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The Telegraph Changed How You Spend Your Time

And made you a slave to irrelevant media

Photo: George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

Technology was supposed to usher in an age of infinite connectivity and ever-deepening relationships. Sold on that promise, we’ve spent the past century accelerating toward instantaneous communication without any hesitation or discussion of its effects. The increasing volume of media and tools has absolutely increased opportunities for connectivity. There is no debate. But has the sea of noise really made us better people?

You’ve had this experience: You’re watching one of the 24-hour news channels. A story breaks, and the anchor brings in a crop-duster pilot to discuss the lost Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Suddenly you realize you’re part of a joke, but no one’s laughing. This isn’t news. This is frantically filling a quota.

TV’s concept of “filling airtime” has painfully spilled over into every moment of our media-saturated lives. It has become who we are. We feel this compulsion to share and opine, to fill the space of our Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat feeds — just because those platforms exist.

We’re so busy filling our quotas, we never stopped to ask if we should.
Illustration: Getty

Born in the 1800s, telegraphy (from the Greek τῆλε γράφεινto, “to write” and “at a distance”) was the first medium that really disrupted the relationship individuals had with actionable information. Up until the telegraph, you would have known only what mattered where you live: early spring, local election, thief on the loose. Small potatoes. There was no paradigm for ingesting national news, because any macro-level information could take weeks or months to reach your ears.

Then, charmed by electricity’s novelty and proliferation, man dove headfirst into the allure of long-distance communication — uncertain, and seemingly uncaring, of the consequences. Amid its rapid expansion, Henry David Thoreau pondered the purpose behind telegraphy in Walden:

“We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate … We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some weeks nearer to the new; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.”

Neil Postman, prescient prognosticator of all media, lifted Thoreau’s critique and went further, proposing that “telegraphy made relevance irrelevant”:

“The abundant flow of information had very little or nothing to do with those to whom it was addressed; that is, with any social or intellectual context in which their lives were embedded … A man in Maine and a man in Texas could converse, but not about anything either of them knew or cared very much about. The telegraph may have made the country into ‘one neighborhood,’ but it was a peculiar one, populated by strangers who knew nothing but the most superficial facts about each other.”

The craving for that single stranger-filled neighborhood would not stop with the telegraph. Over the next hundred years, radio, television, and even the telephone all dramatically increased the number of daily interactions people have with information.

Between 1900 and 1997, telephone calls per capita rose a staggering 6,118 percent, from 38 to 2,325 calls per year. As access to phones grew, the phone conversation became a required aspect of everyday life. Technology coupled with urbanization fueled a movement away from rural towns and toward cities. The telephone was no longer merely a tool for accessing services, but a replacement for human interaction. Children could move hundreds of miles from home and still hold on to Mom and Dad. Previously face-to-face relationships were now relegated to a phone call.

Unsurprisingly, our daily television consumption has also grown. Between 1949 and 2009, it increased a full 3 hours 46 minutes per day—yes, per day—for a total of 8 hours 21 minutes of TV viewing per household, not including secondary viewers or other screens. We have been very creative in ensuring we fill that daily television quota: more channels, longer broadcasts, and more recording flexibility.

Just when it seemed like we couldn’t squeeze one more minute from the day, along came the internet.

The average weekly screen time for an adult is 74 hours. Facebook users spend an average of 50 minutes per day on the platform. “That’s more than any other leisure activity surveyed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, with the exception of watching television programs and movies (an average per day of 2.8 hours). It’s more time than people spend reading (19 minutes); participating in sports or exercise (17 minutes); or social events (four minutes). It’s almost as much time as people spend eating and drinking (1.07 hours).”

The theme is clear: As we have developed new forms of media, we have dedicated more and more of our time to that media — compelling creators to meet the expectations of a growing audience. But engaging with all this media can strain our brain, argues Nicholas Carr in The Shallows. In ode to Thoreau and Postman, Carr notes that “as we reach the limits of our working memory, it becomes harder to distinguish relevant information from irrelevant information, signal from noise.” We become, like the telegraph, “mindless consumers of data” with no purpose.

The question you have to stop and ask yourself: “Does my ability to quickly send and receive all this information, in all these ways, make me happier or better?”

In a word, no. With more lines of cost-free communication, surely we should see increases in friendships, right? Wrong. According to a 2006 study published in the American Sociological Review, “Americans’ number of close friends has shrunk to two,” down from three besties 25 years ago. Gallup’s 2004 survey arrives at a similar conclusion: Americans are losing close friends despite huge advances in technology and lower transaction costs for communicating.

It can’t be a coincidence that increasing engagement with media is occurring in tandem with an increase in isolation. Larry Rosen, a psychology professor at California State University, says that cortisol, the “stress hormone,” is released every time we receive a text message or push notification. Our brains then attempt to alleviate the anxiety by engaging with the media:

“Prior to smartphones and tablets, we had to learn what to do when we got bored or anxious. We made up games to avoid boredom, and we talked to a friend to feel like we were staying in touch with our social world. Now we just grab our devices and don’t have to deal with what to do to alleviate those negative feelings.”

Rosen’s argument is simple: We entertain ourselves through infinite feedback loops to avoid a continual state of anxiety. Postman had the same intuition in 1984, long before the internet even existed:

“Americans no longer talk to each other; they entertain each other. They do not exchange ideas; they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities, and commercials.”

And that is what’s dangerous, argues Tristan Harris, a former designer at Google. Major advertising executives depend on you wasting your time. Malicious or not, these companies are squarely focused on “hacking your brain” or involving you for as long as possible with their product, no matter the consequence. The more time you spend on a channel, phone call, or platform, the more money they make. And we should be worried, says Harris: “Never before in history have a handful of people … shaped how a billion people think and feel every day by the choices they make through these screens.”

These futurists, technologists, and entrepreneurs — who have become the new prophets of consumerism — have a vested interest in your compulsion.

“The culture that … now extends deep into our lives and psyches, is characterised by frenetic production and consumption — smartphones have made media machines of us all — but little real empowerment and even less reflectiveness.” —Nicholas Carr

But here’s the secret: These compulsions are contrived and depend only on you, the willing participant. The internet and social media are the inevitable result of our longstanding addiction to media — from television to the telegraph. However, at every moment in history, we always have the opportunity to scale back our participation in media and control these tools that shape our opinions and discourse.

By providing a little more context to the people in your immediate circle and less to the strangers trapped in this compulsive digital world, you just might improve your memory, chill your anxieties, and focus on the thing that really matters: bringing fulfillment to yourself and those around you.

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