Distracted From Distraction By Distraction

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Here is a place of disaffection
Time before and time after
In a dim light: neither daylight
Investing form with lucid stillness
Turning shadow into transient beauty
With slow rotation suggesting permanence
Nor darkness to purify the soul
Emptying the sensual with deprivation
Cleansing affection from the temporal.
Neither plenitude nor vacancy. Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
That blows before and after time,
Wind in and out of unwholesome lungs
Time before and time after.
Eructation of unhealthy souls
Into the faded air, the torpid
(T. S. Eliot, Burnt Norton, No. 1 of Four Quartets)

A troubling essay in The Sunday Times by Bryan Appleyard should give you pause. Appleyard realized that he was being "Distracted from distraction by distraction" because of the modern technological tools that inundate our daily lives these days. It worried him. Perhaps it should worry you as well.

On Wednesday I received 72 e-mails, not counting junk, and only two text messages. It was a quiet day but, then again, I’m not including the telephone calls. I’m also not including the deafening and pointless announcements on a train journey to Wakefield – use a screen, jerks – the piercingly loud telephone conversations of unsocialised adults and the screaming of untamed brats. And, come to think of it, why not include the junk e-mails? They also interrupt. There were 38. Oh and I’d better throw in the 400-odd news alerts that I receive from all the websites I monitor via my iPhone.

I was – the irony! – trying to read a book called Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age by Maggie Jackson. Crushed in my train, I had become the embodiment of T S Eliot’s great summary of the modern predicament: “Distracted from distraction by distraction”. This is, you might think, a pretty standard, vaguely comic vignette of modern life – man harassed by self-inflicted technology. And so it is. We’re all distracted, we’re all interrupted. How foolish we are! But, listen carefully, it’s killing me and it’s killing you.

David Meyer is professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. In 1995 his son was killed by a distracted driver who ran a red light. Meyer’s speciality was attention: how we focus on one thing rather than another. Attention is the golden key to the mystery of human consciousness; it might one day tell us how we make the world in our heads. Attention comes naturally to us; attending to what matters is how we survive and define ourselves.

The opposite of attention is distraction, an unnatural condition and one that, as Meyer discovered in 1995, kills. Now he is convinced that chronic, long-term distraction is as dangerous as cigarette smoking. In particular, there is the great myth of multitasking. No human being, he says, can effectively write an e-mail and speak on the telephone. Both activities use language and the language channel in the brain can’t cope. Multitaskers fool themselves by rapidly switching attention and, as a result, their output deteriorates.

I'd urge you to concentrate and read the whole thing. It is worth it. I suspect there is a lot of truth in what Appleyard has written. There are so very many distractions, busily distracting us from our distractions these days.

One of the reasons posting here has been so light of late is that I am working very long hours every day in a job that requires fierce concentration. When I get home after 12 hours, I have little desire or ability to surf the web trying to find interesting things to discuss. Much of my day is spent fighting the distractions of relentless email and, to a lesser extent, phone calls. I get home and simply don't want to post. In my way, I'm fighting the distractions.

Is it as bleak as Appleyard paints it? Possibly not. But I do see the lack of focus in younger workers where I am. They try to do engineering while listening to their iPods. They don't focus the way those I started with in this field used to. To this day, I still never have a radio (or an iPod) playing in my work area. It is too distracting.

Read the whole thing.

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2 Responses to Distracted From Distraction By Distraction

  1. Pingback: Sorta Blogless Sunday Pinup » Pirate’s Cove — Give No Quarter!

  2. sam says:

    Thanks for the link to the article.

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