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Attention, please ? ? ?

Dachi Gubadze

How the internet is destroying our ability to pay attention and what we can do about it right this minute.

Created by humans for humans, the Internet was designed to make us more connected, more collaborative, and more efficient. Why, then, does it so often feel like a massive attention black hole?

Visual mess, constant stress and total lack of control over how we spend a major portion of our conscious lives are contributing to a wave of toxic procrastination. Why is online life so fragmented and frustrating? Why do we so often feel overwhelmed and, at the same time, underwhelmed?

Because we know the internet should be better. And in so many ways, it could be better. Right now.

Here’s how.

First, we need to get real and acknowledge where we’re at. For example, it’s no use having tools to collaborate if we’re losing the ability to give anyone or anything our full attention. Productivity, meanwhile, is an illusion when always-on means we can never switch off. Seriously, if we carry on this way, there is a real danger that all this connection will leave us feeling more disconnected than ever.

Reclaiming online space

We created Stack in an attempt to reclaim online space and help people reorder their digital lives. It's a spatial browser that enables you to reduce digital clutter and reorganize your regular web environment. It aims to re-personalize the internet and make it human-scaled.

Stack came out of what a growing community of creators and digital citizens see as an urgent need to reset the relationship we all have with the internet and create healthier, more sustainable online lifestyles.

More than a browser, Stack represents an attitude shift. It is expressed through a design philosophy that champions focus as part of meaningful collaboration and personal care as a path to greater productivity.

Mindful Online Living

Just as we can become more attentive, more conscious, and more consequent in our offline lives, we also have the power to change our online behaviors and outcomes for the better.

At Stack, we refer to this as ‘mindful online living’. We think it’s more realistic and more sustainable than the so-called ‘digital detox’. While digital detoxing is kind of like a vacation—a welcome break, perhaps, but then you have to return to all the stress—mindful online living is a strategy for preventing the pressure from building up in the first place.

It isn’t, repeat isn’t, about doing less or removing oneself from projects. Far from cutting yourself off from your digital activities and networks, mindful online living enables you to become more present and more attentive—because it gives you a level of control that most of us are not used to in our busy online lifestyles.

Attention! Attention!

At Stack, we passionately believe your attention is the key to everything. Our ability to give our attention to someone or something creates the conditions for relationship-building, solving problems, and any kind of creativity, especially where collaboration is important.

Yet our attention is almost constantly under attack when we’re online. Someone always wants a piece of it. Each request may be legitimate—welcome even—but because the conventional web environment makes it very difficult to mute, prioritize or take control of how these different inputs and voices reach us.

Yes, we can mute conversations. We can block people. We can erase our profiles. But these are drastic steps. They miss the point.

Likewise, so much talk about ‘digital detox’ seems to come with moral baggage: the implication is that if only we could return to some pre-digital pre-lapsian state of nature our lives would be happier. Again, this misses the point. We don’t want to reject digital society: we just wish it was less chaotic, less draining, less stressful, and less attention-sucking. We wish it would suck less.

An online environment that sucks less?

Why is online living so fractured, distracting, disorienting, stressful, and frequently unsatisfactory?

Let’s face it, we humans are flawed. We make bad decisions. We allow ourselves to get sucked in and distracted by the wrong things. We stray from the path of righteousness. All that may be true, yet our environment also plays a part.

When web browsers came into existence the web was a very different place from what it has become. Online lives were simply because we weren’t doing very much online.

But while our online lives—and the applications we use—have become more complex and intrinsic to us, the environment through which we access it all has stayed largely as it was.

In the chaos of the average person’s overloaded browser, everything is competing for attention. All the time. No wonder we’re stressed.

Tackling the crisis of attention

The good news is that our ability to pay attention and be present is something that as humans we all possess, and when we use it the result is increased happiness, lower stress, and more fulfilled lives.

In fact, behaviors associated with mindful online living are closely tied to things that are just, y’know, good for everyone. Things like less burnout, more ability to concentrate, and stronger professional and personal relationships with each other.

Again, it is *NOT* about withdrawing from the world (digital or otherwise). Instead, it’s about finding ways to engage that play to our natural ability to focus, stay connected, and pay attention. Because, given the right conditions, we can.

Designing for multitaskers

When we set out to create a new browser we decided to acknowledge that multiple impulses and needs drive almost everything people do, on- and off-line. How can we enable people to keep those literal and metaphorical windows open while at the same time reducing the chaos?

Decluttering the browser isn’t about closing things down. It’s about embracing the different things that matter to us as individuals and communities and assigning a place to each item, each action, every impulse, every stream.

If everything is competing for attention, the danger is that we attend to nothing. If everything has a place, and that place is part of a well-ordered environment, we can attend to different things at different times, and in doing so we can attend to more.

Stack features such as vertical as well as horizontal ‘stacks’ allow you to arrange your digital workspace to accommodate different kinds of multitasking and various levels of collaboration. This means you can effectively arrange your virtual workspace in the same way that an architect or interior designer would arrange physical spaces.

Sometimes we need versatility. Sometimes we really don’t. In Stack, you can set parameters, make choices, and control them. Within a project there are times when seeing the horizon is crucial, and times when you or your closest partners need to retreat into the cave. Again, there are different levels of collaboration and multiple types of multitasking, and we need environments that allow for the range and richness of these experiences.

We need a browser that can support the multiplicity of uses—and users— intuitively, all the time. We believe that in such an environment, online living can and will become more mindful, and the outcome of this will be felt by everyone—not just Stack users but Stack users’ networks, collaborators, and end-users.

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