Attention Returns to Distraction

A couple of weeks ago I posted briefly on (one of the many responses to) Nicholas Carr’s article in the current Atlantic Monthly.

Now I am reading another article on the topic. Bryan Appleyard in the Sunday Times refers to various recent books and articles about why the “Google generation isn’t as smart as it thinks”. One of his referents is Carr’s article and he refers also to a book by Mark Bauerlein with a similar thesis, but his main emphasis is more on the problems of distraction identified by David Meyer and Maggie Jackson rather than the habits of mind.

There are actually two main concerns being expressed.

Habitual web use shortens attention span to the extent that we lose the capacity for extended reading and contemplation.(Carr, Bauerlein)

The web is a source of distraction which forces us into unproductive multi-tasking.(Meyer, Jackson)

A third complaint that is sometimes raised is that reliance on search engines reduces the exercise and appreciation of memory.

<distraction>So there are actually three (3) main streams of thought here, and given enough time in a comfy chair,  I might be prepared to come up with a fourth – if it was demanded by the Spanish Inquisition.</distraction>

Carr’s thesis is that regular Web use shortens attention span and leads to a loss of the capacity for extended reading, but Naughton and others argue that the reasons and responsibility for any such loss lie elsewhere. Indeed personally I often read long articles on-line and believe that the barriers to on-line reading are both exaggerated and declining. (It is not really that uncomfortable these days, and with each improvement in devices is becoming less so.) I suspect that the habit of skimming is just as common when reading magazines and newspapers as it is on the web and that the web is just being used as an excuse for a lack of energy which may be due just to laziness or to mental exhaustion as a result of work-related reading.

With regard to the issue of distraction, it may be true that having too many uncontrolled distractions can interfere with productive thinking, but I dispute the impossibility of effective human multi-tasking. The truly sad stories of harm produced by distracted drivers speak not to the impossibility of multi-tasking per se, but rather to the inappropriateness of tolerating even the slightest imperfection in the performance of the driving task in particular. But in fact, the marvel, as with a chimp using sign language, is not that driving while dialling and talking on a cell phone is done badly but that it can be done at all!

When it comes to less time sensitive tasks like writing this post , or thinking in general, even complicated subjects can be handled well – or even better – in the midst of distraction. The mind is not a jumble but rather a constantly growing woven tapestry the threads of which may need some random shaking from a truly straight path if they are to be properly woven together – just as a bit of disturbance from the wind helps a climbing vine to find and wrap around its support, so a bit of random input may help the mind to make those connections which are the essence of creative thought.

But this is not a new phenomenon. The high school kid of the 50’s had a radio blaring while he studied, and those of the 60’s may have sat and read in front of the TV. Perhaps the distractions of today are more involving, but intermittently checking for news on Facebook is arguably less disrupting than getting up every five minutes to prepare a snack or answer the phone (a particularly pernicious instrument due to its strident demands for immediate attention).

Of course I shouldn’t leave this topic without giving some attention to the work that seems to have started this latest round of hand-wringing. Namely psychological study (by Meyers et al) in which multi-taskers were measured to be less productive than uni-taskers.

What can I say other than that I don’t believe it?

Was the distraction by a task of equal utility to the original one and did the measure of productivity include both?

The common saying “If you want a job done give it to a busy man” reflects my own personal experience. I often find that I accomplish more when I have many competing tasks under way than when I do not.

When using computers it is useful to have something to switch to while waiting for a page or program to load, but the same applies in other contexts as well, whether it’s weeding and planting in between moves of the hose (rather than watching and waiting for each patch of the lawn to soak), or moving to some other aspect of home maintenance while waiting for the first coat of paint to dry.

But all of this is just speculative or anecdotal. I really will have to look at the study in more detail before I can be sure that I am right on this.

Finally, wiht regard to the memory issue,  I know that the origin of the “done badly v. done at all” simile pattern used above predates the teaching of language to chimps, and if I was truly erudite I would be able to instantly identify the source, but a quick Google of “not that it is done badly” allows me to overcome that ignorance; so if I wanted to, I could go back and change the talking chimps to walking dogs (or preaching women) with a sage nod to Dr Johnson, and noone would be the wiser (except me). Is it really a loss to humanity that one such as I can appear more erudite than I “am” any more than that I can travel faster by car than any athlete can run?

This reminds me of something that happened around the time when Google first appeared. There was a New Year’s contest in the Globe and Mail involving a number of relatively sophisticated “trivia” type questions and my friend Gerry Pareja and I decided to see how easy it would be to “cheat” by using search engines. We did quite well even then, but I suspect that now it would be even easier. Even at the time I found something exhilarating and liberating about the idea of being free to tap into some kind of super-mind and not feel obligated to maintain my own local memory of thousands of infobytes which may or may not ever actually be needed. Is it a loss that we no longer value memory for its own sake so much as we did before the invention of writing? or was the freedom from rote memorization of everything essential in order for the mind to have room for creating genuinely new ideas? (It may be possible to draw a parallel with the social effects of memory-based religion here, but I won’t go there right now.)

Of course, all of the above paragraph is a distraction from the nominal topic of distraction here – although it arguably fits more with the original article’s subtitle than the article itself did. But although it refers to Google it is not Google’s fault – my mind could have wandered to anything, just as in reading the first few lines of ‘Burnt Norton‘ it was led to thoughts of quantum mechanics and the Everett many-worlds interpretation, and more personally of various paths not taken.

But it is Google’s fault that I was reading ‘Burnt Norton’ – since I was led there by googling the quote(s) in Brian Appleyard’s article. Fortunately I waited until the second quote to do that, and since it occurs near the end I almost managed to read the whole article without any interruption (except that of going back and forth from reading that to writing this – which is a pattern that I believe can reliably be presumed to predate the use of computers).

Admittedly I did grow up in a more book oriented era, but even my children now do a lot of their academic reading on the computer. The only major difference is that looking up and checking a reference is now often much simpler (and less distracting) as it can be done without a trip to the library. And since it can be done at once, the relevance or otherwise of the claimed support can be evaluated while reading an article which may well usefully moderate the credit that one gives to what is written.

Will come back later to that multi-tasking research and its more recent popularization.

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