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Tuning Out – The Social Politics of Distraction

 In “Ear Plugs to Lasers: The Science of Concentration,” John Tierney asks  “is there any realistic refuge anymore from the Age of Distraction” and quotes author Winifred Gallagher as advising ear plugs, as one protection from distractions.

   But that’s the wrong question to be asking – and ultimately a counterproductive response – as we search for ways to protect our focus in the digital age.

    By arming ourselves with ear plugs, iPods and noise-cancelling headphones (yes, people wear these at work now), we’re essentially creating an arms race of self-defense systems against the noise and interruptions of others. With our gadgets, we’re erecting fiefdoms of quiet that we scramble to make impenetrable against the incursions of others.

     There are two chilling implications of this trend. First, by doing so, we are effectively giving up on notions of mutual respect for shared public spaces. The onus is now on you to create your own bubble of focus, rather than on another to respect your right to quiet.  I sense that this is why, in the libraries where I write and research, so many people increasingly chat on their cell phones, and are angry when a librarian or fellow patron asks them to disconnect. There is no sense of mutual responsibility for maintaining a collective space.

    Second, when we barricade ourselves so eagerly against distractions, we’re losing opportunities for the serendipitous encounters that are at the heart of public life, especially in cities. In order to relate to others, we need to have a “disposition to be vulnerable to others,” says UCLA linguistic anthropologist and MacArthur fellow Elinor Ochs. When we are eternally plugged in and connected elsewhere – even at home, we lose our willingness to take a chance on interacting with others.

     There are times to tune out the world, of course, but a much better way to pushback on our climate of distraction is to find ways to respect one another’s right to focus, as well as to strengthen our own skills of attention. No ear plugs can do that.

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One Comment

  1. May 18, 200911:00 am

    Oh yes! Maggie I totally agree! The tuning out from those with whom we have momentary and chance encounters is one of the great losses of our modern times. The conversations with passers-by and acquaintances and neighbors and store clerks – these are all part of the great tapestry of the human experience. To lose it all to the headphones is a great loss for one and all. I do feel there will be a pendulum swing the other way when it is realized how big this loss actually is.

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