Contemplative computing may sound like an oxymoron, but it's really quite simple. It's about how to use information technologies and social media so they're not endlessly distracting and demanding, but instead help us be more mindful, focused and creative.
My book on contemplative computing, The Distraction Addiction, was published by Little, Brown and Co. in 2013, and is available in bookstores and online. This 2011 talk is a good introduction to the project and its big ideas.
Researchers at the University of Southern Maine studying distraction and cellphones have discovered something interesting: not only does your ability to handle complicated cognitive tasks diminish when you try to use a cellphone while doing something else, the “mere presence of a cell phone may be distracting."
As the article’s abstract [pdf] explains,
Research consistently demonstrates the active use of cell phones, whether talking or texting, to be distracting and contributes to diminished performance when multitasking (e.g., distracted driving or walking). Recent research also has indicated that simply the presence of a cell phone and what it might represent (i.e., social connections, broader social network, etc.) can be similarly distracting and have negative consequences in a social interaction. Results of two studies reported here provide further evidence that the ‘‘mere presence’’ of a cell phone may be sufficiently distracting to produce diminished attention and deficits in task-performance, especially for tasks with greater attentional and cognitive demands. The implications for such an unintended negative consequence may be quite wide-ranging (e.g., productivity in school and the work place).
I've recently been talking to people in locations as far-flung as Finland and Australia about designing programs that support mindfulness and flow, so I suspect there'll be a very diverse set of submissions to the Happiness Apps Challenge:
The Happiness Apps Challenge is an international App building challenge that is aimed to inspire minds in tech and design to create products that will increase world’s happiness quotient!
Create an App to make people happy. One positive person can spread Happiness to more than 1,000 people, but through the power of technology we can reach out to millions.
You have until December 24 to enter. (Check out the some of the ideas for entries.) It'll be very interesting to see how this unfolds.
Because I break it down in this Health magazine article. Basically, the advice comes down to this: it’s fine to weave social media into your life, but don’t let it warp your life.
I thought the article was going to be me and a bunch of other people, but it turns out mainly to be drawn from a series of emails with a Health writer. Which is fine, and it illustrates something I’m learning as I become more of a talking head: you just never really know what shape an article you’re quoted in is going to take. You have to just do your best to say things that are true, that don’t sound stupid on the page, and that are memorable.
And I love that they illustrate it with a picture of a woman taking a picture of her dog with her iPhone:
It didn’t come up in the interview, but I take a lot of pictures of my dogs with my iPhone:
For those of you who were wagering on the results of the Singapore Computer Society's Splash award, wonder no more: the top prize has gone to Apple Tree, a mobile phone app that… encourages people not to use their phones.
According to Channel News Asia, the app, which will be available for iPhone next year,
encourages them to spend quality time with their family and friends, instead of being glued to their smartphones.
When users activate the app and put their phones together, apples will start growing, which can then be harvested and exchanged for rewards, such as discounts. The productivity of the apples is dependent on the time the phones are placed together. Apples will only be produced when users are not using other apps.
Libern Lin, a member of the winning team from Republic Polytechnic, said the idea was conceived after his friends suggested placing their phones together when they hung out.
This app builds on the practice of people putting their phones in a pile when they sit down to dinner, but the growing apples is a nice touch. So is the fact that it requires two phones, which means users are using it together (and which means more downloads and installations).
Yale economist Craig Palsson has a new article [pdf] asking whether the growing use of smartphones by parents of young children is responsible for the increased rate of injuries among children younger than 5. While technically the article doesn’t actually say anything about snake pits, the implication is clearly there. Or at least I see it.
Anyway, in the wonderfully-titled article “That Smarts!: Smartphones and Child Injuries,” Palsson explains,
I am interested in how smartphones… lead parents to make decisions that increase the risk of child injury. Smart-phones may increase injuries through two mechansims. First, they increase the opportunity cost of supervising children, and the decrease in supervision leads to more injuries. Second, they may decrease the opportunity cost of participating in risky activities, such as playing at the park or pool, and the increased participation leads to more injuries. I investigate both mechanisms and find strong evidence that smartphone adoption has caused child injuries to increase. I also find support that the increase comes from smartphones distracting parents.
It looks in particular at injury rates (as reported by the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s National Electronic Injury Surveillance System) in areas during Apple’s release of its iPhone and AT&T’s rollout of 3G cell networks. This lets Palsson measure changes in injury rates as people switch from feature phones to smartphone, and presumably have greater opportunities to be distracted by their phones.
So what does he find?
Using the hospital-level variation in 3G access, I find that smartphones increase injuries to children, particularly those younger than five, a group more at risk of injury in the absence of parental supervision. My findings suggest that the expansion of smartphones can explain almost the entire increase in child injuries. Furthermore, I find that injuries increase in riskier activities, when parental supervision can make a decisive role in preventing accidents. These effects are absent in activities where the parents are not the primary supervisors [i.e., school playgrounds that are monitored by teachers] and in activities where supervision makes no difference on outcomes. The evidence from these results strongly supports a scenario where parents are distracted by their smartphones and decrease supervising their children.
Now, it’s worth noting that the study doesn’t try to figure out whether parents were playing Angry Birds or dealing with angry clients: i.e., whether they were distracted by trivial things, or trying to deal simultaneously with the challenges of being parents and professionals or managers.
However, it does seem to me to make a compelling case for the appearance of smartphones causing a measurable increase in distracted parenting.
It’s also the kind of article that has the sorts of parenthetical that only economists can get away with, like "If one assumes a unitary household model, then the increase in injuries is optimal," and "taking time away from watching your daughter color probably will not lead to her getting injured, while not watching her on the playground might,” and my personal favorite, “in the case of Brazil and India, families derived more utility on the margin from watching television than from sex or domestic violence.”
From a class on “Wasting time on the Internet” at University of Pennsylvania:
Using our laptops and a wifi connection as our only materials, this class will focus on the alchemical recuperation of aimless surfing into substantial works of literature. Students will be required to stare at the screen for three hours, only interacting through chat rooms, bots, social media and listservs. To bolster our practice, we'll explore the long history of the recuperation of boredom and time-wasting through critical texts about affect theory, ASMR, situationism and everyday life by thinkers such as Guy Debord, Mary Kelly Erving Goffman, Betty Friedan, Raymond Williams, John Cage, Georges Perec, Michel de Certeau, Henri Lefevbre, Trin Minh-ha, Stuart Hall, Sianne Ngai, Siegfried Kracauer and others.
My alma mater!
In Penn’s defense, there’s also a class in the Religious Studies department in which students spend a month offline. So everything balances out.
No, it’s not a smartphone made of noodles (though that would be awesome); it’s a Danish project for reducing smartphone distraction in the classroom.
It’s super-simple: students come in, put their phones in the holder, then pick them up again when they leave.
Of course, it requires both a high degree of trust that your fellow students won’t accidentally or intentionally walk off with your phone, and lots of customized cases to prevent taking someone else’s phone when you rush to your next class.
According to Google Translate, the phone holder was developed by Alexander Beach, a teacher at the Himmelev Gymnasium in Roskilde. Since its introduction in 2013, "Students find it easier to concentrate, have better contact with the teacher and experience a better social and professional community when the phone is not physically available."
Obviously this is pretty simple, and you could create versions that were more secure— little translucent lockers, for example, would keep them under lock and key and also provide some noise reduction. But however you do it, a school-wide ritual of setting phones in this visible, public place seems like a great idea.
I’m going to be at Princeton next week, doing a more academic-than-usual talk on contemplative computing.
I'm appearing there as part of the “Pay Attention: The Art of Here and Now” course, taught by director Marianne Weems.
The undergraduate course taught by Weems questions whether our sense of the present — to which we are meant to be attentive — has changed, and the impact of Twitter, Instagram and the “selfie” on making art. The course draws upon various perspectives with guest speakers, of which Pang is one, focusing on spirituality, neuroscience, ontology, psychology, and gaming to investigate these questions of modern consciousness.
The Princeton Atelier is an interesting project: started by Toni Morrison, it "brings together professional artists from different disciplines to create new work in the context of a semester-long course.”
I haven’t been in Princeton in ages, so it’ll be great to visit again.
Nora Young’s Spark will run a program on “Addiction by Design” tomorrow, featuring interviews with Natasha Dow Schull and a very scratchy-sounding me. (I was in the process of getting over my month-long cold, so my voice was a couple octaves lower than normal.) Schull is worth listening to, at least. [mp3]
This sample has a nice Candy Crush illustration.
Fox offers some of the same arguments as Clay Shirky— multitasking is an ineffective way to learn, there’s value to taking notes by hand, and device use has a social contagion aspect— but she offers some additional ones as well:
It’s no surprise that the most eloquent and reasonable advocates of a more focused classroom are scholars who do research on the social dimensions of virtual reality, and the emergence and impacts of digital media. Like the Digital Sabbath, this is a practice that isn’t being advocated mainly by Luddites. Almost 15 years ago, the first people who started talking seriously about turning off devices on a regular basis were super-connected people here in Silicon Valley.
The other critical thing happening here is that Shirky and Fox, and just about everybody else who makes a case for no devices in the classroom, are not just trying to ban distracting technologies because they don’t like the competition, or because they dislike technology. Rather, they’re trying to create an environment in which students are able to learn to focus. Consider the questions Fox suggests teachers ask themselves when developing a policy:
Is this a good practice for your class? Is it enriching the experience in your class, or is it creating more distractions? Is it helping foster a constructive learning environment for your students? And is it making your experience as an instructor more or less enjoyable?
If you’d have no problem telling students not to play Frisbee in class, or having a “no kegs in the lecture hall” rule, then why allow Zappos or Snapchat?
“I teach theory and practice of social media at NYU, and am an advocate and activist for the free culture movement, so I’m a pretty unlikely candidate for internet censor, but I have just asked the students in my fall seminar to refrain from using laptops, tablets, and phones in class.”
You’ve probably already read the opening of Clay Shirky’s important Medium essay “Why I Just Asked My Students To Put Their Laptops Away,” but it’s still worth a call-out. I think that in addition to being a well-written and -argued piece, it’s an important data-point in a conversation taking place in schools— mainly involving teachers and tech advocates, but also involving students too— about how we should think about personal information technology in the classroom, and what we’re trying to get out of having classrooms be more technology-intensive.
Shirky lays out his reasons for his new policy thus:
There are two things I love about this essay. The first is Shirky's argument that a “no devices” policy pits him against his students, but rather that it puts them all on the same side:
I’ve stopped thinking of students as people who simply make choices about whether to pay attention, and started thinking of them as people trying to pay attention but having to compete with various influences, the largest of which is their own propensity towards involuntary and emotional reaction….
Regarding teaching as a shared struggle changes the nature of the classroom. It’s not me demanding that they focus — its me and them working together to help defend their precious focus against outside distractions….
I’m coming to see student focus as a collaborative process. It’s me and them working to create a classroom where the students who want to focus have the best shot at it, in a world increasingly hostile to that goal.
It’s easy as the person in charge to take distraction personally, but this more high-minded attitude is one that I think is better for everyone.
The second thing that resonates with me is this: for most students, I would argue, the challenge is no longer to make sure that they’re familiar with technology. Everyone is pretty familiar with technology, and if they’re not, there will be many other opportunities to become familiar with it. What’s in short supply, and what Shirky and other teachers can provide, is a space in which students learn how to focus— not just on the causes of the Civil War, but on anything. Teachers used to be able to take for granted that students knew how to concentrate (though that might be another way of saying that they just left it for students to flounder around and figure it out for themselves). But today, one of the most valuable things you can do as a teacher is to help students see the value of focus, and help them refine their capacity to concentrate.
This is very interesting: a team at the University of Minnesota led by Bin He, a professor of biomedical engineering, has conducted a study measuring the ability of people who have practice “Mind-Body Awareness Training” (that’s meditation or yoga to you and me) to learn how to use brain computer interfaces— technologies where you do things like move a mouse across a screen using brain waves.
Years ago, He was conducting BCI research and noticed “one woman participant” who practiced meditation and yoga, and "was much more successful than other participants at controlling the computer with her brain.” This study measures whether there's a systematic, measurable difference in BCI learning and control ability between a group of 12 people who’ve meditated or done yoga regularly for at least a year, and 24 people who have not.
So what did they find?
The participants were asked to move a computer cursor across the screen by imaging left or right hand movements.
The participants with yoga or meditation experience were twice as likely to complete the brain-computer interface task by the end of 30 trials and learned three times faster than their counterparts for the left-right cursor movement experiments.
As He puts it,
In recent years, there has been a lot of attention on improving the computer side of the brain-computer interface but very little attention to the brain side. This comprehensive study shows for the first time that looking closer at the brain side may provide a valuable tool for reducing obstacles for brain-computer interface success in early stages.
To me this isn’t a particularly surprising result, and it’s a nice little anticipation of how our present, which so often puts computers and attention at odds, may be an historical anomaly. In a world in which we’re controlling devices with our brains, concentration becomes essential: introducing distractions becomes a lot tricker and fraught, and it may also become harder to divert a user’s attention.
Instead of being a skill to deal with the problems created by poorly-design technologies or weapons of mass distraction, contemplative practices could be important as tools to enable better use of tomorrow’s technologies.
Having the ability to check email – and a bajillion other things – any time at all, not just when I’m sitting at a computer looking at a web browser… I started to suspect it was not such a great thing for me.
So he deleted the most distracting apps on his phone— and in more than a year he hasn’t looked back, as he explains in a new piece. It’s had various benefits, among them discovering the virtues of slight boredom (a subject that’s also interested me). The new piece concludes with some suggestions for conducting your own experiment: disable Safari and Mail (you can’t delete them, but you can make them inoperable); delete what he calls “infinity apps” (apps that “have a potentially endless supply of new and interesting stuff”); and make conscious choices about what apps you keep on your phone.
I’ve written about making your iPhone more mindful, and while I’ve tended to focus more on how to make the device a more discriminating judge of when you can be interrupted, these suggestions make perfect sense to me.
And if you don’t like either of our suggestions, there’s a growing confessional “What I took off my iPhone" literature: you could try Lisa Bari’s Medium essay, or Evan Solomon’s “Siri, Focus my Attention,” for starters.
None of these essays, I hasten to note, is in any way anti-technology: Knapp is at Google Ventures, Lisa Bari works on electronic health records, and Evan Solomon is at (surprise) Medium. Nobody talks about throwing their phone in a fish tank, or giving it to a snow monkey. As I explain in my book, Silicon Valley incubates both new technologies, and efforts to figure out how the heck to deal with those technologies. The Digital Sabbath movement, for example, started here over a decade ago
in a course on “the art of aligning your inner and outer lives and living life according to your values” taught by Anne Dilenschneider, a psychologist and Methodist pastor who works with nonprofits and clergy, and Andrea Bauer, an executive coach who works with Silicon Valley CEOs and managers.
Each had seen her share of people working ten-hour days, living in a constant stream of e-mail and meetings, losing the ability to step back and reflect. Even clergy were treating churches like startups, and they faced pressure to fund-raise, develop new programs, put their sermons in PowerPoint, and grow their congregations. “We wanted to do a class that helped people reconnect with themselves,” Dilenschneider recalls, speaking to me from Fargo, North Dakota, where she’s completing a clinical psychology residency and working as a pastor. Inspired by Julia Cameron’s idea of an “artist’s date,” she and Bauer told students to spend a day unplugged, to take a break from the world of work and the endless tug of e-mail, turn off their pagers and PalmPilots (cutting-edge technology when they taught the class in 2001), and spend the day doing consciously low-tech things.
Likewise, these essays are an effort to figure out how to keep using the good parts of the iPhone, while cutting away the bad— to take note of what works and what doesn’t, and use it more mindfully.
Kanpp concludes with this awesome recommendation:
When we invest our time and energy in technology — as creators or consumers — we should invest in products that belong in “The Future” and not those that make our lives disappear faster than they already do.
Personally, my life’s already going by at the speed of light. But this past year, it felt just the tiniest bit slower.
We’ve all see the videos of people walking into fountains, falling off piers, or hitting things while walking and texting. In case you haven’t, here’s an example:
(The woman later sued the mall.)
While these are usually cast as examples of how multitasking is bad, walking while texting turns out to have another embodied dimension: just as using devices while sitting affects our posture, University of Western Sydney neuroscience researcher Siobhan Schabrun recently found that people walk differently when they text. She explains:
For most of us, walking in a straight line at reasonable speed is a simple task. But watch someone texting or reading on their mobile phone and you'd be forgiven for thinking that walking is not as easy as it looks.
People who text and walk ("wexting") are not only a source of irritation to those of us stuck behind a slow, weaving wexter. Wexting may also put you at risk of injury and... even changes your style of walking.
So how did they do it?
Our study used a 3D movement analysis system to examine how people walk while texting or reading on a mobile phone. We asked 26 healthy individuals (with an average age of 30 years), who used their mobile phone to text on a daily basis, to walk in a straight line in one of the following ways:
- without their mobile phone
- while reading a news article on their mobile phone
- while texting on a mobile phone
Participants used their natural texting style (one or two hands, portrait or landscape orientation, use of autocorrect or not) and eight cameras captured the speed, direction and movement of their bodies when walking under each condition.
We found texting and (to a lesser extent) reading on a mobile phone causes people to walk slower, deviate from a straight path and "lock" their head, trunk and arms together, so they move as a unit (in order to keep the phone steady in front of their eyes).
The effect, she concludes, is
Slow, swerving, robot-style walking that prioritises texting over balance and stability.
Research has shown that people who walk slower, who dual-task, and who walk with a more "locked" (robot-style) posture are at greater risk of collisions or falls.
In addition, people who deviate from a straight path while walking in a pedestrian environment are more likely to wander into traffic or onto train tracks, leaving them at greater risk of serious injury or death.
Psychiatrists in Singapore are pushing for medical authorities to formally recognise addiction to the Internet and digital devices as a disorder, joining other countries around the world in addressing a growing problem.
Singapore and Hong Kong top an Asia-Pacific region that boasts some of the world's highest smartphone penetration rates, according to a 2013 report by media monitoring firm Nielsen.
Some 87 percent of Singapore's 5.4 million population own smartphones as Internet-capable phones with cameras are popularly known….
Tan Hwee Sim, a consultant psychiatrist at The Resilienz Mind clinic in Singapore, noted that the symptoms exhibited by her young adult patients have changed over the years.
Obsession with online gaming was the main manifestation in the past, but addiction to social media and video downloading are now on the uptrend.
"Internet addiction as a disorder is not even listed in our latest psychiatric manual, it's only listed in the appendix as a disorder that requires further study," she said.
In terms of physical symptoms, more people are reporting "text neck" or "iNeck" pain, according to Tan Kian Hian, a consultant at the anaesthesiology department of Singapore General Hospital.
"It is a commonly observed phenomenon that many people have their heads lowered and are now using their mobile devices constantly on the go, while queuing or even crossing the roads," Tan told AFP.
After all, The Distraction Addiction opens with these words:
On the western edge of the ancient city of Kyoto, Japan, on the slope of Mount Arashiyama (literally “Stormy Mountain”), stands the Iwatayama Monkey Park. The park has winding paths and fine views of Kyoto, but the main attraction is the tribe of about a hundred and forty macaques who live there. The mon- keys of Iwatayama are famously gregarious, playful, and, occasionally, crafty. Like all members of the Macaca genus, they combine sociability and intelligence. They play with their kin, watch one another’s young, learn new skills from one another, and even have distinctive group habits.
Some develop a mania for bathing, snowball-making, washing food, fishing, or using seawater as a seasoning. [Or stealing iPhones!] Iwatayama macaques are known for flossing and for playing with stones. This has led some scientists to argue that macaques have a culture, something we’ve traditionally thought of as distinctly human. They’re also humanlike in their natural curiosity and cunning: one second, you’re watching one do something cute, and the next second, his friends are making off with the bag of food you bought at the park’s entrance [or your iPhone!].
They’re like humans in one other way. For all their smarts, nothing keeps their attention for very long. The mountainside gives them a fantastic view of one of the world’s most historic cities, but it doesn’t impress them. They keep up a constant chatter, a running monologue of inconsequence. The macaques are living examples of the Buddhist concept of the monkey mind, one of my favorite metaphors for the everyday, undisciplined, jittery mind. As Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa explains, the monkey mind is crazy: It “leaps about and never stays in one place. It is completely restless.”
The monkey mind’s constant activity reflects a deep restlessness: monkeys can’t sit still because their minds never stop. Likewise, most of the time, the human mind delivers up a constant stream of consciousness. Even in quiet moments, minds are prone to wandering [or stealing iPhones]. Add a constant buzz of electronics [from stolen iPhones], the flash of a new message landing in your in-box [on your stolen iPhones], the ping of voicemail [emanating from stolen iPhones], and your mind is as manic as a monkey after a triple espresso. The monkey mind is attracted to today’s infinite and ever-changing buffet of information choices and devices [especially stolen iPhones]. It thrives on overload, is drawn to shiny and blinky [and stolen] things, and doesn’t distinguish between good and bad [stolen] technologies or choices.
Of course, this is a snow monkey in Nagano rather than Kyoto, but still, the picture captures the monkey mind’s fascination with technology as well as any image I can imagine. Though I muse admit, that monkey looks pretty focused on the phone.
Van Oosten explains how he got the picture:
Earlier this year, we hosted two of our annual White & White Japan tours. One afternoon, our group was photographing the snow monkeys when a large bus with day tourists from a nearby ski resort arrived for a short stop. Suddenly, we were surrounded by people shooting with iPads and iPhones, mostly selfies, of course. We were standing close to the edge of the hot spring (the monkeys are very relaxed with human presence), when one of the tourists started taking shots with her iPhone, moving her phone closer to the macaque after each shot. It was almost as if she was offering it to the macaque as a gift, so suddenly the macaque grabbed the iPhone from her hands and quickly moved away towards the middle of the hot spring—out of reach. The owner started screaming in agony, but the macaque was too fascinated by its new toy to notice. The minutes that followed were downright hilarious—monkeys already resemble humans in so many ways, but when they’re holding an iPhone the similarities are almost scary. At some stage it even managed to let the built-in flash go off.
Of course, things didn’t go well for the phone.
When the macaque decided to do some serious underwater testing, the owner of the phone almost fainted. All the while I was fully aware of the fact that this would result in some of the most original snow monkey shots ever.
Finally, van Oosten explains some of the technical stuff.
I used a Nikon D800 with a 70-200/2.8 VR lens to be able to zoom in on the macaque and isolate it from the surroundings. The shot was taken handheld, so I upped the ISO to 800 to get a shutter speed of 1/250 at an aperture of f/7.1. At times it was hard to focus because there was quite a lot of steam rising from the hot water (a constant 42ºC; outside temperature was below freezing). This also meant that I could not move the lens closer to the water as it would instantly fog up. From all the shots that I took, I picked this one because of the angle of the macaque, the way it is holding the phone, but especially how it is looking at the screen.
Until September 5 you can vote for the picture in the Natural History Museum’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition.
Earth Island Journal editor Jason Mark has a piece in The Atlantic about proposals to make wifi available in national parks and other remote areas, and whether a wired wilderness would be the same place. As "a lover of wild places,” he confesses, "I can’t help but feel a little freaked out by the whole thing."
Wifi in the woods? I think I’ll pass. Because if we ever succeed in knitting all (or even most) of the physical world into the Internet, we could end up abolishing the sense of the Away. When we’re all able to connect from anywhere—well, then, there’ll be no place left to hide.
And Mark makes an important point about the difference between technologies that help you get closer to nature, by extending your ability to survive in the woods, and those that threaten to distract you from it:
I like my lightweight, water-resistant space fabrics. I like my high-altitude stove and my sleeping bag and my water filter. Most of the Pacific Crest Trail Thru-Hikers I’ve come across in the Sierra Nevada the past couple of summers are fully GPS-equipped; forget this Cheryl Strayed getting lost bullshit. Modern gear and gizmos make backpacking—if not exactly comfortable—at least bearable.
But there’s one key difference between a Gore-tex rain slicker and a satellite-connected cell phone. While the first enables an adventure into remote places, the second threatens to disrupt it. We all know how addicting our phones can be—how they distract us from the present and distance us from the immediate.
In other words, as always, the question isn’t whether MOAR TECHNOLOGY is bad. The question is, how will we interact with it? Will it help us be more resilient or independent or smarter, or less? The worst reason that you come up with to make wifi available in the wild is that it’ll let you keep up with the office, or write Yelp reviews of this section of the river.
It’s helpful to think about the difference between wifi and GPS. Both are radio signals, and both obviously are "technologies.” But the latter helps you establish your physical position more precisely, and can be pretty useful if you get lost; but you’re not very likely to be distracted by your GPS unit, and you can’t use the GPS satellite network to post pictures of yourself.
Mark concludes with this thought:
Maybe, then, what we need is a new preservation movement committed to maintaining some places that are offline. We need to make a societal choice to leave big, open areas totally disconnected. In the end, keeping the wild free from telecommunications will rely on the same idea that has always guided preservation: We have to exercise collective restraint because we know we’re not very good at personal discipline.
Michael Harris writes in the Harvard Business Review blog about the hidden productivity hit that comes from being always-on. Being constantly connected and multitasking, he argues, makes us feel like "dedicated, tireless workers,” but in reality, "we’re mostly just getting the small, easy things done.” In other words, "Being busy does not equate to being effective."
And let’s not forget about ambient play, which often distracts us from accomplishing our most important tasks. Facebook and Twitter report that their sites are most active during office hours. After all, the employee who’s required to respond to her boss on Sunday morning will think nothing of responding to friends on Wednesday afternoon. And research shows that these digital derailments are costly: it’s not only the minutes lost responding to a tweet but also the time and energy required to “reenter” the original task. As Douglas Gentile, a professor at Iowa State University who studies the effects of media on attention spans, explains, “Everyone who thinks they’re good at multitasking is wrong. We’re actually multiswitching [and] giving ourselves extra work.”
Each shift of focus sets our brain back and creates a cumulative attention debt, resulting in a harried workforce incapable of producing sustained burst of creative energy. Constant connection means that we’re “always at work”, yes, but also that we’re “never at work” — fully.
People and organizations looking for brave new ideas or significant critical thinking need to recognize that disconnection is therefore sometimes preferable to connection.
It’s not just the cognitive hit that multitasking delivers that makes us less productive. To take but two examples, there's decades of research about “ego depletion,” and how the ability to mentally get away from work makes us better able to do our jobs when we return; and some fascinating work on the importance of solitude to idea-generation (which makes brainstorming exercises less valuable than you’d expect).
Annie Murphy Paul has a piece in Slate on counter-marketing campaigns that reduced teen smoking, and how they could serve as a model to help kids become more skeptical and thoughtful about social media and games.
I was unfamiliar with this history, but one of the success stories in efforts to get kids to stop smoking were campaigns that "relied, successfully, on teenagers’ indignation about being exploited by the tobacco companies."
It broadcast commercials—some of them directed by teens—that quoted from tobacco companies’ internal documents, in which executives mused about how to replace the customers who were dying off with a new generation of smokers. And it sent young, attractive staff members into classrooms to deliver an unaccustomed message: “We’re not telling anyone how to live their life. We’re not against smokers or smoking. We're just here to give you information on how tobacco companies are manipulating you.”
So how could we make use of this history?
Let’s allow teenagers to discover (maybe with the help of their peers) that the freedom and autonomy they feel when they’re at the helm of their computers is in many ways an illusion, and let’s help them develop the skeptical, critical stance that would allow them to be truly autonomous users of the Internet. A template for such a project might be the efforts to show young people—especially young women—how magazine editors and advertisers seek to manipulate their sense of what the female body should look like.
One of the things I’ve recently been impressed with, in my conversations both with students, and with teachers and heads of school, is how thoughtful teens can be about digital distraction, and the place of Snapchat and Yo and other services in their lives. For them, the message that their goodwill is being manipulated, that media and game companies work hard to commoditize their attention, and that if they can’t tell what the product is then they’re the product, seems likely to work.
Of course it won’t work on everyone. But it’s worth a try.
I write about people, technology, and the worlds they make.
My book on contemplative computing, The Distraction Addiction, was published by Little, Brown and Company in 2013. (It's been translated into Dutch (as Verslaafd aan afleiding) and Spanish (as Enamorados de la Distracción); Russian, Chinese and Korean translations are in the works.)
My next book, Rest: Why Working Less Gets More Done, is under contract with Basic Books. Until it's out, you can follow my thinking about deliberate rest, creativity, and productivity on the project Web site.
The Distraction Addiction
My latest book, and the first book from the contemplative computing project. The Distraction Addiction is published by Little, Brown and Co.. It's been widely reviewed and garnered lots of good press. You can find your own copy at your local bookstore, or order it through Barnes & Noble, Amazon (check B&N first, as it's usually cheaper there), or IndieBound.
The Spanish edition
The Dutch edition
The Chinese edition
The Korean edition
Empire and the Sun
My first book, Empire and the Sun: Victorian Solar Eclipse Expeditions, was published with Stanford University Press in 2002 (order via Amazon).
PUBLISHED IN 2012
PUBLISHED IN 2011
PUBLISHED IN 2010
PUBLISHED IN 2009