In Defense of Distraction
May 26, 2009 12:19 AM   Subscribe

Thought-provoking NY Mag essay on the consequences of living in an age of perpetual distraction. Been thinking about this one a lot, in the context of MeFi and other addictions.
posted by jcruelty (51 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
Tried to read it, but I got distracted.

posted by wendell at 12:37 AM on May 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

Well, I think that guy's first attention problem is that he has too many wives.
Here is a partial list, because a complete one would fill the entire magazine, of the things I’ve been distracted by in the course of writing this article: my texting wife, a very loud seagull, my mother calling from Mexico to leave voice mails in terrible Spanish, a man shouting “Your weed-whacker fell off! Your weed-whacker fell off!” at a truck full of lawn equipment, my Lost-watching wife, another man singing some kind of Spanish ballad on the sidewalk under my window, streaming video of the NBA playoffs, dissertation-length blog breakdowns of the NBA playoffs, my toenail spontaneously detaching, my ice-cream-eating wife, the subtly shifting landscapes of my three different e-mail in-boxes, my Facebooking wife, infinite YouTube videos (a puffin attacking someone wearing a rubber boot, Paul McCartney talking about the death of John Lennon, a chimpanzee playing Pac-Man), and even more infinite, if that is possible, Wikipedia entries: puffins, MacGyver, Taylorism, the phrase “bleeding edge,” the Boston Molasses Disaster. (If I were going to excuse you from reading this article for any single distraction, which I am not, it would be to read about the Boston Molasses Disaster.)
posted by iamkimiam at 12:44 AM on May 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Focus is for the weak.
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:58 AM on May 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Printable version.
posted by Pronoiac at 12:58 AM on May 26, 2009 [3 favorites]

Amazing article about the Boston Molasses Disaster.
posted by Defenestrator at 1:03 AM on May 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

posted by exlotuseater at 1:05 AM on May 26, 2009 [3 favorites]

A 6300 article which would take the average adult 25 minutes to read is a big ask attention wise whatever age of distraction you're living in. Can someone just twitter five easy-to-memorize bullet points?
posted by rhymer at 1:05 AM on May 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

sorry should say 6300 words. I got distracted.
posted by rhymer at 1:05 AM on May 26, 2009

MeFi is not addictive. I've been coming here numerous times a day, every day, for years and I'm just fine.
posted by chillmost at 1:21 AM on May 26, 2009 [13 favorites]

Somewhat tangential, but I'm convinced humans will soon begin using brain altering drugs much more frequently and purposefully. People will take ampakines to go to work, oxytocin at home, maybe some sort of artificial-cannabinoid when watching a movie or needing creativity...

And the average person won't find it much stranger than downing a couple red bulls when 10 years ago you'd have had coffee
posted by crayz at 1:38 AM on May 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Metafilter: I can stop any time, I swear!
posted by kaspen at 2:04 AM on May 26, 2009

Do what now?
posted by runcibleshaw at 2:18 AM on May 26, 2009

So, one day soon, some attention researcher is going to find out that the happiest people are the ones who pay the least dedicated attention to things, and some person will create the GND system (Get Nothing Done), and be a new web-hero.
posted by birdsquared at 2:56 AM on May 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

the GND system

from here on out
i'm gettin' nuthin' done
gettin' stuff done is overrated
plus it ain't no fun
i'm stayin' home today
no battles to be won
if you need me, i'll be here in bed
gettin' nuthin done
gettin' nuthin done
gettin' nuthin done
gettin' nuthin done
gettin' nuthin done
gettin' nuthin done

posted by flapjax at midnite at 3:05 AM on May 26, 2009

going to find out that the happiest people are the ones

Focus bars the way to nibbana. Attention is the mark of the puthujjana.
posted by Meatbomb at 3:40 AM on May 26, 2009

i can't believe i made it all the way to the 6th page!
posted by molecicco at 3:48 AM on May 26, 2009

some person will create the GND system (Get Nothing Done)

That's like teaching people how to poop. Everyone already knows how.
posted by WalterMitty at 3:58 AM on May 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

I can't believe I made it all the way this far down the page!
posted by From Bklyn at 4:14 AM on May 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

A Summary for the "I Can't Be Bothered To Read The Whole Article" Crowd

1. Technology provides us with many distractions.
2. We cannot retreat to a quieter time.
3. Are we living through a crisis of attention? An expert (David Meyer) says yes.
4. Multitasking is your brain rapidly switching attention from one task to another, losing efficiency in the process.
5. Coping strategies
a. Meditation
b. Drugs
c. Lifehacking
6. Perhaps ADD is good. Maybe it's more 'creative'.
7. What about the next generation? Our brains are changing.
posted by WalterMitty at 4:23 AM on May 26, 2009 [7 favorites]

From the Wikipedia entry on The Boston Molasses Disaster: The Boston Molasses Disaster, also known as the Great Molasses Flood and the Great Boston Molasses Tragedy, occurred on January 15, 1919, in the North End neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts in the United States. A large molasses tank burst, and a wave of molasses rushed through the streets at an estimated 35 mph (56 km/h), killing 21 and injuring 150. The event has entered local folklore, and residents claim that on hot summer days, the area still smells of molasses.

From a Yankee magazine article about the disaster: With a horrible, hissing, sucking sound, it splashed in a curving arc straight across the street, crushing everything and everybody in its path.
posted by WalterMitty at 4:27 AM on May 26, 2009

All snark aside, this was a good, if inconclusive article.

I'm certainly very aware of the changes in my own behaviour that connectivity, mobile phones and the web have wrought, and I'm not entirely happy with most of them. Many of them, in fact, I find positively uncomfortable and a net negative for my life as a whole.

The images that went with this article were interesting, showing as they did 'smashed' people, distracted, sliced up, blurry around the edges and not entirely functioning as a whole. It's been a while since I've seen a visual metaphor that so accurately captured how I feel about something - that 'smashed', digitised person is precisely how I feel at my worst about the web. To quote Bilbo Baggins - 'thin, like too little butter spread across too much bread'.

I'm working actively on rebuilding my attention span, refocusing my interests and withdrawing, to a large extent, from the web. Metafilter and a personal website (barely used) are the two remaining outliers, and I retain both of them because of the current (Metafilter) and future (my website) value I (or hope to get) out of them. Metafilter is valuable to me precisely because it is such an effective filter, and also has a lot of serendipitous things on it that I'd never find in a million years of random web surfing, although like any site with lots on it and a neverending stream of updates, my use of the site has sometimes been bordering on the obsessive.

I'll tell you something I've discovered about trying to get back to the pleasures I used to enjoy, like extensive reading and quiet time away from information inputs - it's really hard. The instant gratification, constant updating and omnipresent nature of the web has, I believe, really broken down a lot of skills and abilities I used to have. It's created some new ones, but I don't particularly like using them. Sure, it's handy to be able to construct an effective google search (amazing how many people can't do that!), but reading, retaining and developing ideas from a book is a vastly more pleasant use of time.

Web advocates and those who pooh-pooh the idea of information overload will tell you that this is nothing to be worried about, and that 'neuro-plasticity' is a desirable thing that will help me and my kids to adapt to a changing world. Honestly, if adapting to this supposedly inevitable world means I need to spend my life in a twitchy state of rapid-fire response that makes it impossible to focus on anything properly, you can keep it.

I'll keep using the web, but I severely doubt that my interactions with it in five years will be anything like they are now, or even two years ago when I was at the height of my GTD/Flickr/43folders/GoogleMaps mania. And that, I'd imagine, will be quite pleasant.
posted by Happy Dave at 4:54 AM on May 26, 2009 [32 favorites]

It's a thorough and interesting article that doesn't over-simplify the subject. I enjoyed reading it, despite my life-long (I'm 57) severe ADHD, which was never medicated. The other day I tried a Red Bull for the first time; in half an hour I was terribly focused, with a singleness of mind and a quiet brain, and I read through an article sequentially, paragraph by paragraph, untangling its syntax carefully.

I didn't like the feeling. I prefer my normally noisy brain. I get more done and it's more entertaining.
posted by Peach at 5:12 AM on May 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Shiny thing!
posted by PenDevil at 5:53 AM on May 26, 2009

A quintessentially Western solution to the attention problem—one that neatly circumvents the issue of willpower—is to simply dope our brains into focus. We’ve done so, over the centuries, with substances ranging from tea to tobacco to NoDoz to Benzedrine, and these days the tradition seems to be approaching some kind of zenith with the rise of neuroenhancers: drugs designed to treat ADHD (Ritalin, Adderall), Alzheimer’s (Aricept), and narcolepsy (Provigil) that can produce, in healthy people, superhuman states of attention...

Although neuroenhancers are currently illegal to use without a prescription, they’re popular among college students (on some campuses, up to 25 percent of students admitted to taking them) and—if endless anecdotes can be believed—among a wide spectrum of other professional focusers: journalists on deadline, doctors performing high-stakes surgeries, competitors in poker tournaments, researchers suffering through the grind of grant-writing. There has been controversy in the chess world recently about drug testing at tournaments.

Back in olden days, we used to take drugs in order to get high and avoid work. Now people are taking them in order to avoid distractions and get work done. Friends, welcome to the 21st century.
posted by spoobnooble at 5:58 AM on May 26, 2009 [12 favorites]

Excellent article that certainly describes our overly distracted age to a T.

Over the last few years I've noticed a difference in the way that I read books. Whereas in the past I would have lingered over and savored every single word, every single plot twist these days I skim. In fact, I'm usually so impatient to know what happens that I "surf" through the book, skipping around to the end and then to another part of the book. There's no doubt in my mind that I now read books the way that I surf the internet, skipping around with abandon for that next sweet spot of instant satisfaction. Needless to say, my reading is much less satisfying than it used to be. When I try to concentrate and read as I used to, it's actually quite difficult.

At some point I'll probably need to go on an internet diet the way that Happy Dave above describes. I too imagine that it will be quite pleasant.
posted by so much modern time at 6:00 AM on May 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

I started reading it but ended up focusing on the Woody Allen/Larry David article instead.
posted by FrankBlack at 6:06 AM on May 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

When I'm at home, I can get a hell of a lot more work done if I can get that little internet demon off my back. And when I get my own work done, I am happy and proud; I have made something that measures up to my own standards. If I'm mopey and low-energy and afraid of tackling a Big Chunk Of Work and spend the day just spazzily bouncing around my usual sources of web "novelty" I feel depressed and tired at the end of the day.

When I am at the day job, I know damn well I'm never going to get that pleasure of finishing something. I've been maintaining this Flash/web project intermittently for two years. I don't care enough to make it bulletproof, I don't get to make architecture decisions myself, I don't get to provide any visual direction; I'm just a code monkey. Who gets most tasks done quickly and spends a lot of time idle. Distracting myself with metafilter, reddit, and lj are what gives me enough of a drip feed of novelty (or, at least, fake novelty) to keep my brain functioning.

Luckily i have things managed such that I only spend two days a week at the day job. I dunno how the average American manages to stay sane.

I should stop typing this and go to the day job, which especially sucks today because this weekend I got really fired up about getting the graphic novel to the point where I can launch it sometime this week. All I want to do is dive into Illustrator and finish those last three panels; instead I gotta go do whatever random tweaks my boss doesn't have the Flash/PHP/CSS skills to do.
posted by egypturnash at 6:16 AM on May 26, 2009 [3 favorites]

So yeah, I guess my reaction to this article is "we have some seriously tedious shit to distract ourselves from and maybe that is worth talking about more than the particular stuff we use to lift our brains off of the treadmill of tedium." Being bored at work can embed the habit of looking for distraction, and that comes back to bite you on the ass when you're trying to get focused on something you actually give a shit about.
posted by egypturnash at 6:19 AM on May 26, 2009 [6 favorites]

The other day I tried a Red Bull for the first time; in half an hour I was terribly focused, with a singleness of mind and a quiet brain, and I read through an article sequentially, paragraph by paragraph, untangling its syntax carefully.

I hear descriptions like this about methylphenidate pretty frequently, but have never heard of a response like yours to Red Bull. How do you generally react to stimulants?
posted by solipsophistocracy at 6:27 AM on May 26, 2009

My happiest moments are those when I'm completely absorbed in one thing; writing code, eating a good meal, watching a movie, playing an immersive video game. But I spend most of my daily life deliberately seeking distraction, particularly on my computer. I wish someone would design an operating system that encouraged single task focus. Unfortunately, my primary task of coding really requires multiple focus, since I'm constantly looking up reference materials on the web.

I've often wondered if the Buddhist tradition of meditation could be applied effectively to Western work patterns. But instead of clearing your mind of all thoughts, just clear your mind of all things but the task you are on. Manual labor is a bit meditative in this way. Why isn't knowledge work?
posted by Nelson at 6:36 AM on May 26, 2009 [3 favorites]

I think our current "crisis" is largely one of what systems corporate culture has embraced and whose workstyles are compatible with that. I once walked into someone's office, dropped off a file - later they asked me where it came from and I pointed out that they were sitting there when I dropped it off. They said something like, "Oh, I must have been concentrating on something." The notion that a big hairy linebacker-esque guy could saunter into your 10x10 cubicle and you wouldn't even look up was completely alien to me. I wondered how they'd managed to live this long without falling to their death or some such.

Now, putting on my captain ADD mask and tights, let me say that I don't see the world post-internet as any more distracting than the world pre-internet. Oh, sure, there's a wider variety of stuff to be distracted by, but there have always been plenty of things to be distracted by.

While I'm on meds now, I kind of feel the way Peach does about some of the effects. "Yes, now I can write an uninspired report for you in a reasonable time. Yay team!"
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 6:49 AM on May 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

The most advanced Buddhist monks become world-class multitaskers. Meditation might speed up their mental processes enough to handle information overload.

Isn't the point of Meditation to try and alleviate information overload?

Such a typical and strange thing, when the West tries to use the East to justify means to an end.
posted by gcbv at 6:53 AM on May 26, 2009 [3 favorites]

I noticed something very similar last night. We had stopped at Borders to have a coffee and sit in the cafe to peruse some books. An hour later I was 2/3rds of the way through Cat's Cradle. Not that this is necessarily a problem, but I do think it's a reading method I learned from the internet, mostly mefi.

Yeah, using hypertext a lot does this to people, with not necessarily bad results. A few years ago I was sitting in an Indigo bookstore (for Americans: this is the Canadian equivalent to Borders or Barnes and Noble) reading something about modern novels. The author illustrated a point by citing something from Nicholson Baker's Fermata (which I had never read), so I put down what I had been reading, walked over to the fiction shelves, pulled down Fermata and read it through, then returned to the original text. I would not have done this before hyptertext, I think.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:34 AM on May 26, 2009 [4 favorites]

I've often wondered if the Buddhist tradition of meditation could be applied effectively to Western work patterns. But instead of clearing your mind of all thoughts, just clear your mind of all things but the task you are on. Manual labor is a bit meditative in this way. Why isn't knowledge work?

Sometimes, knowledge work is — and often, manual labor isn't.

F'rinstance, in my field, everything's written in LaTeX, and I've been using it for over a decade now. I can totally zone out typesetting and formatting a document, and although I can't prove it, I suspect that it's satisfying for me the same way cleaning a gun or tuning an engine is satisfying for mechanically oriented dudes — every step is obvious if you just look closely; it requires attention but not any kind of mental or physical strain; you proceed through, step by step, making simple changes that add up to leave you with an elegant and functional whole.

I get that same meditative vibe off of checking quotations, or setting up a bibliography, or doing oldschool library research — making a list of Dewey Decimal numbers, hunting them down in the stacks, sorting through the piles until I've got what I need.

Hell, even writing — every grad student's (least)-favorite horrible hair-pulling nail-biting bit of work — is meditative on a good day. The problem is that most days aren't good days. I don't know as much as I'd like to, or have the skills I wish I had, or I need new ideas and they aren't coming as quickly as I hoped, or I'm forced to write something that I don't give a shit about, or I'm writing something I like that I doubt anyone will ever see...

But those problems can all spoil your enjoyment of manual labor too. Sure, doing useful work with good tools for people you love is satisfying. But washing rich strangers' dishes, scraping ice off your windshield with an old credit card because you lost your scraper, changing a tire in the dark in a ditch, or digging a ditch on a hot day are every bit as maddening as hack writing on a deadline or debugging pointless code for a project you hate.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:47 AM on May 26, 2009

"when I get my own work done, I am happy and proud; I have made something that measures up to my own standards.

If I'm mopey and low-energy and afraid of tackling a Big Chunk Of Work and spend the day just spazzily bouncing around my usual sources of web "novelty" I feel depressed and tired at the end of the day."

Totally agree. I don't necessarily think this has much to do with attention span though; before I used the web I would avoid homework by playing guitar or reading novels. Even if I finished a 'worthy' novel or learned a rewarding lick, I'd still feel that low-level self-loathing that came from not being able to force myself to do a task that needed to be done. I think the web just gives an inexhaustable resource of distraction.

I went to see some live heart surgery yesterday. Sat in a auditorium for three hours watching the queer thing beating, then not beating for a bit, then beating again. Didn't lose concentration once.

I don't think my ability to focus is shot. My discipline is pretty bad, but it's always been like that.
posted by Cantdosleepy at 7:49 AM on May 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

The other day I tried a Red Bull for the first time...

In related news -- Cocaine traces found in Red Bull Cola.
posted by ericb at 8:00 AM on May 26, 2009

I recently started a new research project and have chosen to do my reading notes the old-school way: a stack of note cards and a pen. On the positive side, I find that I can focus more easily and don't have as many distractions as if I was using my laptop. On the negative side, it's hard work focusing so intently for an extended period of time.
posted by oozy rat in a sanitary zoo at 8:05 AM on May 26, 2009

did somebody already say tl;dr? i don't have time to read the comments...
posted by sexyrobot at 9:21 AM on May 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

7. What about the next generation? Our brains are changing.

Our brains aren't changing, certainly none of the hardware. What is changing is how we choose (consciously or not) to fix our focus. Case in point, my 14 year old nephew. We watched Apocalypse Now on DVD last summer, with him texting and chatting the whole way through, but every now and then dropping everything and actually paying attention with the right kind of shock and horror. Still, there's no way he got even close to the full complexity of what was going down.

A week later Apocalypse Now came up in conversation and, holy shit, I was wrong, he was all over the nuances and details. How was this possible? A little prodding revealed he'd since downloaded it and watched it three more times, always texting and chatting his way through.

The moral: yes, there are more distractions out there but we also have more access to things. When I was a teen, the only way to see Apocalypse Now was to travel across town to a movie theater, stand in line, and pay five bucks (or whatever). You bet I paid attention. Now, it's all just a click away. This changes things big time. But our brains remain our brains.
posted by philip-random at 9:26 AM on May 26, 2009 [3 favorites]

I have kept a to do list on my person for the whole of today. No sooner do I open the pad to write something down then I have forgotten what it was. That's not procrastination, or being easily distracted, or a normal part of being a member of the Twittering classes. That is a severely debilitating neurological ooooh a butterfly.....
posted by marmaduke_yaverland at 10:23 AM on May 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

In related news -- Cocaine traces found in Red Bull Cola.

Red Bull is people.
posted by philip-random at 10:26 AM on May 26, 2009

I liked this article. One of our authors did a writeup on it that we just published. But I think last years piece in The Atlantic Is Google making us stupid is more interesting. More interesting still, is the interview with the author of that article in The Sun Magazine.
posted by Stephen Elliott at 10:40 AM on May 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

Thank you Walter Mitty for the summary.

Why is this article so frickin long?

Maybe we should complain about distractions, but first let's frag the authors who insist on wasting our time.

For instance:

"This is troubling news, obviously, for a culture of BlackBerrys and news crawls and Firefox tabs—tools that, critics argue, force us all into a kind of elective ADHD."

29 words where 5 could do.

posted by storybored at 12:26 PM on May 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

I read the whole article start to finish without even changing tabs in Safari. Do I win something?

Incidentally, to confirm his biases, I am a Buddhist.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 4:05 PM on May 26, 2009

I check in a couple of times a day on Twitter, and one of the musicians I follow-- possibly Nico Muhly-- noted that a friend of his called that state of being online for hours, forgetting what you read an hour ago or what page you came from before the one you're on now, wandering around and around and consuming stuff and information and pictures and having it all flow through your head and leave little behind-- that state? The "click trance". I don't find endless distraction too much of an issue-- parenting teaches you how to mulitask far more quickly than a Blackberry and a Facebook account-- but for me the issue is that I pay too much of a certain kind of dreamy attention to the internet. It's different from really productive attention, like writing, but it's still attention. Like windowshopping. Gathering.

(On the other hand, I don't yet have a cell phone, and I screen every call on my landline and rarely pick up, unless it's my mother. Perhaps that's a way of shrinking the communcation footprint.)
posted by jokeefe at 4:09 PM on May 26, 2009

I hear descriptions like this about methylphenidate pretty frequently, but have never heard of a response like yours to Red Bull. How do you generally react to stimulants?
I don't take them. Alcohol was my drug of choice back when I did anything. Though I start the day with a couple of cups of coffee just so I can think (not so I can wake up). I have heard that caffeine elicits that effect in some ADHD people.

And I have ALWAYS read the way people currently claim "Internet addicts" read. What's wrong with it? I write that way, too. Currently working on writing three books and a couple of articles, while reading (at the moment) 10+ books, while teaching full time and competing in a sport at a moderately high level.

Dang. Whut? Oh. Going to sleep now.
posted by Peach at 7:31 PM on May 26, 2009

philip-random: I suspect your nephew has probably also looked at the Apocalypse Now Wikipedia article afterward as well.
posted by amuseDetachment at 8:40 PM on May 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

Texting May Be Taking a Toll
posted by homunculus at 11:52 PM on May 26, 2009

It's not so very long ago that commentators were worrying about how television was eroding our attention-span, and how young people were growing up on a diet of visual images instead of written words. (That was before the internet came along and plunged us all back into an omnipresent sea of text.) The truth, I suppose, is that every age makes its own distractions. Here's Harriet Beecher Stowe, writing in 1850:

I am constantly pursued and haunted by the idea that I don't do anything. Since I began this note I have been called off at least a dozen times; once for the fish-man, to buy a codfish; once to see a man who had brought me some barrels of apples; once to see a book-man; then to Mrs Upham, to see about a drawing I promised to make for her; then to nurse the baby; then into the kitchen to make a chowder for dinner; and now I am at it again, for nothing but deadly determination enables me ever to write; it is rowing against wind and tide.

Women, of course, have always had to struggle against distractions like these, but now men have started to find it eating away at their productivity, and suddenly it's not just part of the fabric of everyday life, it's "a full-blown epidemic -- a cognitive plague that has the potential to wipe out an entire generation of focused and productive thought".
posted by verstegan at 6:39 AM on May 27, 2009 [2 favorites]

By the way, in regards to the claim made that email can be as deleterious to the IQ as pot smoking, as usual it was a case of crappy science journalism.
posted by Defenestrator at 10:46 PM on May 29, 2009

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