In Defense of Distraction

If you’re a fan of lifehacking, you’ll already be familiar with some of these issues. I’m blogging this because it’s a good example of doing justice to an opposing view, giving a good presentation of the strongest objections to multitasking.

If the pundits clogging my RSS reader can be trusted (the ones I check up on occasionally when I don’t have any new e-mail), our attention crisis is already chewing its hyperactive way through the very foundations of Western civilization. Google is making us stupid, multitasking is draining our souls, and the “dumbest generation” is leading us into a “dark age” of bookless “power browsing.” Adopting the Internet as the hub of our work, play, and commerce has been the intellectual equivalent of adopting corn syrup as the center of our national diet, and we’ve all become mentally obese. Formerly well-rounded adults are forced to MacGyver worldviews out of telegraphic blog posts, bits of YouTube videos, and the first nine words of Times editorials. Schoolkids spread their attention across 30 different programs at once and interact with each other mainly as sweatless avatars. (One recent study found that American teenagers spend an average of 6.5 hours a day focused on the electronic world, which strikes me as a little low; in South Korea, the most wired nation on earth, young adults have actually died from exhaustion after multiday online-gaming marathons.) We are, in short, terminally distracted. And distracted, the alarmists will remind you, was once a synonym for insane. (Shakespeare: “poverty hath distracted her.”)

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. — Sam Anderson

This essay clearly identifies a thesis, in the paragraphs I’ve quoted above. But then it spends a long section arguing precisely the opposite of the thesis.

My freshmen are often so used to getting their academic information through bulleted lists and bold keywords, so that they skim for the main ideas and only read the connecting text if they can’t instantly get the gist of the page.  But the traditional essay requires readers to pay attention to a chain of ideas, leading from an opening question, through all the potential objections, to a conclusion. Students who aren’t familiar with this structure will often quote from the “con” part of an essay, mistakenly attributing to author A an idea that author A has cited only in order to tear it town.

I remember, as a high school sophomore, that some of my classmates were horrified by “A Modest Proposal,” because they read it at the surface level, and didn’t grasp the irony. (They also apparently didn’t read the introductory summary or the discussion questions, but that’s another issue.)