Surround sound: Online time is shaping us in new ways, says Charles Assisi - Hindustan Times
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Surround sound: Online time is shaping us in new ways, says Charles Assisi

Sep 30, 2023 03:16 PM IST

Those we spend time with now include attention-hungry algorithms. This has a corrosive impact. Among the fallouts: a habit called continuous partial attention.

“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with,” Jim Rohn (1930-2009), an American entrepreneur, author and motivational speaker, once said.

Watch out!: Smartphone addiction as depicted in the animated music video by Steve Cutts, for Moby and Void Pacific Choir’s 2016 song, Are You Lost In The World Like Me? PREMIUM
Watch out!: Smartphone addiction as depicted in the animated music video by Steve Cutts, for Moby and Void Pacific Choir’s 2016 song, Are You Lost In The World Like Me?

The idea has been widely quoted and discussed. Over the past few months, based on personal experience, I am beginning to appreciate the truth at the heart of his wisdom. And he wasn’t even accounting for the digital age.

I have always wondered how he came to his specific number. Like many, I remain unconvinced about that math, so I would alter that line to read: “The people you spend time with and the media you consume shape who you are.”

What happens when the one we spend most time with is an algorithm designed only to keep us hooked? We’ll get to that in a bit.

Let’s begin with how the people around us influence mindset, habits, goals, relationships, and happiness scores.

When it comes to mindset, the people we spend time with shape how we see the world and ourselves. It is difficult to remain untouched by the exuberance of an entrepreneur, the long-term vision of a researcher, the passion of a teacher.

In terms of habits, we adopt the best and worst of those we care for or admire. When surrounded by people who eat healthy and exercise regularly, for instance, one is more likely to do the same. A chance encounter two weeks ago with a former board member at ICICI Bank over lunch recently jogged me out of a spell of junk food and excuse-making.

The board member is my age, with a busier day. But no matter what, his tennis sessions are sacrosanct. Everything he eats is thought through. I guess that is why our frames couldn’t be more different. He looked chiselled when we met for lunch, while I appeared a bit blobby. We decided to keep in touch, and I have since found myself back on the training circuit.

As for goals, these are tricky. Around middle age, most people begin to buy into the narrative that they are content with where they are. Even here, though, ambition and drive are contagious. That is why I like meeting older people in leadership positions. What unites the good ones isn’t a lust for power, but the drive to make a change in a domain that matters to them.

The people we spend time with can influence our relationships with others. When surrounded by people who are supportive and loving, chances are one will ignore imagined slights and take the high road more often. This conserves energy for greater and longer-term goals too.

And finally, it goes without saying that the people we spend time with can have a significant impact on our happiness scores.

Now, what’s interesting to me is that the one entity we spend most of our leisure time with is a quixotic liar incapable of true emotion, for that is how I would characterise the average social-media feed.

It shouts at us in click-bait headlines about celebrity relationships and petty rivalries. It tries to woo us with the promise that it can divulge: How to network like a boss; How to become a millionaire by 30; How to get the perfect body, and so on.

It goes on in this manner, until it has cracked what kind of headline, clip or post will make the scroller pause or click. And then others in that vein come at you in an endless stream. These are empty calories that bloat the mind, offering nothing of value.

Yet, even when we are with loved ones, family and friends, these algorithms keep us apart. We become impatient, in fact, at the interruption of a human voice that cannot be scrolled forward on at high speed.

It’s a condition that has a name — Continuous Partial Attention (CPA), a term coined in the late 1990s by Linda Stone, a researcher and former Apple and Microsoft executive.

CAP is a concept explored in great depth by psychologist and science writer Daniel Goleman, in his 2013 book Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence. Goleman argues that people in this mode suffer from the familiar reduced attention spans and creativity levels, but also a reduced ability to empathise. CPA creates friction in relationships, and ends up raising stress and anxiety levels.

It goes back to Rohn’s observation. The kinds of “people” we spend time with make a significant difference to who we are, and how we live.

(Charles Assisi is co-founder at Founding Fuel & co-author of The Aadhaar Effect)

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