Saturday, May 11, 2013

Conscious computing: on distraction (and how to avoid it)

Earlier this year, I was on a panel with Guardian columnist Oliver Burkeman, about happiness. Oliver has written a fine book on happiness and how not to bugger it up by being a Polyanna: The Antidote: happiness for people who can't stand positive thinking.

In The Antidote, Oliver combines erudition with witty prose and disarming honesty. He makes happiness plausible, without being glib or smug.

Oliver has recently written an excellent Guardian column on distraction, 'Conscious computing: how to take control of your life online'.

It's a well-informed take on distraction and its opposite -- which I see as freedom -- but it is also a very practical guide to avoiding the pitfalls of addiction and temporal profligacy. A sample, including quotes from Alex Pang and yours truly:
We can all agree that Facebook and smartphones aren't the first ever examples of "cognitive entanglement", Pang's term for the way we use technology as extensions of our own minds. Writing things in a notebook is entanglement; so is using a library or a landline or sending a postcard or a smoke signal. "Entanglement is nothing new or revolutionary," Pang writes. "It's what makes us human." The problem is not that we've suddenly started depending on technology, but that the technology we're depending on is poorly designed, too often focused on making money for its creators at its users' expense. Undoubtedly, we'll one day figure out how to handle cellphones and status updates without the accompanying distraction and compulsion. But that doesn't mean the distraction and compulsion aren't a problem right now – or that it might not be wise to find ways of adapting more rapidly. 
After all, distraction – as the Australian philosopher Damon Young points out in his book of that name – isn't just a minor irritant. It's a serious philosophical problem: what you focus on, hour by hour, day after day, ends up comprising your whole life. "To be diverted isn't simply to have too many stimuli but to be confused about what to attend to and why," Young writes. "Distraction is the very opposite of emancipation: failing to see what is worthwhile in life, and lacking the wherewithal to seek it." To recover from techno-distraction, "what's required is not Luddite extremism but a more ambitious relationship to our tools – one that promotes our liberty instead of weakening it."
See also my 'Steps to an undistracted life' for some very practical tips.

(Photo: Binguyen)

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