Digital Distraction Debate (& Possible Evidence)

June 8, 2010 by
Filed under: History, New Media, Video games 

We know attention is as important to writing as it is to most any practice, and a lot competes for our attention these days.  But are we more distracted than in the past?  The discussion has gone something like If you are distracted constantly, you become dependent on the stimuli in your environment–digital life and multitasking have “shallowed” our ability to attend to the world and our very bodies.

Or There’s no such thing as distraction–being distracted means we pay attention elsewhere.  We’ve always multitasked, and we’re smarter for the engagement it provides.

Debate can help frame our concerns, and we can pick sides in this.  But without getting out of our skin or applying multiple tools, we can’t know the accuracy of our perceptions.  A Feburary 2, 2010 Front Line found MIT students thought they were more productive when juggling tasks, but their reaction times slowed.  Thus, we’re beginning to test how multitasking is or isn’t impacting us.

This Sunday’s New York Times Article, Your Brain on Computers: Hooked on Gadgets, and Paying a Mental Price, focuses on a forty-something multi-tasker, not simply the youth as is usually done.  Care to check yourself for distraction?  There’s a test provided.

Admittedly, I found the test exceptionally easy.  But instead of congratulating myself on my abilities or doubting the test’s validity, I couldn’t help think the test was easy because it was a stripped down skill set I’ve acquired by playing video games.

Care to weigh in on this?  It’s an ongoing question: what does digital life mean for writing?  I’d be most interested in hearing what you think are the best tools to test our arguments.


2 Comments on Digital Distraction Debate (& Possible Evidence)

  1. Rosemarie ("Romy") Romano on Tue, 8th Jun 2010 8:29 pm
  2. I had just read the article in the New York Times when I stopped to check my Facebook page and found that you had posted the same article to your blog. I have to comment. Not only did I recognize myself in that article, but I have been increasingly worried about what has happened to my attention span and my ability to focus since the invention of the PC. As a child and young adult I read voluminously and deeply. I thought nothing of spending hours engrossed in a book. I had read all the most popular novels of Charles Dickens before I reached high school. In college I read many of the great French novelists in the original French. Literature was my passion, and reading was like breathing. I felt I could not live without it. Yet for the past 15 years my reading has changed, and not for the better. Though I continue to read, I am reading online books and periodicals while stopping constantly to read email in multiple accounts, check my Facebook page, play , at least initially, with every new trend, jumping from Twitter to wikis and blogs like this one. I spend my days using, and learning to use, an ever-increasing number of ever-changing applications. I am multitasking all day at work, and during the evenings and weekends at home. It’s been a long time since I realized that I was no longer able to devote the attention needed to complete a contemporary novel, much less one written in Victorian style or in a foreign language. I thought it was because I was too busy, perhaps, with too many responsibilities to waste time on something as self-indulgent as fiction. Or I blamed it on my age– perhaps I had simply outgrown my early love of literature. But I know what it is, and I am determined to re-wire my brain back to what it used to be. Last week I read a wonderful novel, gorgeously descriptive, deeply felt, and more informative, in its way, than anything I could have read in a newspaper about U.S. foreign policy and its impact on Africa. How good it was, and how I wanted to share the news of it with everyone I knew. At least everyone I knew who still is capable of reading a book that long. I cannot abandon the technologies that form the basis for so much of my work, nor do I want to, entirely. I just mean to set aside some time in my schedule for the deep reading that has proved so nourishing to my mind and spirit.

  3. bower on Wed, 9th Jun 2010 10:41 am
  4. I agree that the article does wake us to our reconstruction by the digital; I met every one of their self-test questions for behavioral concern. Your work at the reference desk combined with digital publics is a draining experience, and I’m always impressed by how methodically you are able to do it. I also agree that reading longer works, fiction or not, does wire us differently than our daily lives demand. I’ve been saying for years how teaching longer fiction (novels/novellas) in English 102 provides understanding of narrative in a very different, sustaining way as compared to what else we read. Novels personalize language use through their interiorization. Digital writing makes language public—sometimes too public, hence one reason for overload. In considering this trade off, Jenkin’s comment on multitasking is both observant and scary when we realize that we will lose much of who we’ve been during this cultural shift. Still, not all of it is lost, and it needn’t be for you, as you say. Some people are reading longer works. This NPR story on the expected upcoming blockbusters is noteworthy, not for the books’ subject matter but because they’re both first-part trilogies and 800 and 400 pages long.

    As I try to push through reading five books in the three days I have left of vacation, I’m with you in your concern about what we lose. I won’t be able to read these books as I like. Given the opportunities and interstices by the digital for expression/writing, I’m excited by our current practices, even if I don’t want to be controlled by them. And certainly, we should all want technology to work for us, not us for it.

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