The myth of the concentration oasis

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.

18 thoughts on “The myth of the concentration oasis”

  1. Intentionally ignoring your good point, I feel the article, at least from how I understand it, considers the internet to be somewhat of a negative part of society. I think the article seems to take that stance from the beginning. However, if you begin from the notion that the internet is a positive part of society, and I’m not arguing one way or another in this comment, but you can begin to consider that the people who are for ever flicking from one website or another, constantly checking emails, loading up Facebook and Twitter, are looking for something.
    I would say a great number of people on the internet don’t consider the internet to be part of their job, but rather a recretional activity. When we start ourselves off on the internet, we are searching and searching for things that fascinate and capitvate us. To say that this is somewhat negative, I feel, is nonsense because we are simply on a path of discovery! Albeit it could give the impression that we lack attention, to which this article’s focussed in on. The truth is, the internet opens up a whole new world, and, admittedly some will never find something that captivates them because some may not have that intention, but for a good portion of us, we will find something on the internet that opens up many, many new doors to a whole new world! Chances are, if we are on this path of discovery, we will find out more about ourselves also. Once we find things that captivate us then, well, we’ll be engrossed!
    Last of all though, taking your point into consideration, it’s a “distraction” that we have significant control over. And I think that’s beautiful.

  2. An impassioned post & good points, but I’m not sure that degree of distraction has always been a part of life…for men. For women with children underfoot and many tasks going on at once, yes. But for a man in the field–slow, repetitive, backbreaking labour I think, over thousands of years of agriculture. And in the thousands of years of hunting, a lot of walking, again slow and laborious and single-minded.

  3. Vaughan —
    First of all, while I generally am not bothered by typos, I felt that the typo in the first paragraph (but/buy) was very apropos given the subject matter that you’re writing about.
    Second, and more to the point of your article, I don’t think anyone was ever arguing the case that the poor people (of any epoch) have been able to concentrate for extended periods of time, but rather the higher classes.
    Think of Leonardo Da Vinci, Ludwig Van Beethoven, Charles Darwin… It is this level of devotion and focused attention of which we’re speaking. Had they had children, and/or been too poor to afford servants to take care of the trivial matters of the day they certainly may not have achieved anywhere near the success they did. However, if they were alive today, they would be much more distracted by modern conveniences. It is much easier to be passively entertained by television than it is to force yourself to be actively engaged in writing Der Grosse Fuge, or building machines capable of flight that predate the airplane.
    The tradeoff, of course, is that we now have much more resources (information, machinery, techniques) to leverage that make the creation process require less attention and effort.

  4. Yes, I agree with Ben. Comparing your situation to what a middle class or upper-middle class person from North America might have without technology is not a fair comparison.
    In my own experience, I have been in and out of the same college for 10 years and witnessed the college’s change from almost no tech in the classroom to ubiquitous tech. Whereas previously profs would assign readings and then give tests with a few papers for a course, they now do that and in addition there are regular discussion board postings, “virtual classroom” experiences, etc. Whereas previously profs essentially only communicated during class hours, there is now an expectation of at least daily checking of e-mail, and assignments can be made due at any time of day, any day of the week, etc. I no longer do readings and think about them, I just scan for quotations to put in discussion board posts. The learning experience has definitely taken a hit.
    I also work in a hospital, and employees there are checking text messages or e-mail every time they’re out of the room. It is not only distracting for them, but there is less communication between people on the floor.
    I would also guess we’re entering an intellectual dark age, but it’s not just from technology. It’s bundled with other things as well, like degree creep and widespread loss of knowledge. People today who have to work and take continuing ed credits at the same time don’t have time to devote to any possible hobby, and people who somehow manage to get through school without knowing even basic cultural and historical information wouldn’t know where to start to benefit from some aspects of the web.
    Oh, and then there’s the TVs that are EVERYWHERE. Every lobby, lounge, and hallway in my town is showing cable news constantly. I can’t remember the last time I was waiting for something where over half the people weren’t watching TV–and the same stories over and over. No time to be inside your own head!

  5. This strikes me as one of those media psychology vs. genuine psychology arguments. Maggie Jackson’s description of Executive Function made me cringe. Throwing in a word like Anterior Cingulate Cortex might make you sound like you know what you’re talking about, but it doesn’t mean you do. What about the Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortices Mrs Jackson?
    Actually, the problem I have with the modern world is not the amount of conflicting work tasks which I have to focus on, but rather the amount of distractions which I would rather focus on instead of work. Distractions which con you into believing they have high survival value (quite frankly I am talking about games, drugs and porn) are much harder to disengage from than conflicting work tasks, such as emails and phonecalls.
    Can you imagine how different dichotic listening tasks, where you are supposed to listen to one stream of audio whilst simultaneously ignoring the other would be if the other task was one of those high dopamine releasing fake survival enhancing distractions?
    Please attend to the audio stream whilst ignoring the game of counterstrike being played in front of you and the naked woman gyrating on the monitor to your left.
    Looking after children and cooking food are genuine high survival value tasks, and there is some argument that women may be better at multi-tasking because it was adaptive for them to do so (not read a proper psychology paper on this though). Men on the other hand have never had it so bad with false survival value distractions of games, drugs and porn!

  6. A slightly different angle on this debate is teh extent to which we are able to focus on what is going on in the world around us. I wonder how much we have come to rely on being “spoonfed” information in “soundbites”, assuming that someone else has digested the full story and that it can be communicated in short hand.
    I suspect that access to the range of information now available has not reduced (or increased) our ability to focus, but is challenging us to weed out what is relevant and what is not.

  7. “In other words, the ability to focus on a single task, relatively uninterrupted, is the strange anomaly in the history of our psychological development.”
    Precisely so, but this is the point, no? The Net, as an interruption machine, is returning us to to our native state of distraction. The question is, Is this a good thing? Is this the state that brings us the greatest intellectual and cultural rewards? Or, in fact, is that “strange anomaly of history” an anomaly we should regret losing?
    Peace is a strange anomaly of history. Should we therefore prefer war simply because it’s the “normal” state?

  8. Implicit, in all the posts, is the idea that all people should or do have minds that are uniform. That all people should or shouldn’t multitask, or focus on one task at a time. The idea that women focus differently than men may be true. In my marriage I am the multitasker, while it drives my wife crazy. She will knit,or eat and watch TV however. The great thing is that we have a choice to multitask or not. It will be interesting to see what people are like, in the future, after being exposed to the WWW for decades. I believe we will be far more knowledgeable. Hopefully wisdom will grow with that knowledge.

  9. Apples and oranges people!
    Having lived in both worlds, I am in complete disagreement with the premise of the article. It was/is easier for me to remain in control of my immediate environment, and extended concerns without the distractions of this electronic intermediary.
    While the author may be living in Medellin, Columbia, I infer from context that they were not born or nurtured there. I was born at the very beginning of what has become known as the computer or technological age have thus been exposed to both aspects of our culture, old and new. To judge the traits of a culture, you need to have been immersed in that culture during your formative years.
    An example. The relative modernity of American culture(s)make it nearly impossible for us to appreciate the minutae of everyday life in less modernized cultures. Conversely, persons entering our culture will be at a loss to understand how many things function as they have not been immersed in the stages we go through in the maturation process.
    To illustrate: What is the height of the normal light switch from the floor, and how far is it usually located from the door frame/room entrance? These things are very standardized within our culture, and we take them for granted, usually noticing only if they are outside the usual places or proportions. This phenomenom extends to members of our own culture if they are outside the usual height/weight parameters.
    If we enter a room without those switches, we suffer, at least, a short disorientation and are apt to have to reorganize ourselves and our thought patterns to accomodate the difference(s).
    Long and short- We are in a poor position to judge the relative effects of distraction or attention in a less technological culture.
    Apples and oranges.

  10. In my interview with Wired and my book Distracted, I don’t argue that we need to venerate unbending concentration and single-tasking. In fact, that’s a monochromatic Industrial Age vision of attention that I reject! In cultures where work and productivity are now information-based, we do need to hone skills related to multitasking and split-focus, skimming and non-linear reasoning. But in the US and other tech-centric societies today, we’ve become so reliant on this narrow band of skills that we’ve begun to undermine our ability to go deeply in thought and relations. We’re fragmenting and diffusing our multifaceted attentional abilities – and this is not by any means “progress.”
    As for cooking and babies, I’d agree that at any time in history, the environment makes demands on our attention. Attention is in essence how we interact with our environment! But attention is also central to the pursuit of goals, to planning, judgment, vision. The point is, are we using our powers of attention well by cultivating environments of interruption, fragmentation,and skimming, and by losing time/space for reflection, disciplined problem-solving, deep reading?
    In short, the “concentration oasis” is a myth I don’t subscribe to. And yet it’s truly short-sighted to fail to consider the costs of cultivating a culture of distraction and inattention.

  11. I grew up in a town in India before television reached there, and obviously before there was the internet. My nephews are growing up in the same place, and now there is the internet, lots of television cable channels, video games and the lot. I’d say it was much easier to concentrate and focus in my day.
    We see the effects at work as well. As little as ten years ago, a meeting meant everyone was in one room, face-to-face, with no cellphones or laptops. Meetings were productive. Now we’re on conference calls, or if we’re in the same room, everyone has their laptop; some people have their cellphones on. Meetings lack focus with everyone multi-tasking. Meetings don’t have focus – everyone is invited because the assumption is that they will wake up from their multi-tasking for the two minutes that something relevant to them comes up. The whole thing doesn’t work very well.

  12. “The point is, are we using our powers of attention well by cultivating environments of interruption, fragmentation,and skimming, and by losing time/space for reflection, disciplined problem-solving, deep reading?”
    I’ve read similar criticisms leveled at novels, photography, cinema, comic books, the sitcom…new forms of media have always challenged conceptions of how information ought to function in a society. I certainly think its relevant to lay a critical eye towards the fact that modern american society leaves no time for ‘peace’ and ‘reflection’, but to claim that the internet somehow uniquely destroys critical aspects of how we as humans interact with our environment is ignorant of ample historical evidence to the contrary.
    Granted, I haven’t read the book, so you’re all welcome to take my criticism with a grain of salt. Likewise, its true that I ‘ought’ to be researching my senior thesis and instead I am debating theories of aesthetic perception on the internet. So productivity , goal setting, and other nice measurable western values that the internet is destroying: 0. Fragmented attention span: 1.

  13. Woo, that’s a lot of different perspectives in the comments!
    But in general I agree with you Vaughan. Internet, texting and phones can be turned off. As crazy as it sounds, if you simply turned everything off and disappeared for a week, the world wouldn’t come to an end.
    When people claim they can’t concentrate because of twitter/e-mail/phones… it’s because they DON’T WANT TO give up all the advantages those little things bring to them.
    Hey, if I want to be distracted, I browse the web aimlessly. If I DON’T want to be distracted, I don’t. It’s not that hard, if you know how to go about it 🙂

  14. A lot of the arguments I have seen against technology forget that the internet is a reflection of our global and mobile culture. It becomes out way to communicate because we do not occupy spaces long enough to form many long term relationships. It becomes the place for information because a google search is the way to gain access to the most information without spending the limited time searching for it manually. I don’t think viewing the internet and related technology as a good or an evil really gets us anywhere. Seems as though it is more revealing to ask why we’re bothering in the first place. If it is useful–why is it useful? Are there alternatives? What problem is Facebook or twitter solving that makes them desirable? When I’ve read articles on the evils of the web they have rarely discussed why people are using the technology, only that the answer is to stop. It is easier to stop if you can see more actual harm than benefit (as opposed to projected harm).

    On an aside, I had been in a class where the teacher was prohibiting laptops because he couldn’t police the people who were using them for facebook rather than notes. I understood his position. However, if the concern is distraction and thus the notion that the student is not learning then the grades should reflect this. If the grades do not in fact reflect who is paying attention and who is not then either the grading scale is flawed or the perception of how attentive one needs to be to master content is flawed. Either way, exploring why is much more interesting than blindly attacking what pisses you off.

  15. Lots of good comments. The one thing I can add it this: Whereas distractions has always been a part of life, this is the first time we can tune it out if we want to (good luck tuning out that infant!). Yet we don’t. And THAT, I think, is the crux of the matter. Like the author says, these are distractions over which we wield significant control, yet for some reason we choose not to exercise that control. Why is that? Why is it that I simply can’t help myself from checking email the first thing I do when I wake up? Why is it that my co-workers can’t stop themselves from checking their iPhones every third minute? In most situations, the information we attain from this behavior is trivial at best — a far cry from tending to ones crying child. Yet it grabs our attention in pretty much the same way… until something else (better?) comes along, that is.

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