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It is late 2016 and Aziz Ansari is writing the second season of his hit show, ‘Master of None’. But Ansari is not hiding away in a Hollywood mansion or holed up in a New York penthouse; instead, he took his time to write in Modena, a sleepy city in the northern regions of Italy. A town more famous for its balsamic vinaigrette and medieval history than any celebrity sightings. “No one in Modena knew who I was. They’re just like, ‘Oh, this guy,’” said Ansari of the small city.
After the success of the show, Ansari conducted interviews about the role, the town and his isolation for his writing process. He credited Modena with helping him build a reservoir of experiences. This story was codified, tweeted, and reposted for the next few weeks leading up to the Emmys. But the significance of Ansari’s choice has largely been overlooked and mostly forgotten. Most screenwriters live on twitter, but Ansari unplugged, removing himself from Instagram, the news, and even the internet.
He described the tech addiction as, “Whenever you check for a new post on Instagram or whenever you go on The New York Times to see if there’s a new thing, it’s not even about the content. It’s just about seeing a new thing. You get addicted to that feeling.”
Today, the only source of contact he has left is text message. Functionally, Ansari is in 1999. Unknowingly, he escaped the condition most artists exist in, known as continuous partial attention. This mental paralysis is when our brain is stuck in a radar mode, scanning the environment for new inputs. It’s the antithesis of a state of flow where we are able to focus on a singular activity.
According to science journalist, Daniel Goleman, only 20% of people will enter a flow at least once in their day. Ansari had entered in a digital detox that would prove pivotal for ‘Master of None’, and it begs the question: is regaining one’s attention the real competitive advantage?
The Attention Economy:
To understand the value of attention in the world, we have to appreciate how thoroughly it is commoditized. In our attention economy, the average person will see five thousand ads — ten times the amount people saw in the ’70s. Tech companies put billions of dollars and thousands of engineers towards keeping users within infinite scroll applications and endless stream of updates. The idea of willpower overpowering the cumulative effect of every tech company is laughable. And it’s dangerous for the brain.
Every time we take a photo with Instagram, we are less likely to remember the actual event. The more an app takes up our time, the more likely we are to report it as a negative experience. On the far end of the spectrum, kids with internet addiction show a loss of white matter, leading to fewer connections between right and left brain hemisphere connections. If focus, flow or attention is the crux of creating great art, millennials are thoroughly lacking the key ingredient. Unfortunately, not everyone can rely on a trip to Modena, like Ansari, to write, or fly off to the mountains of Wyoming to record their next album — Kanye West’s preferred location.
Myanmar and Clash of Clans
One writer of BackChannel, Craig Mod, chronicled his more mundane experience of regaining his attention. While visiting Myanmar on a research project, he noticed that all the farmers on the mountain tops played Clash of Clans. Mod picked up the game as a way of connecting with the locals. But five months later he was still playing, and it was an everyday addiction. He had reached the last phase of the game but he believes the algorithms picked up his sense of urgency.
He played ten hours his final day and could feel the wheels turning underneath the screen. All of sudden the ugly mechanics were laid bare: the game resisted his attempts and set him up for failure. This is the attention economy; algorithms designed to keep you within platforms and a bevy of psychologist, engineers and artist determined to keep you within their platform. For Craig Mod, the only choice was to delete the app and his account. He even went so far as to disconnect from the internet for an entire month. In the remote regions of Virginia, he was forced to walk around without the aid of a handy iPhone.
And this is the pattern of stories of people regaining their attention. They have a period of disconnection to recalibrate. A clean break from addictive technologies is one of the last few ways creatives can hope to reconnect with their own work. This disconnection allows the habit to recede and helps creatives break out of a routine of continuous partial attention.
The alternative, often touted by techies, is to use technology to solve the over reliance of technology; the idea that a productivity app to block other more distracting apps is a popular one in Silicon Valley and similar minded communities. But these are all additive solutions — solutions reliant on the creative forming a new habit. If breaking a poor habits is difficult, starting a healthy habit is nearly impossible. There is a reason nine out of ten people who have heart surgery, even with their life in peril, cannot continually maintain healthy habits: good habits are hard to keep and even harder to start.
To this day, Ansari will only respond to text messages, even with those closest in his circle. He’s at a stage of his creative career where he’s not only interested in consuming less content but also producing less. “I don’t need to make more stuff. I’ve made a lot of stuff! I’m not gonna make stuff just for the sake of making stuff.”