Zen and the Art of the Slow Web

#09 How to take a (cognitive) load off

Happy Wednesday!

This article is about moderating our relationship to time and tech.

Zen and the Art of the Slow Web

Reading time: 3 minutes

"One might almost say that truth itself depends on the tempo, the patience and perseverance of lingering with the particular." - Theodor Adorno

Your eyeballs have been captured and your attention seized.

Human psychological vulnerabilities are being exploited by technology’s God-like powers to hook us to our screens - our need for social validation, or our lack of self-control, to name a few.

We think we’re the user, but we’re not. We’re the product. And we’re being fed fast food-like content to satisfy our basest intellectual palettes.

But there’s an alternative to this techno-diet plaguing our restless, digitally caffeinated minds. 

Jack Cheng calls it the “Slow Web.”

It’s a way to set limits on what we consume, while continuing to travel the increasingly frenetic information superhighway of the Fast Web.

What is The Fast Web?

It’s the ringing, blinking, buzzing web. The checking-your-phone-when-you’re-taking-a-dump web. It’s addictive and isolating. It's instantly gratifying. It’s the world of 'keep up or get lost'. The spy in your pocket, the tracker by your bedside. It's the 'click me, like me, troll me' web. It’s information overload. It’s 'mindlessly scrolling until you lose track of time'. In short: it's a world out of balance web. 

It’s that overbearing friend who constantly demands your attention, never shuts up, and can’t bear to be without you. The relationship you endure with your dealer so you're kept in constant supply.  

That’s the Fast Web.

What's The Slow Web?

The Slow Web is a set of small behavioural changes that can have a big impact on wellbeing. It’s a philosophy that gives you agency over how you interact with the web. By putting humans, not technology, first, the Slow Web limits tech's monopoly on your attention. 

  1. It promotes rhythm over randomness. 

    This rhythm, amidst the randomness of the Fast Web, is a strategy to tame endless distractions. Instead of obliging some app, by checking it the instant it bothers you, there are apps which batch all of your notifications to once per day.  It helps create good habits and a calmer state of mind. 

  2. The Slow Web is also an expression of moderation over excess.

    Free tools help you self-regulate and block distractions to shape your online experiences positively. This indicates having good mental hygiene. 

  3. While the Fast Web overwhelms you with information, the Slow Web nourishes.  

    Some Slow Web products allow you to archive articles to read later.  In doing so, they prune superfluous content from the original webpage - banner ads, menus and the like. When you've time to read, it presents a simple, calm and less distractible reading experience. 

  4. Where the Fast Web operates in real time, the Slow Web is built around timeliness.

    Instead of delivering breaking news and updates to you in an instant, no matter how trivial, all of the tools mentioned above, offer a timely response. This allows alerts to happen as you choose them to.

The Slow Web takes the cognitive load off you, instead of weighing you down. It’s an exercise in patience and in being deliberate. It’s an additive process, while being respectful of your time. It’s thoughtful and transparent.

It’s the patient partner, who has your back at all times - supporting you, calming you, keeping you engaged and productive. 

That’s the Slow Web. 

In conclusion

Since writing his piece on the Slow Web eight years ago, Cheng "no longer believe[s] that anything this complex and systemic can be solved by a set of user-experience practices alone."

He's right. But to use technology on our own terms, not the system’s, is a worthwhile exercise for all of the reasons I’ve mentioned above.

Nobody said it was easy. It’s not. It’s really, really hard. 

We’re like magpies being incessantly drawn toward the shiniest, most irresistible sequins. While there will always be tools to help you use technology better, in my experience, doing so requires a gargantuan effort and perseverance.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating abandoning the Fast Web entirely. When traveling the information superhighway, while you’ll mostly need to brake, there will always be be a call for urgent emails, instant notifications and, of course, a limitless supply of cat videos.

But at least, by adopting the Slow Web philosophy, it reveals, hidden within these eyeball-capturing, attention-seizing systems, more opportunities to brake than accelerate.

Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed my shortest piece to date!

Thanks also to Tom Carlisle for his editing expertise.

Next week I’ll be writing about the power and impact of social media’s endless use of numbers to entice users onto their platforms.

Until then, have a great week.