Tag Archives: distraction

Picking our Moment

For the privilege of total immersion, we pay the price of slowly alienating ourselves from ourselves.

We all know the sources that push us away from ourselves. In addition to online searches there are mobile phones, phone apps, tweets and texts, e-mail, cable and broadcast programming, news alerts, RSS feeds, Facebook “notifications,” not to mention blogs like this one.  In addition, many of us are still deeply dependent on newspapers, magazines, movies, product catalogs, Pandora, MP3s, radio and podcasts.  Every waking minute of every day offers some distraction to drain away our abilities to focus, concentrate and—most ominously—face the unpredictable beast of our own thoughts.

We seem increasingly unable to manage our informational world.

On a commuter train recently it was hard to not hear the increasingly heated cell phone conversation unfolding between a passenger and her mother.  It sounded like both sides were picking old wounds that have never quite healed. Charges of emotional neglect and indifference hurled back and forth. The rider’s injunctions were laced with scorn. And she seemed to not notice that others where an involuntary audience to her woes.

One could not help but think: was this really the best moment to have this discussion?  Shouldn’t precious and fragile family relations be maintained in a better setting that could increase the chances of a better result?  In other words, must we accept the socially awkward terms of usage that new media randomly impose on us?  We seem increasingly unable to manage our informational world.

To say we pay a price for trying to bear up under media intrusions of our own making is now obvious. For most of us the compulsion to keep checking back on the open channels we have set up is nearly total and time consuming.  We choose to keep our digital companions on.  We willingly succumb to the “breaking news” story from a cable news outlet, or the random tweets and texts of others.  We may even stop a lively conversation to check a minor disputed fact that has just surfaced.

For the privilege of total immersion, we pay the price of slowly alienating ourselves from ourselves. To the digital native, being truly alone without some sort of external distraction is—irony of ironies—unnatural: almost as if the chatter coming from our own mind is the rhetoric of a stranger.

That’s a problem because we probably have some interesting things to hear from our inner selves.  A common view is that our intrapersonal chatter is often dysfunctional: full of anxieties, useless fantasies, and other forms of impractical mental skywriting. But all these attributes of consciousness contribute to our self-awareness. They are important.  We need time to work this stuff out.  They are among the reasons we walk and sleep. Not giving ourselves the time to know what we think sets us up to be aimless and disoriented.

To be sure, if media theory tells us anything, it is that our media-use habits don’t revert. There’s no waiting-by-the-phone Meet-Me-in-St.-Louis future for any of us.  Media evolve, and we do our best to keep up.  We just have to work a little harder to not allow them to squeeze a precious sentience out of our lives.

The next time you are stuck waiting for something to happen, try listening to the productive insights that your brain has on offer. The trick is moving past the momentary boredom of being truly “with” yourself.  Soon enough you will discover the neglected personal business that truly matters.

The Advantages of Linear Thinking

This is the realm of the problem-solver, the creator, the owner of a consciousness that will discover what a fragmented thinker may never find.

Sherlock Holmes

[With each passing year it seems like we collectively lose more of our hard-earned skills for concentration. Those are important skills that allow us to focus on a single task, seeing it through to successful completion. In short, we are distracted. Digital media are rewiring our brains to prefer ideas or subjects in short and simple segments: a serious loss to our coping and problem-solving abilities.]

By definition, a distraction is a detour. It happens when the continuity of some effort is broken by the need to shift attention elsewhere. Since this website is dedicated to communicating in “the age of distraction”—be it advertising clutter, too many texts and emails, or the frenetic pace of overscheduled lives—we should have an interest in persons who resist all the cultural noise.

One answer to this problem is to discipline ourselves to follow a more linear pathway, even though cultivating this kind of thinking cuts against the grain of the culture.   And it’s not easy to tell the world to take a hike while we muse alone in our own self-made bubble.

Linear thinkers take many forms:  avid readers content to devote large chunks of time to a single work of fiction or nonfiction, artists happily left alone to work through decisions that will end up on canvass or as musical notation.  And of course we’ve enshrined the image of the “mad scientist” as a loner following the threads of their research with long hours in the lab, leaving family and friends to fend on their own.

George Frederick Handel wrote the great oratorio Messiah in spurt of nearly unbroken concentration, finishing in just over three weeks.  And imagine the sustained effort required by William Lamb’s architectural firm, who designed and prepared drawings for New York City’s Empire State Building in an incredibly short two weeks. The iconic skyscraper was completed in just over a year.  Such dedication to a single task can be scaled down to what many writers sense when they notice the time that vanishes when they are absorbed in their work.

The linear thinker looks forward to clearing the decks sufficiently to be able to see an unobstructed view of the horizon. Undisturbed concentration gives them power. This is the realm of the problem-solver, the creator, the owner of a consciousness that will discover and understand what a fragmented thinker may never find. Unbroken attention to a task allows a first effort to build on the synergies that begin when scattered thinking  begins to see connections and consequences that others may miss.  By contrast, longer discursive forms allow important details and possible problems to come into focus.

This is more or less the reverse of the kind of segmentation of effort that is now embedded in our work and so much of our media. A reader’s time on a single web page is usually under a minute.  And we are getting cues from all over that we’re not noticing our preference for hyper-compression. Consider, for example, the New York Times reporter who recently noted in passing that an individual “argued” a point “on Twitter.”  Really?  Can a person “argue” in the traditional sense of the term—which includes asserting a claim and it’s good reasons—in a verbal closet of 280 characters?  Twitter imposes absurd limitations on the expression of  thoughts, matched by political ads that “argue” public policy in 30-seconds, television news “sound bites” from policy-makers that average around eight seconds, and the de-facto editing style of commercial television that cuts individual shots into lengths of two or three seconds.

Interestingly, one of the features  sometimes seen in a person at the higher end of the autism spectrum scale is a consuming and total passion for one thing. Subjects with Asperger’s are especially known for their laser-focused interests, making them a challenging fit in a culture that rewards frequent pivots to completely different activities. Psychological historians believe we can thank mild forms of autism for the achievements of Mozart, Beethoven, Charles Darwin, and Lewis Carroll.  It’s interesting to posit that it may well have been Aspergers that made Sherlock Holmes the world’s favorite sleuth.

Given the misplaced importance of multi-tasking across the culture, it makes sense that there is building interest in novel ideas like the self-driving car. Negotiating a ribbon of open road is a linear process that seems increasingly beyond the capacities of distracted drivers. It’s probably better to let a computer take care of a task many are less equipped to manage themselves.

If we think we have identified a significant problem here, we probably should be more humble and note that these few words on the attributes of linearity are a better example of non-linear thinking. The concept deserves a book more than a blog.