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The power of our attention and compassion in the information age with Dr Charles Chaffin


In exchange for so called free services like Google products, social media, or online dating apps we offer in return our most precious asset – our attention.  Most people in the western world now spend 11 or more hours a day online.  Attention is a zero sum game. The more time we spend doom scrolling on Twitter or creating, consuming and sharing online content the less focus and empathy we have left over for the people in our lives.

In this episode of Awake In Relationship I speak with author and educator Dr Charles Chaffin about the power of our attention in the information age and his book Numb: How the information age dulls our senses and how to get them back. In this conversation we discuss the perils of online life for our mental well being and focus. We also explore how to reclaim attention and put the ‘social’ back in social media by using online tools to enhance existing relationships and build connections.

Show notes

  • To learn more about Dr Charles Chaffin check out charleschaffin.com
  • To get a copy of Numb: How the information Age Dulls Our Senses and How We Can Get Them Back go here
  • To learn more about how Facebooks core algorithm rewards extreme content and how social media platforms prioritize profits over public safety and wellbeing check out the Wall Street Journal Facebook Files or have a listen to this interview with Wall Street Journal reporter Jeff Horwitz on NPRs Fresh AIR with Terry Gross
  • Have a listen to this conversation with Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen on Your Undivided Attention podcast


If you enjoyed this episode you might also like 022 ON AIR:Reclaiming connection in the Internet of Things with Silas Rose


Episode Transcripts


intro  0:09  
You’re listening to Awake In Relationship, a podcast about intimacy, community and culture in a time of great change with Silas Rose.
Silas Rose  0:39  
Hello, my name is Silas Rose, and you’re tuned into Awake In Relationship. If you’ve been following the news recently, Facebook has been getting a lot of attention, and not for good reasons. The Wall Street Journal has done some really explosive reporting on leaked internal documents from the social media giant detailing investigations that Facebook conducted to understand its potential negative impacts to individuals and society. Back in 2018, Facebook changed its core algorithm in an attempt to increase sagging engagement on the platform. Basically posts that get a lot of likes or comments got more exposure, which sounds great if we’re talking about cat videos. But as we all know, what gets shared online is often emotionally driven content. At the most extreme end this can be various forms of hate speech, or misinformation. So the old newspaper saying, if it bleeds, it leads very much applies in the modern media landscape. Rewarding negative content is a very central way that not just Facebook, but all the social media giants, hold our attention, so they can sell more ads.  In the information age, attention is a prized asset, or attention or focus really is kind of a zero sum game, we only have so much to give during the day. And if we are spending a lot of time in the virtual world caught up in various dramas, commenting on social media posts, we have less attention and potentially less empathy left for the people we love, our family or friends or neighbors. And what makes the Facebook files so disturbing for me personally, is the platform’s know about those costs, but are prioritizing profits, over public safety and well being. In this episode of Awake In Relationship, I speak with author and educator Dr. Charles Chaffin. about our most precious asset, our attention, detailed in his new book NUMB, How the Information Age dulls our senses and how to get them back. In this conversation, we discuss the perils of online life, for mental well being and also our ability to focus and be compassionate. We of course, also explore solutions to reclaim our attention, and put the social back in social media by using these persuasive technologies to enhance existing relationships and increase empathy. So if time spent online lately has been making feel NUMB stick around.
Charles Chaffin, good afternoon, and welcome to Awake In relationship. 
Charles Chaffin  3:28  
Thank you for having me.
Silas Rose  3:30  
I really believe that technology is anything but benign, its always served as kind of disrupter, you know, in our economy, but more recently, I think, in our personal lives, and certainly our relationships, which is really why I wanted to bring you on the podcast. What was your inspiration for writing NUMB?
Charles Chaffin  3:51  
Yeah, you know, I don’t see technology as necessarily being this evil force. I think. You know, it is it, it’s capitalism is part of everything that we do. And, you know, we have to look at everything that we are consuming with the critical eye. So there are motivations of social media platforms to grab and hold attention of users no different than what television networks and newspapers have been doing for decades. And so, you know, I don’t advocate that the technology is this evil monster, but it is something that that will manage us if we don’t manage it. So kind of that opening disclaimer there. You know, as far as writing Numb, my background is attention and I’m interested in how our our attention which is the gateway to all that we experience all that we do and it’s important.  It’s the most valuable thing that we have. And I wanted to illustrate how our attention is being being taken by these devices. And most importantly, some of the byproducts that have come from this information age, whether it’s FOMO, whether it’s confirmation bias, and the byproducts of that, as well as everything from compassion, fatigue, to issues related to to pornography, and whatnot, and find  ways for people to manage some of this technology without it managing them.
Silas Rose  5:44  
I think we’re around the same age. Generation X.
Charles Chaffin  5:48  
Yeah, I’m between X and Y depends on what variable you look at. But yeah, roughly, I would imagine.
Silas Rose  5:55  
So by virtue of that, we both got to experience life, pre internet, were you an early adopter of home computing? And going online?
Charles Chaffin  6:06  
I was absolutely, going online was, was one thing relevant relative to what we’re talking about here. And then the elements of social media and smartphones, which is, you know, almost entirely different than then the, whatever that was 10 or 12 years where people were online using large, large computers, and whatnot. So yeah, I was an early adopter, but it was, you know, during that time, even in the early 2000s, it was, well, you know, I can’t wait to go back to my device or go back home, or, you know, as I was a student to get to the computer lab, because I want to see if I got some emails, and whatever, which certainly changed when we got to turn around 2010.
Silas Rose  7:06  
So, when was there an indication that there was a problem? Like, how did you notice that feeling of being numb in your own life? 
Charles Chaffin  7:11  
Well, I mean, I think that, you know, it’s obvious seeing these byproducts that I’ve just mentioned. So, I wouldn’t say that it necessarily is about these issues related solely to my life.  I will say that the element of compassion fatigue, was something that is beyond the scope of my research that I became very interested in, which really was the genesis of Numb, and that is, I was really interested in the constant exposure that we have, to the suffering of others, the 15 minutes of fame that come from tragedies and news stories. And I was really interested in knowing how that constant exposure to those terrible images, those terrible videos, how that impacted our ability to be compassionate towards the people that we engage in our everyday lives, watching people suffering on TV for two hours. and somebody in my life  that day says they have a problem, if I gotta say, oh, my gosh, more suffering, I don’t want to deal with it. So I became very interested in that specific byproduct. 
Silas Rose  8:36  
So you make the point that the information age, attention, is our most valuable asset. And I have a small confession to make, I find it very, very hard to read a book these days cover to cover and I actually ended up listening to your book. in audio form, somehow I find it easier to take in information that way. How is the ubiquitous use of our devices ruining our ability to focus and do
Charles Chaffin  9:09  
Ruining is a strong word, I would say inhibited is probably a better word. It is the devices inhibit us because we have limited capacity of attention. if I’m, if I’m focusing my attention on something that’s at the expense of other things. We use the analogy that attention is like a spotlight, it’s shining on a particular experience a particular object, and that’s also at the expense of many, many other things that it could be shining on. So if I had my phone next to me while I’m at dinner, I even if it’s off, even if it’s turned over, I’m using some of these scarce valuable coins. cognitive resources on that phone. And that’s coming at the expense of some element of being present, or my attention be on my dinner companion or whatever it might be. So that element of attention being valuable and these devices design, whether through push notifications through what we call operant conditioning, which gets us into these dopamine loops, that’s coming at the expense of something. So if we’re taking two or three hours of our attention a day, on Facebook, or Instagram, or Twitter, or cable news, or YouTube or pornography, whatever it is, that’s coming at the expense of something. And what I try to get the reader to do, as well as listeners to the podcast is not to tell people how to live their lives. But for them to understand the nature of attention at a very basic level, and then say, is this a good ROI? Am I getting what I want out of this? What I thought and a lot of people would say no, a lot of people would say yes, and that’s great, asking the question and reflecting upon that is important, with the ultimate goal of the reader, or the listener to the podcast, being purposeful about their engagement with technology,
Silas Rose  11:28  
I’m getting the sense, and you’re much more of a pragmatist than I am, when it comes to technology, I think I have a more darker view, especially on social media, the dark element for me is that they understand at a very deep level human psychology and neurobiology, and are using the dopamine system, as you say, through fake rewards, like ‘likes’, or shares or friends, to keep us engaged to sell ads.
Charles Chaffin  12:02  
Yeah, I mean, that’s true. so is it true for  television, and newspapers and magazines have been delivering viewers or listeners, to advertisers for decades. I’m not here, you know, defending these platforms, I think they’re as bad as tobacco companies or worse. However, there are good things to them, you know, there are people who are geographically isolated, there can be ways that people could connect. But again, I mean, you know, I like to use the analogy of TV, because TV has been around for 50 or 60 years, I’m sure there were people that said TV was evil back then. I mean, there were people in the 1500s. That said, you know, even when the printing press came out, that said, these books, we can’t just give out books. So there’s always going to be some element of, of disruption, or some element of concern about information and whatnot. With that said, having it these things are a problem, these platforms, social media, and all the other things that we’ve already highlighted here, they’re a problem. When they’re a destination, they’re a good thing, 
Silas Rose  13:35  
 Can you talk a little bit more about the dopamine system because that is really kind of central to the feeling of being numb from spending too much time online. 
Charles Chaffin  14:56  
This idea that we whether it’s social media, a cable news show or whatever this gives us some element of a dopamine hit, right? That is a pleasure seeking neuron. And we get into this loop when we, you know, we want, we post something. And then we saw that you want to go back and check it see if we’re getting like, see if we’re getting positive comments about our selfies, or about our vacation, or whatever it might be. And we’re constantly now in this loop where we’re posting, and we’re checking those posts. And now our attention has been hijacked on those things. So through that process of both operant conditioning, and this idea of dopamine, people get into this continual loop, if it’s a experience that we want to share, we post after it, you know, we post after the experience we reflect upon, one of the bigger things is we these platforms is create has caused many people to become content creators. So now we see the world through the lens of content creation, and therefore we select experiences based upon whether we think our audience is going to like them or not. So visiting grandma, grandpa, is something I might want to do. Butyou know, my audience might not enjoy it. So instead, I’ve got to go. I don’t know, whatever. do tricks at the pool? I don’t know. So it now not only are we going to deal with this dopamine loop, but we’re also now dealing with the types of experiences that we select in our own lives, because we’re looking at ourselves through this lens of a content creator, what did those likes really do for you? 
Silas Rose  17:07  
You spoke earlier about compassion, fatigue, it feels like in our world right now, we’re really kind of running out of empathy. I often feel like I’m confronted daily by a firehose  of negative information coming at me, how does that affect our personal relationship? 
Charles Chaffin  17:23  
II think, you know, again, it goes back to what I talked about earlier, in the sense that we were seeing suffering all the time, our that, that does have an impact on our compassion towards people around us, we have a fixed amount of compassion. So what do we do about that? Well, compassion is an active and not a passive element. So if I’m feeling compassion, compassionate towards someone hitting like, because somebody posts something terrible to tap into them, is not necessarily demonstrating compassion. helping that person sending them money, asking them, you know, meeting with them talking, calling them up, or whatever it might be. That’s compassion. So when we’re feeling overwhelmed, because we’ve watched an hour of sensationalist cable news, there’s a couple of things we could. The first is maybe we shouldn’t be watching an entire hour of cable news. That might be what, what, how much information do we need the second piece of it, and probably maybe the more profound element is, since it’s an active element, pick one thing out of the eight terrible things that you are repeatedly hearing about, and pick one and do something about it. Not a, you’re not going to do it, you’re not going to be able to solve all the problems or you could be involved in solving all the world’s problems. But you can pick one, you you know, Story number three was about puppies that were abused, and you saw the pictures of it in the local news story or whatever it might be, maybe you volunteer at the animal shelter once a week. But pick one thing and do something about it. And then get away from it. And you don’t have yourself you the problem is there’s this feeling of helplessness that people have because they’re listening to this stuff for two or three hours a day and not doing anything about it. That’s helplessness. So if we can manage our consumption, and then pick one thing that’s most important to us, then we can we can really be more compassionate actively rather than passively and we can manage the amount of compassion we have towards other people.
Silas Rose  19:54  
Our conversations is naturally turning towards solutions. What is one thing that the audience can do right now to reclaim their attention in this immersive online environment?
Charles Chaffin  20:07  
First and foremost at a 30,000 foot level is, each of us has to analyze our relationship with our technology. So, nowhere in this book do I talk about, well, you should be on social media for this amount of time per day, or you should be off of it all the time. That doesn’t work. And it’s not pragmatic, each of us has to ask ourselves, is this working for us? Is that is the time that I’m spending on these platforms, the time that I’m spending as a content creator, the amount of FOMO that I’m getting, because I’m seeing what other people are posting me feeling like, My life isn’t good enough? Or is that working for me. And in a lot of cases, people have to decide whether what the ROI is there. I think when it comes to information, you know, managing has already talked about managing the amount of information that we received, the sources of information that we get, is really, really critical. And again, I can’t emphasize this enough, we, we have to be thinking about whether it’s our productivity, or our relationships, or our general happiness, we’ve got to be asking ourselves, are these platforms, is this technology, leading us to the destinations that we want to get to? 
Silas Rose  21:38  
In many ways, kids are most vulnerable to the negative influence of persuasive technology. What do you suggest for parents? 
Charles Chaffin  22:29  
Certainly, there’s a limit that parents can put on screen time. I’m not an expert or authority. When it comes to what that is, the focus of my work, what I would say is, particularly as we’re relating to things like FOMO, or body dysmorphia, a parent should be talking about things that they’re seeing on television, and managing that. So, you know, kids need to understand what FOMO is, they need to understand that not everything you’re seeing on social media, even posted by their friends is true, that people are putting their best foot forward, and kids can’t be comparing themselves to fantasy that’s being posted. So from my perspective, I’m not a child psychologist, it’s not my area, it’s not even really a focus of mine,  but what I would say is, parents need to be involved. There needs to be limits of screen time, they need to ask the same question of their kids as they’re asking themselves and that is, are these technology platforms, leading their kids to more learning, more productivity, deeper relationships? 
Silas Rose  24:16  
 I think it’s pretty clear that in the future, artificial intelligence is going to play a much bigger role in our lives. I’m open to the possibility of that being a good thing. And again, my default is to be a little bit more cynical. I think that’s my nature. to automatically think about the Terminator when speaking about the possibilities for AI, what do you see as the potential of AI in the futyre and what should we be cautious about?
Charles Chaffin  24:52  
I’ll take the positive side of AI you know, so and I’ll related to the issues entered around section 230 of the Communications Act. And whether social media, platforms and media companies are publishers.. That’s a debate that ongoing around changes to Section 230. The rightwing  doesn’t like it because they think it hampers free speech. The left doesn’t like it because they think there’s a lot of misinformation out there. You could argue they both have a point. But regardless, everybody’s united, that what we have now is not working. At the same time. This is free. It’s, you know, folks can access it, I would argue they’re paying with their attention, but it’s free from a financial perspective. So what do we do here, we can’t hire human beings to look to evaluate everything that’s being posted.  if I’m on Facebook, and I don’t do this, but if I’m on Facebook, and I’m watching the Academy Awards, and I want to post something about who just won an award, if it goes to another human being to evaluate, by the time that posted gets up, it might be three weeks later, the moment has passed, it doesn’t matter anymore. So human beings, having some role in oversight of this content is not feasible, AI can help with that. AI can be very helpful when it comes to addressing elements of misinformation, and maybe even dealing with the issues that the right has when it comes to censorship that they see of censorship. So I think there are challenges with AI, there are challenges when it comes to algorithms.. So I think, though, that I’m cautiously optimistic that AI can help address some of the shortcomings of these platforms, particularly as it relates to misinformation.
Silas Rose  25:03  
Well, that’s a great place to land Charles, thank you so much for this conversation. How can people get the book and find out more,
Charles Chaffin  27:27  
I appreciate that. So Numb is available anywhere you would get a book you could also get it as an e book or Kindle and it’s available as an audiobook. The the Numb podcast is available wherever you get podcasts, and you can find me at charleschaffin.com
Silas Rose  28:44  
That’s awesome. Thanks.
Charles Chaffin  29:04  
Thank you.

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