Reprogramming Digital Distraction

I recently moderated a UX Book Club meeting in San Francisco where we discussed Douglas Rushkoff’s latest book, Program or Be Programmed. The basic premise of the book is that technology has biases that reinforce certain behaviors over others. To help correct for these biases, he proposes ten commands or principles to live by when we engage with digital media. All ten commands are worthy of discussion, but two of them resonated with me as they relate to digital distraction: 1) don’t always be on, and 2) program or be programmed.

Don’t Always Be On

Humans operate in continuous time, where time is always passing for us. In the first chapter of Program or Be Programmed, Rushkoff discusses why computer systems are biased away from continuous time and towards asynchronsity. Instead of operating in time, they operate from one human decision to the next. Because computer code is biased away from continuous time, so too are the programs built on it, and the human behaviors those programs encourage.

As digital media becomes increasingly integrated with our lives, we are more likely to adopt an “always on” approach to media. We’re constantly trying to keep up with a never-ending flow of messages, updates and demands—so much so that it’s starting to become an addiction. It changes our ability to engage with the world around us and leaves us frazzled and exhausted on a regular basis. This forms the basis of his first principle: don’t always be on.

Turning Off

Digital media consumption is largely a choice. We can choose to get things done or we can choose to check our email, look at our phone and use Facebook. But as our digital services become more ubiquitous, consumption becomes less about choice and more about avoiding distractions.

As someone who’s easily distracted, I try to avoid distractions wherever possible. I check my email only a few times a day; I turn my phone over on my desk so I’m not distracted by new notifications, and I recently edited a system file that blocks Facebook on my computer. Each of these simple tricks helps me to avoid distraction and focus on getting things done.

The Google+ Juggernaut

Sometimes avoiding distraction is more difficult. For example, when services we regularly use are constantly nagging to show us something. This is the case with Google’s latest project, Google+. I’m specifically referring to the Google+ bar, which not only appears at the top of Google+ but also most other Google products.

The most noticeable feature of the Google+ bar is the well designed notification menu, activated by selecting the notification count—clearly highlighted in red—on the right side of the bar. Similar in concept to Facebook notifications, Google+ notifies you when someone adds you to a circle, comments on one of your posts or comments after you on a post that you’ve previously commented on.

Google+ bar with highlighted notifications

Including the Google+ bar at the top of most Google products is an excellent product strategy as it wraps sharing, notifications and links to other popular Google products in a tidy package; it’s also a constant distraction. Like many others, I use Google services all day long: Search, Maps, Reader, Docs and others. So I was being distracted by notifications all day long.

Avoiding the distraction of Google+ notifications is not a simple choice. There is no way to disable notifications, and I couldn’t avoid the notifications from Google+ unless I didn’t use Google products. I realize there are many alternatives to Google products, but as a Google user for over ten years, it’s difficult for me to imagine life without them. How then was I to use Google products without the constant distraction of these notifications? The answer lies in the thesis of Rushkoff’s book.

Program or Be Programmed

In the final chapter of his book, Rushkoff says that because digital technology is programmed, it’s biased towards those with the ability to program: “in the digital age, we must learn how to make the software, or risk becoming the software.” With this, he describes the final and most important principle: program or be programmed.

He goes on to describe the consequences for those who don’t have a basic understanding of how digital technology works:

The less involved and aware we are of the way our technologies are programmed and program themselves, the more narrow our choices will become; the less we will be able to envision alternatives to the pathways described by our programs; and the more our lives and experiences will be dictated by their biases.

Applying this idea to the internet, those who understand how the web works will be able to envision and create alternatives to the sites and applications that we use everyday. Many of us realize this, but very few of us are empowered by it. We leave the creation of software to people who are smart enough or skilled enough to build it. What we don’t realize is that you don’t need a computer science degree to change the way the web works. You barely even need to read a book. The tools for creating and altering the web are readily available and easy to learn.

Restyling Google+ Notifications

One of the most simple tools for altering the web are user styles. These allow anyone to change way their browser displays websites by using Cascading Style Sheets, a language used to describe the presentation of web pages. All that’s required to create user styles is a basic understanding of HTML and CSS. User style configuration used to be buried within browser preferences, but now there are browser extensions for most major browsers. Stylish is an extension that’s available for both Firefox and Chrome. A similar extension is available for Safari called User CSS.

No matter what browser you’re using, you’ll need to create a user style for Google+ (be sure to include both http:// and https:// URLs) and include the following CSS rule. Yes, just one rule.

div#gbg span#gbi1a { background: none !important; }

If you did everything correctly, your Google+ bar should now be relatively distraction free. The functionality of the notification menu is unchanged. You can still see the number of notifications; it just won’t be nagging you every time you use a Google product. All it took was a little HTML and CSS knowledge.

Google+ bar with notification highlight removed

We’re Just Getting Warmed Up

Managing digital distraction is just one of the many aspects of living with digital media. If we don’t understand the way digital media is created and programmed, our lives will be increasingly dictated by it. As with Google+ notifications, the choice of how we experience digital media will be made for us by the designers and engineers that created it.

As digital technology becomes further integrated with our lives, we must start to learn the basics of how programs work or we’ll be at the mercy of those who do the programming. This doesn’t mean that we need to understand exactly how programs work, but we need to understand the fundamentals of digital media if we want to regain control of our experiences with it. Often it only requires a little bit of knowledge and inclination. As the previous example shows, it may only require a single CSS rule. With powerful browser extensions like Stylish and the collections of user styles that are now available, anyone can can take more control over their experience.

Thanks to Kevin Cheng and Michael Burkett for their feedback on my draft.


  1. Great post. Avoiding distraction is more of a lifestyle choice than a few one-off changes. The best way to develop this habit is to regularly be meta-cognitive of your own activity. “What am I doing?”, “Why?”, and “Is that good?”, are three questions that we don’t ask ourselves enough.

  2. This is an excellent post, Joshua. I’m someone who works really hard to avoid distractions in order to get things done. I don’t hang around Twitter or social networks all day, I schedule email checks, I turn things off for focus time. I have a Bagcheck bag devoted to this.

    I do the same thing with regard to programming rather being programmed, whether it’s with the digital or physical objects I use. It’s just hacking, I guess. Unless the products you purchase are customized to you, there will always be the possibility that some aspect will serve another’s agenda over your own, and social software is a terrific example, with regard to notifications. Hacking around those distractions, is really a power-user activity, however. Most people don’t want to bother, I would think, and suffer the consequences.

    Just picked up the Rushkoff ebook based on this post. :)

  3. Good timing on this post, as I just finished Rushkoff’s previous book, Life Inc., today. It also has a lot of implications for UX designers and I highly recommend it.

    I’m bummed that I’m missing the book club meetings, by the way. You’ve been reading some great stuff! Thanks for the post.

  4. Josh, good piece. What do you think of RescueTime? I find it amazing for distractions, not least because it logs ever second of my time on the machines, so I know precisely where my focus is going. If you’re not familiar with it, you can try it free. My referral link will let you try FocusTime, too, its functionality that closes down any program/app/site you want it to for exactly the number of minutes or hours you choose, so you can get stuff done. (No, I’m not connected with the company, lol, other than as a really happy customer.)

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