Sam Anderson goes on an exploratory journey in the New Yorker: from the much lamented poverty of attention to unleashing a war on it to embracing it. Eloquently written by someone who seems to know the addiction to distraction all too well, he covers the territory from internet addiction to neuroscience and meditation, and from doomsayers heralding the end of civilisation to lifehackers’ obsession with productivity (even though one of the movement’s gurus is not so certain anymore about its purpose). The conclusion is refreshing:
Focus is a paradox—it has distraction built into it. The two are symbiotic; they’re the systole and diastole of consciousness. Attention comes from the Latin “to stretch out” or “reach toward,” distraction from “to pull apart. We need both. In their extreme forms, focus and attention may even circle back around and bleed into one other.
It’s possible that we’re all evolving toward a new techno-cognitive nomadism, a rapidly shifting environment in which restlessness will be an advantage again. The deep focusers might even be hampered by having too much attention: Attention Surfeit Hypoactivity Disorder.
After all: we have discovered neuroplasticity, which clearly shows the adaptability of the brain to new environments. Anderson mentions neuroscientist Gary Small speculating that the human brain might be changing faster today than it has since the prehistoric discovery of tools. I certainly can see it in skillfulness of the so-called “net-gen” or “digital natives,” kids who’ve grown up with the Internet and other time-slicing technologies, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Cassandra calls of those prophesising the end of creativity and productivity are nothing but an expression of fear of being left behind. It’s good to be reminded in this context by Anderson that it was Socrates who famously complained about the memory-destroying properties of that newfangled technology called “writing”, a complaint we remember by the way because it was written down.
If you wanna find out more about Twitter, Adderall, lifehacking, mindful jogging, power browsing, Obama’s BlackBerry, the benefits of overstimulation and much more, read In Defense of Distraction by clicking here.
[Illustration by Glen Cummings/MTWTF (Photo: Anderson Ross/Corbis)]