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‘The Distraction Addiction” challenges you to look away from the screens

Last modified: 8/25/2013 12:37:01 AM
A challenge: Can you get through reading this entire review without checking your Facebook news feed even once? If your phone blasts Beethoven’s Fifth or some peppy marimbas to herald the thrilling arrival of a new email, can you wait to read it?

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang is betting that you can’t. His amusing and edifying new book, The Distraction Addiction (see the breakout for full title, so we can get more quickly to the end of this sentence and thus closer to returning you to your game of Candy Crush), addresses those of us who feel bereft to the point of complete panic without our cell phones. Who worry that we are descending into early dementia, so dependent are we on our search engines to remember anything. And that, he claims, is pretty much all of us. When we’re not online, where most of us spend fully four months of each year, we’re engaged in the stressful work of trying to get online: “Computer users spend an average of forty-three minutes every day – five hours a week, or eleven days a year – waiting for computers to start up, shut down, load software, open files, connect to the Internet.”

Pang joins a growing list of authors who offer to help us battle our addiction to technology. This month also sees the publication of Catherine Steiner-Adair’s The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age, addressed to parents suffering anxiety about what their kids are doing on their computers in the privacy of their rooms, and the sinkhole of time they fall into while doing it. For the aggravations and etiquette of online communication, see John Freeman’s The Tyranny of Email: The Four-Thousand Year Journey to Your Inbox or David Shipley and Will Schwalbe’s SEND: Why People Email So Badly and How to Do It Better.

Unlike some of these others, The Distraction Addiction is not framed as a self-help book despite the clunky how-to subtitle. It’s a thoughtful examination of the perils of our current computing overdose, and a historical overview of how technological advances change consciousness. A “professional futurist” with a doctorate in the history of science, Pang urges an approach that he calls “contemplative computing.” He asks that you pay Zen-like attention to “how your mind and body interact with computers and how your attention and creativity are influenced by technology.”

Pang’s first job is to disabuse you of the common misconception that doing two things at once allows you to get more done. What is commonly called multitasking is, in fact, switch tasking, and its deleterious effects on productivity are well-documented. “When you’re constantly interrupted by external things – the phone, texts, people with ‘just one quick question,’ clients, children – by self-generated interruptions, or by your own efforts to multitask and juggle several tasks at once, the chronic distractions erode your sense of having control of your life. They don’t just derail your train of thought. They make you lose yourself.”

Pang doesn’t advocate returning to a pre-internet world, some Eden of pure solitude, complete with birdsong. “If the Buddha was alive,” one of his interview subjects notes, “would he use Facebook or blog? I think he would.” Instead, he asks you to “take a more ecological view of your relationships with technologies and look for ways devices or media may be making specific tasks easier or faster but at the same time making your work and life harder.” For instance, he documents how using a washing machine is certainly easier than beating your clothes against rocks, and yet the modern housewife spends far more time doing laundry than her forebears. Similarly – as we’ve all experienced – the elaborate email chains with endless “Reply Alls” cluttering our inboxes are a less economical way to solve problems than picking up the phone or (gasp) actually meeting face-to-face.

The Distraction Addiction is particularly fascinating on how technologies have changed certain fields of endeavor – often for the worse. For architects, computer-aided design has become essential but in some ways has cheapened the design process itself. As one architect puts it, “Architecture is first and foremost about thinking . . . and drawing is a (more) productive way of thinking” than CAD. Writing and research, too, often require slowness, indirection. According to Pang, Charles Darwin spent his most productive hours taking daily brisk walks around his estate. And it has been documented that people who read e-books retain less than those who read hard copies.

Somewhat less scintillating are Pang’s solutions for kicking the internet habit. He recommends the usual behavior-modification approaches, familiar to anyone who has completed a smoking cessation program. Keep logs to study your online profile and decide what you can knock out, download a program like Freedom that locks you out of your browser, or take a “digital Sabbath”: “Unless you’re a reporter, currency speculator, or emergency-department doctor, you’ll discover that your world doesn’t fall apart when you go offline.” These solutions may seem obvious, but then think of all of the diet books that recommend the revolutionary prescription of eating less if you want to lose weight. Easier said. Take heart: As Pang documents, in the future virtual imaging will allow us to see ourselves getting thinner as we diet and exercise, and studies show that actually seeing our better potential selves will keep us on the treadmill longer.

Congratulations, by the way, if you managed to read all of these words uninterrupted. As a reward, you could watch “Monk needs help opening a book” on YouTube, in which a professional of yore goes to a medieval help desk and complains about how much he preferred the scroll. Pang would probably approve, since his book brings us back to the cavemen and their first tools to make the point that adapting to technological advances has never been easy or automatic.


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