We live in a unique age of distraction? Hmm, maybe not

In a wonderful post at Mind Hacks, Vaughn, writing on "The myth of the concentration oasis" makes an argument that rather challenges my resistance to it:

The 'modern technology is hurting our brain' argument is widespread but it seems so short-sighted. It's based on the idea that before digital communication technology came along, people spent their time focusing on single tasks for hours on end and were rarely distracted.

The trouble is, it's plainly rubbish, and you just have to spend time with some low tech communities to see this is the case.

He's been doing just that -- spending time in low-tech communities -- as he does a psychiatric stint (as doctor, not patient!) in Medellin, Columbia, and draws on his observations there to note how utterly, completely, constantly distracting pre-electronic life is. He argues the vision of a distraction-free environment we have now lost is a delusion; we have always been constantly distracted.

This goes against my grain and prejudices in many ways, but he has a point:. Today's plethora of distractions make me miss a) a couple periods in my life when I COULD have long periods of distraction-free time (in college, and when I shunned all other work (at considerable financial penalty!) while writing my books) and b) a different historical period, that probably exists mainly in my head, when people got to have such long periods of quiet reading and writing regularly.

Truth is, such periods have probably been available only to a very lucky few -- scholars, monks, writers, composers -- who could have them only because some combination of good fortune and raw luck and social inequity gave them such quiet and isolation while others supported them either financially or logisitcally.

Exceptions abound, doubtless. But I suspect Vaughn's right when he asserts that quiet and a lack of distraction has always been rare.

Definitely read the whole thing; like all his posts, it runs no danger of being too long, no matter its length. And for a counter (and his take-off point), check out the Wired interview with Maggie Jackson, author of "Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age." Jackson also has a blog post making her argument at the Times.

Photo: Globosapiens.net

More like this

Interesting. I agree with the basic point (which I suppose is another way of saying it reinforces my own biases).

Since being one of two people involved in a sizable workload/work-life balance study at the multinational IT company that employed us, I've not had much sympathy for two common assertions - "There are too many demands on my time; I can't ever spend more than 10 minutes of uninterrupted time on anything" ... and the related but distinct "I'm out of control; my life is run by others and I can't change that."

I strongly believe that there are two realities to be grasped, without which you'll spiral downwards - first, if you're looking for a silver bullet, forget it - there isn't one; and second, we always have ways to incrementally improve our situations. It requires thought and ongoing focus, and the results may not be as good as we'd like.

But if we don't pick away at it, the pressures will only get worse.

The role of technology? It doesn't cause any of these issues. Technology has certainly raised the bar (I can recall the extensive use of 3-part memos - no replying within an hour there!). But many users have been there own worst enemies.

I can recall speaking with a senior manager after our study was published and reviewed with various audiences. He was bemoaning that his last vacation was ruined by having to constantly check and respond to his e-mail. When asked who demanded that he do that, he was stuck for an answer. He realized that he was largely responsible for creating the expectation of near-instant response on weekends, during vacations ... anytime.

The whole area is an interesting lesson in the reality that we often get too caught up in the technology and effectively end up not exercising control where we can.

Thought experiment - ask a busy employee to find 3 or 4 hours this week to review something for you. The answer will probably be that there's just no chance; maybe by 3 weeks next Tuesday but no sooner. No way.

Now - say that you have $1000 tax-free for them if they can make time for the task by the end of the week. What's the reaction now?

In other words, issues such as devoting time to a single task relate mostly to the individual's sense of priorities.

By Scott Belyea (not verified) on 13 Feb 2009 #permalink

Entirely by coincidence (but a happy one) I will soon be running an interview I did with Maggie Jackson about her book on Neuronarrative. This topic really intrigues me, and Vaughn's post is refreshing in that it opens another window from which to examine the distraction-culture argument. I think he has a point, but I also think that not all distractions are created equal. I tried to drill down in the interview, re:what is it about electronic distractions that makes this period in our modern Western history different than those more similar to what Vaughn describes, or altogether pre-modern ones? I'll let you know when the interview hits.

(btw, I just put up an interview I did with J .D. Trout on The Empathy Gap that you might enjoy -- let me know what you think.)

best -