to write articles that are self-contained and make sense without the need to refer to other sources, which leads to some characteristic Economist style quirks, such as saying ’Ford, a carmaker.’ (See? We saved you the trouble of having to ask Google what the company does.) When those articles are published online, there are very rarely hyperlinks in the body of the text.

Articles in The Economist are therefore unassuming in the best sense of the word. They don’t assume that you will understand the full impact of the changing political situation in Yemen, or know the name of the President of the Philippines or Ghana. They will tell you. It’s careful and logical.

Some part of me yearns to develop my thinking so it is more like an article in The Economist, moving precisely from one thought to the next only when the first thought is complete, thoroughly digested and understood. Waiting until I’m ready for a new thought without leaping somewhere else; trusting that my subsequent thoughts will arise out of the earlier ones in some way that is relevant.

It’s the kind of thinking we try to emulate in a meditative state, or when speaking purposefully. It ensures we don’t spear off tangentially in ways that can be unhealthy or disconcerting for ourselves or for our readers or listeners. It requires discipline to follow each train of thought and not to pursue the tangents. And it seems as though our tangential internet experience may exacerbate our tendency to flightiness. To understand the full implications of our hyperlinked life then Nicholas Carr’s book, The shallows offers a comprehensive view of its perils.

Yet our world is increasingly tangentialised. We are tempted to hyperlink from one topic to the next by all that clickbait on news sites and blogs aiming to reap some kind of quantitative reward. We suddenly find that we didn’t get to complete the task we came to our computer, laptop or mobile device to perform because we took off on some arcane investigation into celebrity misbehaviour or indulged in a little shoe shopping.

Although she won’t try to persuade you to purchase shoes or examine Amber Depp’s challenges when travelling with pets, Maria Popova’s insightful and well-written explorations of topics about creativity and consciousness on her Brain Pickings blog, are the reverse of those in The Economist. They are filled with hyperlinks, often sending you back to explore her earlier content. Up to three or four times a paragraph, the links tempt you to veer off into some other dimension of the topic that you are exploring. If you finished one of her posts and had opened each link in a different tab, the top of your browser would be thick with her distinctive yellow and black icons. So, although I love what she writes about, all those red underlined words in the text can sometimes seem too tempting.

And how to avoid temptation is the challenge. How do we connect to something that allows us to immerse deeply in whatever we are doing and resist the enticement to disappear into the irrelevant or salacious? My dear friend, Berta, with her 92 years of wisdom, frequently reminds me, ‘It takes inner strength.’

Berta has cultivated much inner strength, with her all of her contemplation, meditation and her commitment to ongoing learning. She meditates daily, reflects on each day at its end by reviewing it backwards, reads and studies the lectures of Rudolf Steiner, studies French, paints in watercolour and acrylic and plays the modern lyre. She is a mistress at summoning her attention towards whatever she wishes to explore in an undistracted way. I’m sure she would easily stay with a whole Brain Pickings blog post without being deflected by the hyperlinks.

So, her words remind me yet again to commit myself to the path of greater soul strength; the meditative and contemplative path that can fortify our capacity to pursue the goals and causes that call us from the world. Yes, it’s good to explore what is out there in the world so we know where we want to place our attention, but I want to choose immersion and creativity over flickering from idea to idea, post to post, link to link.

Some practical tips: One of my great teachers in the area of attention is Georg Kühlewind, a Hungarian writer, philosopher, meditator and teacher who is no longer physically with us. I heard him speak in Sydney when I was a student in 1995 and I have read and re-read many of his books. They are not always easy because he works from a phenomenological perspective and takes us through each thought and experience with deliberate care. I recently discovered one of his more practical and accessible books translated as ‘The Gentle Will’, it was written in 1999. At first glance, (and because of course, I am not going to immerse myself in it when I have other things to be getting on with like finishing this paragraph!) it seems to be filled with guidance and exercises to help us develop an open and receptive inner strength. I can’t wait to explore it further.

The territory of contemplation, mindfulness and meditation is thickly forested with great teachers. Lots to choose from for all kinds of seekers so we can discern the particular approach which will grant us a little more inner strength.

Yes, if you made it all the way through, feel free to click away now:

The Economist’s guide to the pros and cons of hyperlinks

The shallows Nicholas Carr

Brain pickings

The gentle will Georg Kühlewind

1 thought on “cultivate attention in a hyperlinked world”

  1. Ah! Clare, thanks for the delayed gratification of the hyperlinks at the end of your post…..For I was twitching to click and follow! But seriously, your post makes perfect sense and confirms a growing sense of unease about my distractibility in the online space. I am encouraged to focus more carefully on each real task in my day, and savour the real life links with the natural world, the simple homely chores, and face to face connections with people. Thank you.

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