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The Epidemic of Digital Distraction 159

Posted by samzenpus
from the what-were-you-saying? dept.
asto21 writes "Almost no one does just one thing anymore. The screens won't let us. And in an incredible burst of human evolution, our minds have grown accustomed to monitoring multiple inputs at once. Yeah, you're reading this post. But we're nearly three paragraphs in. So if you're anything like me, it's about that time to check Twitter, count the additions to your Google Plus circles, read a handful of new incoming email messages, and chime in on a couple of ongoing instant message conversations. But are we paying less attention to important details?"
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The Epidemic of Digital Distraction

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  • by Anonymous Coward
    I saw none in that article.
    • by myurr (468709)

      Beyond that how can this be the product of evolution, rather than the brain itself simply adapting? We're at best fifteen years into the information age. Where is the natural selection, survival of the fittest, and all that? There isn't any. The brain has always been able to cope with multiple streams of information, we're just exercising it more and more in this arena.

  • I think the author was trying to show us that we could follow multiple storylines, ie multiple inputs, but I got confused very quickly. I guess I'm just not fully "evolved" yet to process multiple inputs.
    • by ifrag (984323)

      Your mistake, of course, was not tweeting and checking Facebook after every paragraph. This way you can forget about whatever point he was failing to make as you progress through the post in small pieces that don't fit together.

    • tl;dr:

      if you want to tell people something boring; put it in a video add some explosions and other movie effects.

      (I worked this out by starting reading the paragraphs in the article in reverse order - that seems about the best way this time round)

      This was possibly the most painful post selecting my slashdot nick has inflicted on my so far.

    • by zoney_ie (740061)

      It's one of the more unreadable pieces of text I've come across recently... and given most of the competition for that prize is also online, that's saying something.

      Not sure the author's theory/point really worked! If the article does read well to some people, that's rather worrying.

  • But are we paying less attention to important details?" Yes, i was working before hiting TFA. serious business.
  • by jalefkowit (101585) <jason@@@jasonlefkowitz...net> on Wednesday August 03, 2011 @02:07PM (#36975092) Homepage

    Almost no one does just one thing anymore. The screens won't let us.

    The screens won't let us?

    Yes they will. Seriously! Just close all the windows you have open to things that distract you. The screens won't open them back up! I promise!

    • by Cogita (1119237)

      Almost no one does just one thing anymore. The screens won't let us.

      The screens won't let us?

      Yes they will. Seriously! Just close all the windows you have open to things that distract you. The screens won't open them back up! I promise!

      You obviously haven't run into rotating popup adds. Close one and two more open. ;-)

    • Almost no one does just one thing anymore. The screens won't let us.

      The screens won't let us?

      Yes they will. Seriously! Just close all the windows you have open to things that distract you. The screens won't open them back up! I promise!

      Actually, I close iTunes and the screens open it back up 3 or 4 more times...

      It must be the screens!

    • by Quirkz (1206400)
      I remember being on a tight deadline and getting frustrated at how often I was checking the clock. I had to put a post-it over the system clock, and another over the one embedded inside the word processor. That did the trick, though. (... he says, intermittently, between bites of lunch and checking email.)
    • by gl4ss (559668)

      but it's so tempting.

      with dos with no multi-running.. if you had a word processor loaded up, that's what you had loaded up. no family guy in little window, no realtime chats full of the news, no newssites with potentially game changing and career destroying news to keep updated of, no checking of incoming mail or status of other people. you had a somewhat clearer path towards getting your job done- now the workflow is constantly the same and never changes and you have to use some web services to search for

  • Original concept (Score:4, Informative)

    by AAWood (918613) <aawood&gmail,com> on Wednesday August 03, 2011 @02:07PM (#36975094)

    Quick, someone make a reply claiming they don't suffer from this type of thing, but then pretending to get distracted by something else part way through typing it! It will be hilarious, and not at all obvious!

    (I wonder how long until someone replies point out that my post is also a rather unoriginal thing to say...)

    • by toastar (573882)
      I prefer ADHD
      • by Anonymous Coward

        So do the pharmaceutical companies!

      • Multitasking is controlled ADHD.

        Singletasking, as in the dogged focus on one damn thing at a time, can be as big a problem as out-of-control ADHD.
  • But I was too busy posting cute cat pictures on FaceBook and--omg check the latest Justin Bieber tweet! Crap, did I just post that online?
    • by Anomalyst (742352)

      Crap, did I just post that online?

      Yes, and don't call me Crap!

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Hi, it's me, Justin Bieber. You know what, I'm sooo tired of all these Justin Bieber jokes. You guys only invent them because you envy my life and the money I have. C'mon, let's face it, the reality is this: You are all wankers and losers. If I wank, I do it because I want to do it. If you jerk off in your mom's bedroom, you do it because nobody likes you, because you have no money and aren't famous and let's face it: Girls just LOVE guys that are famous and have money. I can get into any disco they won't l

  • by Todd Knarr (15451) on Wednesday August 03, 2011 @02:10PM (#36975132) Homepage

    We used to call this condition, having our attention hopping from one thing to another to another in quick succession, "running around like a chicken with it's head cut off". You deal with a lot of things, but you don't have time to really pay attention to any one of them because your attention needs to hop to the next. You waste time shifting mental gears, and more time picking up your train of thought for this item. In computer science we call it "thrashing", and it's something to be avoided because the overhead of context-switching eats up cycles that could be used for actual work. In extreme cases it gets so bad the system's doing nothing but thrash, no actual work gets done because all the cycles are eaten up by swapping and context switching. Humans are vulnerable to the same thing.

    That's why geeks value being "in the zone" so much. It's nothing mysterious, it's just the condition of being able to focus on one specific thing without interruption, and it makes you so much more productive (hence why geeks seek it out).

    • by Sinthet (2081954)

      And so consume tons and tons of caffeine xD.

    • Yes, distractions are everywhere these days. What I wonder is, will the new generation see this as "normal" background distraction? We have an entire generation now that don't remember a time before cell phones and the WWW. Presumably they are comfortable with this level of distraction, but does anyone have data on how this affects job performance?

    • That's why I hate telephones so much. Invariably, just as I'm getting "in the zone" my phone rings, and I end up dropping the problem upon which I'm finally starting to make some progress to work on someone else's problem.
    • Geeks like to be in the zone to do their work, but other people want their answers NOW.

  • When children do this, pharmaceuticals encourage us to pump them full of medication. When adults do it, it's art (or possibly evolution).
    • Why yes it is evolution. If the drugs don't kill off the kids, the adults are better and stronger, and will breed new kids who can multi-task even when dosed with large amounts of drugs. We are solving the problem of drunk driving one generation at a time. In a hundred years a person could be drunk to the point of death but have enough mental facility to drive a car safely.

  • by sl4shd0rk (755837) on Wednesday August 03, 2011 @02:14PM (#36975182)

    "People can't multitask very well, and when people say they can, they're deluding themselves," said neuroscientist Earl Miller. And, he said, "The brain is very good at deluding itself."

    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=95256794 [npr.org]

    • Susan Adele Greenfield, Baroness Greenfield, CBE - say much the same in her last few books http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Susan_Greenfield,_Baroness_Greenfield [wikipedia.org]. She too has worries about flitting about between topics and subjects may mold your brain in unexpexted directions.
    • by vlm (69642)

      "People can't multitask very well, and when people say they can, they're deluding themselves," said neuroscientist Earl Miller. And, he said, "The brain is very good at deluding itself."

      http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=95256794 [npr.org]

      spare me... Its like saying "people can't run very well" or "people aren't very tall". There's a nice bell curve and both jobs and personal satisfaction naturally select following the Peter Principle. The village idiot maxes out his Peter Principle at doing about one thing at a time. The short order cook from the article apparently maxes out around two dozen or whatever. Everyone else bell curves in the middle.

      • by Colven (515018)

        The village idiot maxes out his Peter Principle at doing about one thing at a time. The short order cook from the article apparently maxes out around two dozen or whatever. Everyone else bell curves in the middle.

        All right! I made it up to village idiot! ... seriously, though... I want to a see a study done on a test course with a wide range of drivers that makes them do various other things while they drive, see just how good people can be at multitasking while some critical task is supposed to be getting done.

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        Shhh, don't remind people about the bell curve, it might hurt their self esteem to remember that they aren't all super genius wunderkind. Not to mention it's bad for the politics of equality as an end to be achieved.
      • by doom (14564)

        "spare me... "

        No, you spare us. Put down the fucking box while you're driving. The ego you save may be your own.

        Thank you.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      ... actually - we are extremely good at multitasking! In fact, my heart is beating at the same time I'm breathing, thankfully. Not to mention all of the disease my body is fighting right now. Don't even get me started about my hormonal systems.

      Although we may not be great at being conscious of many things at once.

      An analogy would be a micro-controller/FPGA with many peripherals, but one CPU core.

    • by Aidtopia (667351)

      "People can't multitask very well, and when people say they can, they're deluding themselves," said neuroscientist Earl Miller. And, he said, "The brain is very good at deluding itself."

      My brain is so good at deluding itself that it can delude itself while I do three other things at the same time.

    • Dr Miller apparently never did any serious cooking. Are you aware how much task-switching and parallel monitoring is involved in preparing a multi-course meal alone for a couple of guys? No delusions involved, as you would taste the results of someone only believing he can handle the parallel task load...
      • by vlueboy (1799360)

        Dr Miller apparently never did any serious cooking. Are you aware how much task-switching and parallel monitoring is involved in preparing a multi-course meal alone for a couple of guys? No delusions involved, as you would taste the results of someone only believing he can handle the parallel task load...

        Your analogy isn't very good because it forgets that your brain does most analog tasks based on repetition, and therefore it is is handling most of that meal preparation subconciously. Blame it on muscle memory, even. If you're talking with the couple of guys, then you're in a larger percent consciously dealing with them and just using your eyes to look at different pots, pans and ingredients as they make their way in and out of the fire. Your hands are used to handling orders so that your knife won't cut y

      • Dr Miller apparently never did any serious cooking. Are you aware how much task-switching and parallel monitoring is involved in preparing a multi-course meal alone for a couple of guys?

        Dr Miller may or may not have done any serious cooking, but he almost certainly understands something you don't: The plural of anecdote is not data. (He probably also understands something else you're innocent of: bell curves.)

    • And, he said, "The brain is very good at deluding itself."

      But not while it's busy doing something else.

    • and when people say they can, they're deluding themselves

      This is completely incorrect. If anyone says otherwise, they are clearly deluding themselves!

  • by Mikkeles (698461) on Wednesday August 03, 2011 @02:15PM (#36975196)

    'So if you're anything like me, ...'

    Thank Vishnu I'm not.

  • Wow. What crap. (Score:4, Insightful)

    by mcmonkey (96054) on Wednesday August 03, 2011 @02:16PM (#36975218) Homepage

    I have three friends who are accomplished novelists. Two of them have cut off all Internet access to their homes. The other leaves his devices behind and sits in an unconnected cafe with a pen and a stack of paper for several hours a day. They know that even their impressive abilities to concentrate can't compete with a connected computer.

    This guy comes up with a preposterous thesis and declares anyone who doesn't fit in with his world view is a loser. "If you're not trying to do 5 different digital things at a time, it's because you've given up, not because you actually want to concentrate on a single task."

    He also ignores all the evidence that we aren't as good at multitasking as we thing we are.

    • I have three friends who are accomplished novelists. Two of them have cut off all Internet access to their homes. The other leaves his devices behind and sits in an unconnected cafe with a pen and a stack of paper for several hours a day.

      Years ago, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle had taken an advance on a book, and were getting very close to deadline with not much written. So they went off to an isolated cabin to write. They each wrote for half the day, taking turns; one sleeping during the day. The resulting book was reasonably good, and finished on time.

      • by Macgrrl (762836)

        There is a story (citation needed?) that Douglas Adams wrote So long and thanks for all the fish while locked in a hotel bathroom while shoving pages under the door to his agent. He is also quoted as saying: I love deadlines, I love the wooshing sound they make as they pass by.

  • But I accidentally typed the response as a tweet to my Azharbaijani circle of friends and posted the goat pron link meant for the Azhars in my FB wall.
  • I barely believe any of you exist. Why would I care what you post?
  • What I CAN do is do one task then jump to another task while I wait for review/inputs for task 1, and so on, and fit trips to slashdot and reading email and websurfing in the gaps too. All done one at a time, with my full attention on that task at that time.
    • by smelch (1988698)
      Right, it depends on what the definition of multitasking is. When I think multitask I think single core processor. My focus is the processor and it can only really do one thing at a time, but I can do things that don't require thought along side things that do require thought, like holding a conversation while stirring soup (or sending audio data to the soundcard to play while the processor handles input). The focus can switch from one thing to another in such a way that you aren't slowing the original task
  • Multitasking is fine, as long as none of the tasks really requires 100% of your attention.
    I can switch off surfing blogs and /. and listening to music and playing roguelikes, but when I'm working on a tough bit of program logic, I can't stand to be interrupted for anything. That's when I hide all the other windows so I can concentrate.

  • which is funnier (Score:5, Insightful)

    by gEvil (beta) (945888) on Wednesday August 03, 2011 @02:31PM (#36975392)

    But we're nearly three paragraphs in.

    I'm not sure which is funnier -- that the sentence was left in the /. summary, or that it appears in the fourth paragraph of TFA.

    • by TheCarp (96830)

      I guess he must have gotten distracted while editing. Reminds me of when I used to sign my posts here:

      -Steve

      but every once in a while (read: a few times a week), I would be about done, sign the post...then realize I want to add something at the end... add it, but now my original was scrolled out of the visible text box... so I would sign it and end up posting like this:

      -Steve
      -Steve

  • by 93 Escort Wagon (326346) on Wednesday August 03, 2011 @02:31PM (#36975394)

    This one deserves "-1, self-delusional" if anything does.

    People haven't evolved to efficiently handle multiple inputs at once. The linked story certainly makes that statement, but provides absolutely no supporting evidence. If anything, it demonstrates the opposite with lines such as this: "It's getting harder to concentrate on anything, even the stuff that's clearly the most important." The poorly-written anecdotes don't show the author or his friends dealing well with all these inputs - they demonstrate the difficulty all parties are having coping. Another example is the part about his novelist friends who've removed all internet access from their homes because otherwise they can't concentrate on their work.

    Frankly, most of the article reads like - at best - a Readers' Digest submission. But it is Gizmodo, so there you go.

    • by chthon (580889)

      Author also does not get the idea of evolution.

      What one should expect in case humanity evolves under the pressure of multitasking is that either

      • Multitasking becomes so necessary that people who cannot handle it die before they can reproduce
      • People who are not prone to distraction are able to reproduce more than people who are steadfastly busy with multitasking

      If these effects exist, they can only be seen after several generations.

      I strongly suggest that the author turns off his electronic media and t

  • I prefer to focus (Score:4, Insightful)

    by MpVpRb (1423381) on Wednesday August 03, 2011 @02:33PM (#36975422)

    When I need to do something important, I focus. No distractions, just pay attention.

    Now, when goofing off, it's OK to multitask, but not when it's important to get it right.

    It may just be a young people's problem. Us old farts know that if you want to do something right, you need to pay attention.

  • It would take a week for someone to get me a message from the coast by way of the mail car on the train. Now with these "telegraph" lines everywhere I get bombarded with messages sent directly to me almost every dang day. It's like being surrounded by silent screams all the time. I barely have time to watch the crops grow after I plant them. I say, if it can't be communicated by smoke signal (which ensures the message is important enough that the sender take the time to build a fire) then it's too far aw
  • asto21 writes:

    So if you're anything like me...

    I'd blow my brains out before that ever happened.

    I am still capable of reading "three paragraphs" without the need to "check Twitter, count the additions to Google Plus circles, read a handful of new incoming email messages, and chime in on a couple of ongoing instant message conversations".

    For one thing, "instant message conversation" is an oxymoron.

  • by couchslug (175151) on Wednesday August 03, 2011 @02:46PM (#36975534)

    tl;dr

  • I should be working on a problem with our backup system and yet here I am reading /.

  • could you repeat that?
    • by Cragen (697038)
      Comedy Central's Short Attention Span Theater => which was shortened to SAST cuz we viewers were, um, too, um, ... what?
  • No, you're learning what the important details actually are.

  • Even if you buy into the idea that somehow our brain chemistry has changed because of our environments such that we have gotten better at multitasking, it isn't evolution. Evolution would require that the ability to multi-task increased the odds of having viable offspring so that genetic tendencies to increase this ability would be selected for over generations of breeding.
  • by BitwiseX (300405) on Wednesday August 03, 2011 @03:33PM (#36975980)
    We don't! We may have 3 IMs, 4 new emails, 12 tweets, and a Facebook message to read, but the reality is, we don't read them all at once. It may be shortsighted, but I've always considering multitasking to be an illusion. We may be rapidly shifting focus, but we're never really focused on more than one thing at any given time.

    I've learned over the years that prioritizing, and putting items/tasks/people on "the back burner" (even if for a few minutes) has resulted in an increase in quality of work, and overall sanity. Focus on a task. Only shift gears if absolutely necessary (priorities will always do this), or when there is a lull of activity (waiting on approvals, server builds, etc.).

    Don't lie to me! You know when you're answering 2 IM conversations with a phone in your ear, you're cutting corners, missing information, and just trying to shut someone the hell up, so you can slow down and take a breath.... so politely put them off.
    • by BitwiseX (300405)
      oh and P.S. Email is not an instant messaging protocol. If you're afraid of your unread count reaching double digits.. rethink that strategy.
    • by bar-agent (698856)

      You know when you're answering 2 IM conversations with a phone in your ear, you're cutting corners, missing information, and just trying to shut someone the hell up, so you can slow down and take a breath.... so politely put them off.

      I am not sure there is a way to politely put someone off any more. The closest you can do is to say "hey, I'm kinda busy here, can I call you back?" But when someone says that to me, it throws me off for a second or so at the very least, and may leave me ticked off depending on

  • by Tom (822) on Wednesday August 03, 2011 @03:52PM (#36976208) Homepage Journal

    Yeah, right. "evolved" - in less than one generation. Someone here desperately needs to go back to evolution 101 and figure out what the term means.

    So you really mean "adapt", yes? Maybe you should do less Twitter checking while you're writing blog postings. Because so far, all the studies that I have read or read about strongly indicate that so-called multitasking is highly detrimental to all the covered tasks. Flow and concentration remain as powerful tools as they are, because - surprise, surprise - the human brain really hasn't changed all that much in the last 1000 or so years. It is, however, much more adaptable than we thought for a long time, and if you give it the same tasks over and over, it will learn to cope with them. Somehow. That doesn't necessarily mean good.

    Oh, and then there are all these little psychological facts that we've uncovered over the past century or so, that all indicate that one of the strongest and most reliable powers of the brain is the ability to delude itself. It is more than fascinating what people believe inside their heads and how little that sometimes has to do with outside reality. Book hint "Mistakes were made (but not by me)".

    So you may think that your brain has evolved to cope with the demands of modern multi-channel communication. Now be scientific and make the test whether
    a) anything critical really is different in your brain compared to someone who doesn't do this kind of attention-hopping
    b) what you believe about yourself and your ability to handle multiple inputs simultaneously or in rapid succession is at all true

    check your assumptions first. Then, and only then, write something that requires them to be true in order to make any sense at all.

    • http://www.amazon.com/Mistakes-Were-Made-But-Not/dp/0151010986 [amazon.com]

      To second that book recommendation. Great post.

      See also:
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Illusory_superiority [wikipedia.org]
      "Illusory superiority is a cognitive bias that causes people to overestimate their positive qualities and abilities and to underestimate their negative qualities, relative to others. This is evident in a variety of areas including intelligence, performance on tasks or tests, and the possession of desirable characteristics or personality traits

  • This has been discussed already. If you want it in a straight talk article rather than this dramatized fluff piece, I recommend an article that appeared in Datamation back in 2008 called "Hard Work is Dead. Call It 'Work Ethic 2.0'" [earthweb.com] in which Mike Elgan asserts that the ability to focus on a task and avoid distractions is now a more important skill than the ability to simply work hard. It's a good read.
  • by NitroWolf (72977) on Wednesday August 03, 2011 @05:19PM (#36977398)

    I know this is completely off topic, but pretentious assholes like this writer are the reason people hate you Apple Fanboi idiots.

    When I woke up this morning, I was just a writer and tech investor, tucked behind the warm glow of my 27-inch Apple monitor.

    Did you really need to specify it was a 27" APPLE monitor? Did it add anything to that sentence, other than to underscore you're a prick? No, it didn't. The author could just as easily have said "the warm glow of my monitor." and had the same effect. But instead he had to underscore it was an APPLE monitor... like it was something SPECIAL and UNIQUE! Like he was COOL for having an Apple.

    On a recent morning, my wife was busy with several work related tasks on her Macbook Air when our two year-old daughter

    And the author does it again... couldn't just say "Laptop" or "Computer," but had to say Macbook Air! Again, like it was unique or special. News flash! Lots of people have those things and they can be acquired by anyone wishing to do so by traveling to your nearest web browser, Apple Store, Best Buy or other purveyor of overpriced shiny shit.

    So just a note, it's exactly this kind of shit that makes people who haven't fallen under the spell of bullshit that Jobs has convinced hipster idiots that Apple products are so cool that they need to be identified separately from everything else. You are unique for using Apple Products, just like the other ten million (or however many) people who use the exact same product.

  • Evolution does not move that fast, nor does it work that way. The basic currency of evolution is offspring and mutation. I am willing to admit that it is possible that there have been one or more mutations in genes that are "for" multitasking in humans. However, do the individuals with those genes have more offspring than the ones who do not? Have there been enough generations since the advent of computers for those genes to increase in frequency in the gene pool to equate to "an incredible burst of hum

  • Is already upon us. Ever try to walk down 34th street in Manhattan while everyone else going the other way is engrossed in their smartphones? They're not trying to eat your brain but they're equally brain-dead, lumbering, and clumsy.

    I can only imagine what it's going to be like when augmented reality hits the mainstream.

    As a huge tech booster, participant, and builder, I gotta say there's a time and a place, people, a time and a place. If you're running into things or walking out into the middle of Broad

  • Were they the first ones with the Crawl at the bottom of the screen?

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