New! Distraction Podcast Interview with Host Ned Hallowell Airs!

New York Times and “Hooked on Gadgets”

Good news – our collective public discussions about technology may be maturing. I see evidence every day that we’re beginning to have nuanced, balanced discussions on distraction, overload and hyper-connectivity. Exhibit A: see the article in today’s NY Times, “Hooked on Gadgets and Paying a Mental Price.”

As Carolyn Marvin wrote in her classic book When Old Technologies Were New, public conversations around new technologies are first dominated by the engineers and marketers who brought these inventions into being. In other words, the geeks rule. This occurred in the age of the telephone and light bulb, and it’s been true in recent decades. That’s one reason why I was determined in the 1990s to begin to write about the social impact of technology on humanity. Non-technologists deserve a place at the table as we shape our relationship with the Machine. I’m not a Luddite simply if I’m skeptical about technology.

To Matt Richtel’s good article, I’d add a couple of points. First, in different eras in history, societies prize specific types of attention. In the Industrial Age, people began to venerate rigid, unbending focus. “Pay attention” became the mantra, because humans needed to adapt to bureaucratic and mechanized ways of living and working in schools, offices and even at home. The life of the farmer or craftsman – with free-flowing schedules and human-centric rhythms – was receding. Instead, people lived to the pace of the clock, the bell and the machine.

Recently, the pendulum has swung the other way. We have been worshipping split-focus, multitasking and other time-splicing. We’ve been trying to supercede the fetters of both biology (sleep, rest) and the clock (agenda, schedules) by multitasking – by layering time. And so we’ve deluded ourselves into believing that splitting our focus – distraction – is the new ticket to efficiency.

Can we discover the middle ground? We need to multitask, skim and split our focus in order to deal with the oceans of possibility at our fingertips via the web. We also need rigid focus – aka concentration – in order to go deeply in problem-solving and relations. But let’s start thinking of these various types of attention as options, as arrows in our quiver, rather than as zero-sum, winning-or-losing cognitive styles.

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One Comment

  1. Feb 6, 20112:39 pm

    Two summers ago, I experienced after many years, a delighful timeout I had not had since I was a child…7 or 8.
    It was so simple. I watched the tide come in.
    Timing the event at precisely the moment of low tide, I then sat on a rock at the water’s edge, and let the waves lap slowly and gradually over my feet.
    The whole thing took about a half hour.
    I felt the warmth of sun, heard seabirds cry, smelled a salty aroma – and focused on one thing: the slow shifting of a whole ocean, and the time it took to do it.

    There was a cell phone in my pocket – turned silent…no power on earth would have urged me to take a call at that time. I was re-living a simple magic. I was remembering how and why it was so important – to be able to focus that way.

    That we have techological devices that enable us to perform time-spliced miracles is not, I think, the issue.
    That they are powerful addictions, with haunting siren calls bidding us to disengage from the moment…is our human failing.
    They just sit there and do nothing, wallowing in their impotence, without our engagement.
    That engagement can feel like the alcoholic’s reach for a bottle – or a toddler’s tentative overture toward an open candle flame.
    A hollowed out soul is a mighty powerful vaccum to fill.

    Perhaps it is after all, just a better balance that is required to properly align the activity of our lives. What is it that has commanded us to take such leave of connection to reality, in order to participate in virtual illusion? (foolish chances, dangerous choices, opportunity for truly knowing, feeling and understanding the mood of the moment…cast aside for a finger-twitching reflexed “communication.”)

    I always thought it odd, while in high school, that technical and media studies were referred to as “Communications”…as if, somehow, that was the only way to do it, or do it better.

    ….as if we have become immersed in a strange compulsion to make our intimacies public…as if it is only that way we feel we can truly become visible, or known, or completed.

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