What are digital devices doing to our posture?

Quick: What does your posture look like right now? There are literally three people in the coffee shop hunched over their assorted devices right now while I’m writing this.

I have somewhat of a bad neck from an accident awhile ago, so I am fairly mindful about my neck and pain and strain. It’s no surprise that our ubiquitous technology affects our relation to the world, but less clear perhaps is how we are unwittingly training our own bodies around the devices that we use.

I’m interested more broadly in our physical relationship to our devices, and posture is such a habitual behavior that is well worth thinking about from time to time. For me, words like “hunch” or “slouch” just seem like the most appropriate verbs to characterise our physical postures in relation to our devices.

Amy Cuddy wrote this helpful piece at the New York Times, which is well worth a read if you can manage to do so in as ergonomically proper a way as you can manage: “Your iPhone Is Ruining Your Posture — and Your Mood

Posture says something about our emotional states, but as Cuddy points out: “Posture doesn’t just reflect our emotional states; it can also cause them” and some research suggests that our posture affects our cognitive capacity and even our memory. Also check out Erik Peper’s post on this for a more in-depth examination (“Posture affects memory recall and mood“). Cuddy has done some studies of her own, with some interesting suggestions that intuitively seem to make sense: “there appears to be a linear relationship between the size of your device and the extent to which it affects you: the smaller the device, the more you must contract your body to use it, and the more shrunken and inward your posture, the more submissive you are likely to become.” The takeaway is basically that perhaps being mindful of the fact that our smartphone induces slouching and bad posture might be a step towards avoiding it. Maybe. Hopefully.

Here’s an article with a few more fixes on the posture maladies we might be suffering with everyday: “Tech neck, texting thumb: Our bad tech habits leave us in pain. Here’s how to feel better.” And I know what you are thinking — yes of course there is an app for that.

The NHS Live Well website has a number of helpful tips on this: “Common posture mistakes and fixes.” After reading all of these things, I’ve made a concerted effort to start doing some stretches that really do help.

don't slouch

And for those of us so inclined, there are handy little devices to help us with that very problem, too. From Engadget: “A posture trainer works, if you want it to.”

New article: “Why The Simpsons are needed more than ever in the age of Donald Trump”

As a follow-up to last week’s visit from Harry Shearer to the University of Cambridge, Sarah Steele, Todd Gillespie and I have written a new article for The Conversation UK: “Why The Simpsons are needed more than ever in the age of Donald Trump”:

simpsons satire cambridge

In it we share some highlights from Harry Shearer’s talk on the importance of political satire (here’s a link to the video of the event) as well as some thoughts from Simpsons show runner Al Jean and what satire means at a time when reality often feels stranger than fiction. What is the place of satire in our current political and social climate?

Our timing for the article also happens to coincide with Donald Trump’s much-discussed visit to the UK this week.

Harry Shearer at the University of Cambridge – July 6th, 2018


This week Harry Shearer — voice actor for The Simpsons, including characters such as Mr. Burns, Waylon Smithers, Principal Skinner, Ned Flanders and many others — will be visiting the University of Cambridge, and the Intellectual Forum at Jesus College. 

I will be hosting what should be an excellent event with Harry and we will be taking questions from the audience. He will talk about the The Simpsons in the context of its use of political satire as well as a range of other topics. Also be sure to check out including his excellent work at Le Show radio program.

If you’d like to pose a question for Harry Shearer, we will also do our best to field some questions online. If you are on Twitter, tweet your questions using the hashtag: #SimpsonsQA

For up to date information, follow us on Twitter:

@tylershores

@IntellForum

If you’d like to tune in from afar, the livestream of the event is available at: https://www.youtube.com/c/JesusCollegeCambridge

Thoughts on talking about social media, in person

Thoughts on talking about social media, in person

As part of the series of workshops that Mark Carrigan and I have conducted at the Faculty of Education, we’ve been covering topics such as digital engagement, scholarship, networking, and impact — and how all of this relates to our day to day academic lives.

Having just wrapped up our series, I started reflecting on the whole premise of workshops in which we all meet at a certain place and time to talk about what we do online. There is something almost peculiar about talking about what we do online, in person. But why does it feel odd? Why not just post some slides online and be done with it? (As an introvert, the thought has crossed my mind multiple times over the years).

A long, long time ago I dabbled with having online office hours using something called AOL Instant Messenger. At the time, it was kind of a fun experiment and its benefit was certainly being able to be available to more students without the time and location constraints. In terms of results it was a mixed bag – some students loved the access, but in those early days of instant messaging etiquette things such as coherent spelling and managing the ebbs and flows of chat-mediated communication were still a work in progress.

Maybe someday we’ll have workshops about social media over social media to cover the topics that we covered during the past few weeks. I think of some reasons why it might work, and probably many more reasons why it might not work — but perhaps someday.

That being said, face to face engagement seems to be more conducive to engaging discussions in a way that online interactions don’t seem to easily foster. Sherry Turkle at MIT discussed this over the course of her book, Reclaiming Conversation. And debate still continues on whether we may or may notbe less likely to share and say what we really think when online, as opposed to how we communicate in person.

Speaking of conversation, I’ve spent time thinking about how social media can function as a kind of shared conversation, a type of conversation that isn’t bounded by those participants being in a particular space at a particular time. For example, the FERSA blog team was present to share some thoughts as we were discussing them as a group during one of the workshop sessions:

One of my — perhaps somewhat idiosyncratic — uses of social media is by using my tweets as additional information for people who want to further explore the things we discuss in person. This stems from my own personal habits: when I hear something during the course of a workshop and want to look it up or save it for later, I know that means temporarily shifting my focus online rather than to the discussion unfolding in front of me. I’ve started using that impulse to carry those Google searchable moments onto my own Twitter feed so that everyone who wants to can check in for themselves whenever they feel like it.

As someone who pays a lot of attention to digital distractions, I have some ambivalence about live-tweeting events. I think it has a lot of use and can open up a good conversation to a wider group. I live-tweet at events fairly often but not always, and am always mindful that this kind of multitasking means that my attention is drawn away from the thing happening in front of me. I like to sneak in such live tweets whenever there is a natural break in the action, but that being said, there are times when live-tweeting makes a great deal of sense, as well as times when it certainly does not.

Or am I wrong about some, or all of this? I’d be curious if anyone has thoughts to share on this.

 

How Do We Manage Digital Distractions During a PhD?

I’m incredibly interested in the push and pull of digital distractions that we encounter during virtually every waking hour of our everyday lives. It can be quite easy to fall into certain patterns of behaviors and social media habits, and this is very much by design (for example, this recent article from The Guardian: “Social media copies gambling methods ‘to create psychological cravings”). And once they become habits, they are much harder to see them for what they are — hopefully this post can be a reminder and a refresher to check what is and isn’t working for us.

Distractions are very much a part of life and can be perfectly fine and enjoyable in the right circumstances — but here are some tips and strategies on how to cope with digital distractions when they might feel a little too disruptive for our liking. With the right motivation we can certainly re-train our habits.

It’s hard to completely go into digital hermit mode. And FOMO — “fear of missing out”– can be a powerful impulse to cope with. Rather, I’m suggesting small tweaks to your daily routine.

1. Out of sight, out of mind. 

smart-phone-blank-screen-lying-wooden-white-table-55694172Do we really need to keep our devices always so nearby? There is some evidence that even the mere presence of our devices can remind us of potential distractions, even before they happen. Here’s one study to think about: “Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity

2. Batch your tasks. 

Multitasking — that is the switching of different tasks — can be horribly inefficient. Instead, start thinking strategically about how to batch your similar tasks. Like writing blog posts. Or having just one 30-minute period to tackle emails. The rest can wait till another session. Much worse for you and your productivity is having that Facebook tab and email tab open so that you are prey to every single notification that comes up. It’ll still be there when you’re ready for it. If you’re interested in some of the research, here’s a good one to check out.

3. Do a distractions audit. 

social-media-notification-icons-iphoneDoes just looking at the picture on the left, with those bright red, insistent red marks make you feel a pang of anxiety?

One tip I recommend is to simply think for a moment: what sorts of things do you find most distracting during the course of the day? Personally, I find social media notifications considerably harder to tune out than email notifications.

Screen Shot 2018-05-09 at 9.42.08 PMThis tip is a fancier way of saying something incredibly obvious — but try doing a quick and objective inventory of what notifications you really need on a daily basis. Most of the time those apps ask you to turn everything on, and it’s just so much easier to say yes sometimes. But those small decisions add up over time. If you need more convincing, here’s a helpful Wired article (“Turn off your push notifications. All of them“).

One quick and easy way to get a more objective account on the most time-consuming apps is a quick check of the battery via iOS.

Once you’ve had a look, you can then actually do something about it; here’s how to change those notifications on iOS, and notifications on Android. (As an added bonus: turning off all of those push notifications saves your battery, too)

4.. Some apps to help you focus more: 

Screen Shot 2018-05-09 at 9.45.36 PMFreedom: One of the apps that I use all of the time when writing and working — works on your computer, phone, tablet all at the same time (helps to minimize cheating so you don’t sneak peeks on another device during your focus sessions).

 

 

 

Screen Shot 2018-05-09 at 9.31.42 PM

WasteNoTime: A useful, free browser add-on that helps you limit time on websites of your choosing for however many minutes or hours per day/week you set it to.

 

 

Screen Shot 2018-05-09 at 9.32.55 PMRescueTime: Another helpful program that lets you take a real daily distraction audit. You can install it on your Internet browser or computer, and RescueTime will keep track of how much time you spend on a website, what percentage of your time on the computer is spent being “productive” or “unproductive” and other useful information (disclaimer: “productive” and “unproductive” can be subjective terms!).

Image result for moment appMoment: This is a newer app that can tell you how many times you check your phone a day, how many minutes or hours you spend on what apps. Useful but also make sure that checking your number of distractions doesn’t in itself become a distraction.

 

 

Screen Shot 2018-05-09 at 9.33.45 PMForest App: Much like a pomodoro timer, you plant a virtual tree at the start of your work session. But if you pick up your phone before that timer session has ended, your tree DIES. Using the Forest app can also have a positive impact in the non-digital world; you can earn credits that help to contribute towards planting trees through this non profit organization. 

 

 

5. Try a digital break every now and then.  

Have you recently been on a vacation away from the internet and social media, and if so, how did it feel? There can be an intensely liberating feeling from just not being beholden to our digital distractions from time to time. If you’re thinking about your own digital vacation, here is an interesting article from Alex Soojung-Kim Pang you might find helpful: “Rules for a Successful Digital Sabbath

We usually tend to sit a lot when we’re writing. I hate sitting for long periods of time and apparently science has backed me up on this — some research suggests that we probably should take breaks to revive our attention spans, especially during intense working and thinking sessions. 

Do you have other useful distraction strategies that work well? Or what about things that didn’t work for you? Let me know in the comments!

This post originally appeared on the Cambridge Faculty of Education Research Students' Association

Social media habits and routines

This post originally appeared on the Cambridge Culture, Politics and Global Justice blog. 

Over the past few weeks Mark Carrigan and I have been running a series of sessions on social media for academics at the Faculty of Education. One of the purposes of this series has been to try and develop a shared conversation amongst those in the Faculty who are interested in such topics: why to use social media in the first place; how to get the most out of social media; what social media practices mean for us as academics; and other related issues.

Screen Shot 2018-05-28 at 13.14.17

Mark did an excellent post in advance of our May 1st session, talking about how he integrates his social media use into his everyday practices — using social media for teaching, for writing, and for thinking.

I started thinking along related lines, in terms of what our social media use means to us on a day to day basis. For example, the average adult is spending around two and a half hours to almost three hours on social media per day by some estimates. Those figures really don’t feel terribly surprising. That is a lot of time on social media, either in dedicated blocks of time or interstitial moments that we manage to fill in between other tasks and our other non-social media things. One point that I took away from our session as well as the lively discussion was that it could be quite helpful to think more about our everyday routines; in this case, are our social media habits working for us? If not, why not?

As busy academics, many of us also worry about how much of a time suck social media can be on our seemingly already quite overburdened lives. For me, I find myself occasionally prone to bad (or perhaps more accurately, less helpful) social media habits and then become very mindful about wanting to fix them. Habits and routines are incredibly useful for our daily productive. Except of course, when they aren’t.

Not to mention social media apps are very, very good at making us want to use them and creating those kinds of habit loops:

Screen Shot 2018-05-28 at 13.14.31

Essentially, this formula breaks down to something like the following:

1) Cue = I am bored,

2) Routine = check Twitter, check Facebook, check email, repeat

3) Reward = sense of connection, sense of accomplishment getting rid of those notifications, positive reinforcement of getting likes!

There are a few quite useful apps that can help give you a distractions audit. A quicker and easier (but more approximate) way to get a more objective account on the most time-consuming apps is a quick check of the battery usage breakdown for iOS or for AndroidFor instance, I found myself checking social media out of sheer boredom more often than I would have liked (note: it was a lot). Therefore, I started to think about the kind of routine this was and what it meant for my day to day routine.

It’s not always easy to change those kinds of habits and routines that become so automatic. But I’ve found that taking even one initial moment to think about what and how you engage with social media can make a helpful difference. For me, time posting and engaging with others on social media felt purposeful, so I mentally have categories of social media use in mind whenever I pick up my phone:

  • Posting and engaging on both personal and professional accounts
  • Checking for news and/or information
  • When I’m bored and want to be distracted

I’m not anti-distraction by any means. I don’t even think it’s that realistic to try and do away with boredom and taking distraction breaks completely, but even the simple act of being aware of your different purposes is something I’ve found to be surprisingly liberating.

If you’d like to check out some of the things we touched upon, you can find a collection of links here.

Reading Onscreen and Understanding Everyday Digital Distraction

Thank you very much everyone for attending yesterday’s talk. As promised here is some helpful information that I wanted to share.

Of course distractions are very much a part of life and can be perfectly fine and enjoyable in the right circumstances — but here are some tips on how to cope with digital distractions when they might feel a little too intrusive for our liking.

1. When in doubt, print it out.

Some studies have shown that reading in print can help us focus and concentrate better; I always feel like I think better on paper than on a screen. From The Guardian: “Why reading and writing on paper can be better for your brain” 

2. Out of sight, out of mind. 

Do we really need to keep our devices always so nearby? There is some evidence that even the mere presence of our devices can remind us of potential distractions, even before they happen. From Harvard Medical School: ” Keeping your smartphone nearby may not be so smart.”

3. Try a digital break every now and then.  

Have you recently been on a vacation away from the internet and social media, and if so, how did it feel? There can be an intensely liberating feeling from just not being beholden to our digital distractions from time to time. From Alex Soojung-Kim Pang: “Rules for a Successful Digital Sabbath

4. Some apps to help you focus more: 

Freedom: One of the apps that I use all of the time when writing and working — works on your computer, phone, tablet all at the same time (helps to minimize cheating).


WasteNoTime:
A useful, free browser add-on that helps you limit time on websites of your choosing for however many minutes or hours per day/week you set it to.

RescueTime: Another helpful program that lets you take a real daily distraction audit. You can install it on your Internet browser or computer, and RescueTime will keep track of how much time you spend on a website, what percentage of your time on the computer is spent being “productive” or “unproductive” and other useful information (disclaimer: “productive” and “unproductive” can be subjective terms!).

Moment: This is a newer app that can tell you how many times you check your phone a day, how many minutes or hours you spend on what apps. Useful but also make sure that checking your number of distractions doesn’t in itself become a distraction.

 

5. Mindfulness could be a longer term solution for our digital distractions. 

For a longer term solution, I favor a little bit more mindfulness in our daily habits and thinking. Here is an interesting study from the University of California, Santa Barbara on how two weeks of mindfulness training might improve attention spans and memory. From The Atlantic: “Study – Meditation Improves Memory, Attention.”

Cambridge Science Festival 2018: Reading onscreen and understanding everyday digital distraction

I’ll be speaking about reading and digital distraction on March 24th at the 2018 Cambridge Science Festival. Come join if you can!

Eventbrite - Reading Onscreen and Understanding Everyday Digital Distraction

What is your experience reading on screens like? How often do you find yourself distracted by email, text, social media, and app notifications competing for your attention? I’ll be talking about some research on our attention spans and digital distractions as well as some interactive elements for what should hopefully be an interesting talk!

For more information check out the event list at: https://www.sciencefestival.cam.ac.uk/events/reading-onscreen-and-understanding-everyday-digital-distraction

The event is kindly being hosted at the Anglia Ruskin Cambridge campus.

everyday digital distraction

What can we learn from LEGO?

What can we learn from LEGO? I got to be on the Part-Time Genius podcast with Will Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur, and we talked about LEGO, philosophy, and other things. They also quizzed me on unusual scholarships that don’t sound like a real thing, but sometimes are. It was fun!

For a little more about LEGO and Philosophy, check out my recent post on the book here.

Mangesh and Will are the creators of my all-time favorite trivia source, Mental Floss, and the Part-Time Genius podcast is their latest creation, comprising an eclectic mix of questions and zany topics. You can check out their podcast on Twitter and Facebook and iTunes.

You can listen to the podcast episode here!

Just for fun, here’s their Authors@Google talk on Mental Floss in Mountain View, California from back when we were all a little bit younger:

LEGO and Philosophy

My new book chapter in LEGO and Philosophy is out! It’s the latest book in the Blackwell Philosophy and Popular Culture series.

This was a very fun one to work on. The LEGO and Philosophy book covers a number of thought-provoking topics — from LEGO and creativity, questions of gender and race in LEGO minifigures, Heidegger, metaphysics, and many others.

You can check out the book’s full table of contents on the Wiley website here.

In my chapter, “Building Blocks of Thought: LEGO and the Philosophy of Play” I discuss a number of ideas through LEGO, as well as some thoughts on LEGO itself.

LEGO, with its ethos of building and rebuilding, in many ways can be a helpful analogy for how philosophical thinking can lead us toward new connections between our thoughts and ideas. In that way, LEGO and philosophy invite us to question the nature of play — as well as what philosophy means to us in an everyday context. In the chapter I include a reminder that play and seriousness in philosophy needn’t be mutually exclusive. In fact, it can be more helpful to think of philosophy as “serious play.”

In other LEGO news, after a long search, the University of Cambridge has finally found its LEGO Professor! (via BBC: “Lego professor: Cambridge University hires ‘professor of play‘). You can even follow Professor Ramchandani on Twitter for his updates.

And here’s a good article in Philosophy Now, about the approach of using popular culture and philosophy: “Pop Culture ‘and Philosophy’ Books” by John Shelton Lawrence.