Wired has an interview with author Maggie Jackson who’s recently written a book called ‘Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age’ in which she argues modern life and digital technology constantly demand our attention and are consequently damaging our ability to concentrate and be creative. The trouble is, I just don’t buy it and it’s easy to see why.
The ‘modern technology is hurting our brain’ argument is widespread but it seems so short-sighted. It’s based on the idea that before digital communication technology came along, people spent their time focusing on single tasks for hours on end and were rarely distracted.
The trouble is, it’s plainly rubbish, and you just have to spend time with some low tech communities to see this is the case.
In some of the poorer neighbourhoods Medell√≠n, my current city of residence, there is no electricity. In these barrios, computers, the internet, and even washing machines and telephones don’t exist in the average home.
Pretty much everything is done manually. By the lights of the ‘driven to digital distraction’ argument, the residents should be able to live blissfully focused distraction-free lives, but they don’t.
If you think twitter is an attention magnet, try living with an infant. Kids are the most distracting thing there is and when you have three of even four in the house it is both impossible to focus on one thing, and stressful, because the consequences of not keeping an eye on your kids can be frightening even to think about.
The manual nature of all the tasks means you have to watch everything. There is no timer on the cooker, so you need to watch the food. The washing has to be done, by hand, while keeping an eye on everything else.
People call all the time, because, well, there is no other way of communication. Street vendors pass by the house and shout what they’re selling. If you miss out on something, it might mean your days food planning has gone down the drain.
On top of this, people may be working to make a living in the same building. Running a shop, mending stuff, selling food, or whatever their business might be.
The difference between this, and the “oh isn’t email stressful” situation, is that you can take a break from email and phone calls. You can switch everything off for an hour so you can concentrate. You can tell people you won’t be available.
For people trying to work and run a family at the same time, not only are the consequences of missing something more important and potentially more dangerous, but it’s impossible to take a break. A break means your kids are in danger, your family doesn’t get fed and you’re losing money that buys the food.
Now, think about the fact that the majority of the world live just like this, and not in not in the world of email, tweets and instant messaging. Until about 100 years ago everyone lived like this.
In other words, the ability to focus on a single task, relatively uninterrupted, is the strange anomaly in the history of our psychological development.
New technology has not created some sort of unnatural cyber-world, but is just moving us away from a relatively short blip of focus that pervaded parts of the Western world for probably about 50 years at most.
And when we compare the level of stress and distraction it causes in comparison to the life of the average low-tech family, it’s nothing. It actually allows us to focus, because it makes things less urgent, it controls the consequences and allows us to suffer no more than social indignation if we don’t respond immediately.
The past, and for most people on the planet, the present, have never been an oasis of mental calm and creativity. And anyone who thinks they have it hard because people keep emailing them should trying bringing up a room of kids with nothing but two pairs of hands and a cooking pot.
Link to Wired interview with short-sighted digital doomsayer.