In Now You See It, I make the point that there is no real, solid, replicatable evidence that one technology makes you "dumber" or more "distracted" intrinsically than another. Blaming "the Internet" or "social media" for contemporary distraction falls into a typical pattern of one genereration blaming any new technology for supposed ills, including supposed shortcomings of the younger generation (who seem to adopt new technologies and adapt to them much more easily than do their parents).
My argument is not that we should all be "multitasking." Rather, I aruge that we are always multitasking and sometimes we do it more adeptly than others and it is incumbent on us to take our own internal inventory and decide what we are doing well and what we are not. And then to ask why. In other words, what makes you distracted is that you are doing too many non-automatic, non-reflexive things at once. Period. You are on overload. You cannot handle it. That is true for Gram who cannot program her VCR; for Super Mom who cannot breastfeed, finish the high-stakes grant application, text with her teenage daughter, and deal with her allergies all at the same time; or the Level 80 WoW gamer whose girlfriend just broke up with him and now he's being traunced in a game situation he'd normally sail through. Too much email got you down? Is it the technology or the stream of non-stop decision-making that doesn't seem to stick to a 9-5 workday but follows you home from the office, at night, on weekends, on summer vacation?
The point is too many new technologies at once are distracting. So is too much life. So is too much anything that is new, cumbersome, non-routinized. I don't advocate getting rid of technology. I advocate avoiding distraction but going deep, introspective, and finding out what exactly is freaking you out. Pausing to think about what is routine and what is new helps you to manage it all or at least to give yourself a break as you learn something so well that it too becomes a routine and therefore less distracting.
That seems simple. But there's been so much punditry about "multitasking," as if Twitter is the only thing that makes our life's tasks multiple. As I've said many times, heartache (emotional overload) and hearburn (physical ailments) are far more distracting than email . . . and they make it harder to learn new technologies too.
Unfortunately, my life right now is living proof that I am right. I have left Duke University after twenty-five years and am now officially a DP (distinguished prof) at the Graduate Center, CUNY. 90% of my belongings are in storage. The other 10% are in a tiny sublet in the Village in NY as we await Coop approval and then closing and then moving into a slightly bigger permanent apartment in Gramercy. I am hiring new people. I am setting up equipment in five offices. I cannot find my shoes. My summer cotton pants. My toothbrush. My map of New York. I'm not sure if I have health insurance, am getting a pay check, have the right password for a new bank account . . . all of those things that happen when you move after living in the same house for decades. Two decades. You name it. All the routines are pulled out from under you. You can't walk from one end of the little room to the other without banging your knee on something you forgot was there, even though it is in plain sight.
Technology is not the problem. Multitasking is not a symptom of technology. The problem is that I am having to learn everything from scratch, all the time, all at once.
And guess what . . . boy o boy do I ever feel distracted! The same, by the way, is also true when your worklife depends on technology and the technology changes. The technology isn't distracting. It's that your former patterns and reflexes don't serve you invisibly, efficiently, automatically. You have to build in new patterns and reflexes even as you still have to get the same amount of work done. Of course it is difficult. Of course it is distracting. And of course it is multitasking.
Is there anything good about this awful feeling? Well, I say that unlearning, in fact, makes us pay attention to the world in a new way. George Lakoff says it is useful to become "reflective about our reflexes." Indeed, indeed.
Here is one HUGE thing I am seeing: I am an incredibly efficient human being because I work with a whole team of incredibly efficient human beings. I knew I loved our HASTAC team. I never take them for granted. They are amazing colleagues. But . . . even so, I had no idea how much of my life they filter and sort and respond to expertly before I even have to weigh in. Now that I am having to do everything for myself, well, I see how much I do not know that I thought I did. About just about everything. That is a very humbling and important revelation. We all need that one more often than we are forced to.
I just wish I didn't have to be quite so reflective about all the reflexes that I no longer have and that I need to be developing. But I am certainly more grateful for my HASTAC colleagues than ever. Without "collaboration by difference," I am pretty much sunk. Period.
I am hoping that the result of this tedious, difficult, uneven, sometimes triumphant, sometime despairing transition time will be a fresh new way of looking at the world, now that so much of the world I took for granted, so many of the collaborations and processes and bureaucracies and patterns and expertise is so vividly transparent. Yes, you guessed it: Now you see it!