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.