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MARCH 21, 2012

Everything takes time. Natural processes — like tectonic movement and its homo sapiens analogue, gestation — take a certain amount of time, no more and no less. For example, a major earthquake splits the Hayward Fault open every 140 years, on average. No use worrying: Just keep calm and carry on.

We can alter natural processes with engineering processes, chemicals and special FX and time-lapse photography, but left undisturbed, these events occur of themselves, with historically evolved duration. These are the situations in which Gaia is simply going through the motions.

Then there are those simple volitional human acts which are done routinely, and which over time create a certain time-lapse average. Blinking is so automatic that we almost never notice that it takes us 300 to 400 milliseconds to do it. Walking directly to class on the same route will, on average, take the same amount of time. Usually you can gauge how this will affect your attendance, unless you live at Clark Kerr, in which case you must resign yourself to being late to class no matter when you leave your dorm. And to every roommate’s chagrin, people tend to develop a usual bathroom camping time, which is both habitual and biological. There is even a substantial bell curve in regards to human reaction time, which explains why there are about eight times as many Minor League teams as there are Major League ones.

Of course, none of these slinking, blinking, digesting and swinging times are fixed, immutable, like how many hours I spend on the couch per day (four). The Minister of Silly Walks surely never left his house at the same time each day to walk to work. Coquettes the world over have learned how to melt the steel edifices of men with eyes batted at 100 milliseconds flat.

To those who lament their extended stays on the Porcelain Throne, I recommend the teachings of Takeru Kobayashi; to those who were benchwarmers on a teeball team, I suggest careful study of Ichiro Suzuki. In nearly every human activity, there are methods of improving speed, finesse and prowess, ways of going “Beast Mode” — Shaolin training with tranquil Chinese monks, “scientific” speed reading,” the Suzuki violin training method, underground bunker-based Soviet chess instruction. Some would even include Tae-Bo. What these people and programs have figured out is that in regards to pretty much everything we can do as people, there is only one inexhaustible resource, one action that takes as much or as little time as we make it or let it take: attention.

The common metaphor used for attention is that of money: Attention is paid, spent or wasted. It doesn’t take a cue from Warren Buffett or his blond bulldog Suze Orman to understand that spending a lot on small purchases results in shallow satisfaction and short-term achievement. Successful investing is based on selective allotment of resources, which is based on calculation of future payoffs. Worthy projects take a lot of attention, like reading a novel, coding an elaborate program or writing a script or poem. Which gets me wondering: How is our attention invested today? I have a hunch that the Internet by its nature makes throwing your attention about willy-nilly as easy as tossing bread crumbs to bizarre ducks.

Except for emergency room doctors, special forces soldiers and the guy from Man on Wire, no one pays 100 percent attention at work. Whole comic strips and Steve Carrell’s career have been perpetuated by the comedic reality that at work, daydreaming and faking activity are stock-in-trade. But with most well-paying American jobs being performed at computers linked to the Internet, absentmindedness is easier than ever.

Some employers now require new hires to sign an affidavit swearing “I will not use social media,” specifically citing its damaging impacts on productivity. Berkeley students: Need I explain this point any further?

It’s one thing to be doodling, wistfully pondering your trip to Aruba or staring off into space at your desk. It’s another thing to be vacantly looking at pictures of your friends on Facebook while you’re supposed to be working. First of all, this computer activity may be logged by your employer, so unlike the doodle, which can be quickly covered by notes and later erased, the Facebook time sticks around. Secondly, it’s far too easy to access Facebook. Two clicks and 16 keystrokes is all it takes. Third, because Facebook use only requires half of one’s attention, it’s more difficult for the zoned-out Facebooker to notice that he’s wasting time, because it kind of feels like you’re still doing something. I’m focusing on Facebook here, since it’s ubiquitous, but this applies to, like, every site.

Like money, attention is easily spent on the wrong things. Case in point: the undergrads I’ve known who have asked their friends to change their Facebook passwords to something unknown so that they can’t waste any more of their time on the site. It’s as if a recurrent gambler turned his finances over to his wife’s care.

I don’t mean to proselytize against Facebook itself. Not yet, anyway. But there are appropriate times for its use and reasonable evidence of its abuse. Versus the sustained attention required for work, the Internet’s recreational function, and specifically Facebook, is dominant. So to the high-achieving denizens of Cal, I say: Spend your attention wisely.

Contact Anthony DeMaria at 


MARCH 21, 2012