Terminally Distracted

When I was a teenager, I went to school during most of the day and when I came home, I did my homework. When that was done, I sat in an armchair in my room, read for a while, and listened to the radio. That was pretty much an average day.

I did not have a telephone. Television had yet to make the scene. The Internet, Facebook, or the Yahoo Messenger meant nothing. I didn’t email anyone or tweet them or send them a text message either. No one had ever heard of iTunes or iPhoto, or a Power Point Presentation, let alone an RSS feed. I had an Underwood typewriter and that was it. In a word, I was not distracted by any of the attention getting stuff that has migrated to the center of our lives today.

Sam Anderson writes about the consequences of this “crisis” in a lengthy essay, In Defense of Distraction, in the May 17th issue of New York magazine. He cites a recent study that found American teenagers spend an average of 6.5 hours a day focused on the electronic world. A day! And Anderson says that strikes him as a little low. He says the alarmists would have us believe we are “terminally distracted.”

In Anderson’s view this doomsday fear is “silly for two reasons. First, social critics “have been blowing the apocalyptic bugle at every large-scale tech-driven social change since Socrates’ famous complaint about the memory-destroying properties of that newfangled technology called writing.”

Secondly, it is too late now to retreat to a quieter time, one like days of my youth. He says we are “increasingly tied” to the emerging technologies. “Information rains down faster and thicker every day, and there are plenty of non-moronic reasons for it to do so. The question, now, is how successfully we can adapt.”

The question he poses is the same one David Foster Wallace dealt with in his 2005 Commencement Address at Kenyon College. Wallace suggested it was simply a matter of being conscious of what you pay attention to, deciding what matters to you, and therefore, deserves your focus.

Anderson reports an interview (conducted on his cell phone, recorded on his digital recorder, subsequently downloaded onto his laptop) with David Meyer, a professor at the University of Michigan who is said to be an expert on multi-tasking. According to Meyer we are living through a crisis of attention that is going to get a lot worse than people expect. He views distraction as a “full-blown epidemic, “a cognitive plague that has the potential to wipe out an entire generation of focused and productive thought.”

You see in writing this, how easily I became distracted by the interview with Meyer, rather than the question two paragraphs back concerning what to do about this crisis. Anderson offers three solutions.

First, he refers to Winifred Gallagher who in her new book, Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, urges us to make a conscious choice of “attentional self-control,” that in the days, when I was a graduate student, used to be known as stimulus control. If you want to loose weight, don’t buy caloric food to put in your refrigerator; if the traffic noise outside your room is driving you crazy, go into the next room and shut the door; if you are trying to write a short story for The New Yorker, close your email system and turn off your Blackberry.

Second, Anderson cites Gallagher’s that while “you can’t be happy all the time, you can pretty much focus all the time.” The most promising solution to our multi-tasking crisis is the ancient technique of meditation—what she calls “secular attention workouts.”

She says we can only attend to a certain about of information at any given time, that “our moment-by-moment choice of attentional targets determines, in a very real sense, the shape of our lives.” She cites the philosopher and psychologist William James who wrote, “My experience is what I agree to attend to.” All this sounds a lot like David Foster Wallace’s urging us to make the conscious choice to attend to what matters.

Third, Gallagher recommends simply ignoring the distractions that disrupt our focus. We don’t often do that. We keep our cell phone on, our email system open, and our browser always showing in the background of our screen.

Anderson concludes his defense by discussing potential solutions to be found in neuroenhancers and lifehacking--essentially a self-help program that lays out a set of specific steps to allocate attention efficiently. He then wonders what is going to happen to the kids who have grown up in the electronic world. In Rapt Gallagher says that kids today grow up processing information at a superficial level, and when “you are forced to confront intellectually demanding situations in high school or college, you may find that you’ve traded depth of knowledge for breadth and stunted your capacity for serious thought.”

Will children who have been raised on the Internet lose the ability to concentrate on complex tasks? Or rather will they pick up new skills that will in the final analysis expand their cognitive abilities and ability to deal with all the distractions that I never heard of when I was a kid? These are clearly important questions that remain to be answered.