Monthly Archives: October 2013

A Tale of Two Worlds – Reflections on Distraction in the Age of Internet

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was great the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way. ” – Charles Dickens

I never thought Dickens’ classical portrait of the age of French Revolution can be so appropriate to describe the age we are living in – We have everything at our fingertips and we have almost nothing really being preserved solid. We believe and embrace the power of technology wholeheartedly, yet we suspect we are being disarmed by it. We are living in two worlds at the same time: one with ultra-connectivity where we can access everything easily, and one with scattered attention and inability to get hold of what in front of us, and thus full of anxieties and loneliness.

I had some good but long readings regarding Internet usage and distraction (great picks from Dr. V; see the reading list below). I read about how people get used to hopping from one link to another, facilitated by the deeply linked Internet, and are no longer able to read deeply and concentratedly. It is not uncommon that someone ended up browsing the research areas of HCI program in CMU, while initially she was about to start a HCI course on Coursera with Dr. Scott Klemmer, with multiple tabs open in the browser displaying the trail she just went through. And it was too bad that the limited time she had for the course was up and she had to close all the tabs without watching a single course lecture. Yet you know it was not too bad that she at least didn’t end up reading new gossips about some Hollywood celebrities. These easy information hunting might make us “pancake people” who “spread wide and thin” as vividly illustrated by Nicholas Carr.

As these readings themselves are relatively long, it was a good practice and chance of reflection for me. I scarily felt the uneasiness when I realized I need to read such long articles. I had to try really hard to haul myself from checking Facebook and Twitter from time to time, from wondering if the world is still running and if I’ve missed something important while reading. I always know there is a problem with people’s attentions nowadays, but these readings and carefully scrutiny at myself along the reading really forced me to think. What is going on? Who to blame? How to deal with it?

After my trying to comb through the readings and some other things we learned about Web 2.0, I had this map:

Technology and Distraction

Technology and Distraction

It is of course over simplified but it helped me pin point the key joints where solutions might be created to alleviate the issues. In my map, I am an optimist towards technologies. It is technology that expands our vision and capability because ultimately it is our desire to be powerful and probably not many of us would be willing to live an Amish way of life. While it is inevitable that the way we think and the way we consume information will be wired and altered by the capability of technologies, the responsibility of making the best use of technologies is in our hands still. It is information rather than knowledge or wisdom that technologies bring to us. The training needed to turn information to knowledge still resides with us. Education is needed to train people using the Internet in a smart way to harness the benefits and minimize the harm. Design is called to help people regain the ability of focusing.

A therapy is truly needed when many of us are incapable of deep learning and thinking, and paying attentions to people around, because of endless distractions and chaos. No matter one chooses to dive deep in a narrowed lens or spread the time on multiple subjects, the ability of stay focused and generate one’s own thoughts is vital. For UX people, it is detrimental in a special way that the inattention might cause further inability of empathies, which is the bedrock-quality of a good UX researcher/designer.

The first step I am going to try is what Jackson called “effortful control”: reading without access to mobile phone, reading on paper or full-screen on computer, and taking notes while reading to facilitate focusing and later reflection. These were the ordinary way I read before, ironically, I am picking up them again because there might be something the high technology is incapable to offer naturally.

Hopefully, we shall see the “renaissance of attention” coming in the near future and the Tale of Two Worlds will only be a tale to be told.


Here is the reading list (we only read a small part of the books):

Is Google Making Us Stupid? by Nicholas Carr

Distracted by Maggie Jackson

The Laptop and the Lecture: The Effects of Multitasking in Learning Environments 

Cognitive Control in Media Multitaskers

The Distraction Addiction by Alex S Pang