NY Mag: In Defense of Distraction

Jill says: "In this week’s New York magazine, contributing editor Sam Anderson declares enough with the anti-multitasking alarmism (Google is making us stupid, multitasking is draining our souls, and the 'dumbest generation' is leading us into a 'dark age') and writes about the benefits of overstimulation. The future won’t be about focusing more—it’ll be about focusing even less…"
This doomsaying strikes me as silly for two reasons. First, conservative 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.” (A complaint we remember, not incidentally, because it was written down.) And, more practically, the virtual horse has already left the digital barn. It’s too late to just retreat to a quieter time. Our jobs depend on connectivity. Our pleasure-cycles—no trivial matter—are increasingly tied to it. 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.
In Defense of Distraction

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  1. People who multitask seem to do nothing particularly well.They mistake activity for accomplishment.They appear unable to focus on one thing and do it well.
    Short attention spans I think.

  2. Frankly, this piece seems just as asinine as most of those it is responding to. Certainly, arguments of the form “$NEW_TECHNOLOGY is corrupting the youth/destroying our morals/rotting our brains/etc.” are older than the hills, and generally poorly though through. However, arguments of the form “C’mon man, it’s like, too late to go back to the past, we just have to embrace the inevitable future because it is inevitable” are pitiful in their weakness. Newness is not necessarily equivalent to evil; but inevitability is hardly equivalent to good. And, in many cases, inevitability is more alleged than actual.

  3. This article would hold my attention much better if it weren’t divided across multiple arbitrary “pages.” Is http://nymag.com aware that users know how to scroll? That the internet is neither a truck NOR an actual newspaper, and that no flipping of pages is required?

  4. The arguement as stated, “C’mon man, it’s like, too late to go back to the past, we just have to embrace the inevitable future because it is inevitable,” may be a cliche, but I honestly think that, at least as far as technology is concerned, it’s usually true.

    The struggle is not to turn back the clock, but to maintain enough perspective to honestly assess how technology is changing us, because it will change us.

  5. This doomsaying strikes me as silly for two reasons. First, conservative 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.”

    And the technophiles throughout history have been claiming that the latest technological fix will finally solve all of our problems and usher in a bright, shiny world of happiness and plenty.

    It doesn’t seem that either has happened yet. But there’s always tomorrow, I guess.

  6. @#3 anonymous: Is http://nymag.com aware that users know how to scroll?

    Yes. But they are also aware that they get more ad revenue each time you load a page, so it’s a balancing act: How much can you fragment your content without driving away readers in frustration.

    While I don’t mind turning pages in a physical book, I personally hate clicking through multiple pages to read an article. It needlessly clutters the user’s browsing history (you can’t just click [back] to go back to where you came from). Also, lots of pages are designed to load the ads before the content loads, so a slow ad server can really screw up one of these multiple click-through designs. It’s also distracting and makes it almost impossible to skim an article.

  7. Could it be that the relentless imposition of boring, routine work, performed in artificial environements, over the last 2 centuries, is what drove us to (seek out) distraction with such zest? I know that when I’m away from my work (an inbound call centre), I do a lot less netsurfing.

    One thing I like about this author’s take on the topic: he shows how stupid it is to blame the means of distraction (the technology) when we should be probing deeper to ask where the hunger for distraction comes from. Weaving in evolution, philosophy, proust and neurochemistry adds many more layers to this topic than I’ve seen anywhere.

    Cheers,
    Sean

  8. It is true that we remember the complaint by Socrates because it was written down. But it was most likely not written down by Socrates himself, as he did not write much, if anything. Most of Socrates’ ideas has been preserved by Plato, his student. Luckily for us, he was ‘down’ with the new technology, and saved his master’s thoughts for eternity.

  9. @#3: click the “print” link near the bottom of the article, and you’ll get the entire article on one scrollbar-equipped screen.

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