Blog Post

I Was So Right About Distraction in Now You See it: Darn it all!

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! 




I can only begin to imagine what chaos you are having to quell as you settle into new places and systems after separating from old ones. Your story certainly underlines the importance of our most important technologies — the social structures and organisations that we build that enable us to collaborate, coordinate and cooperate with other human beings (with or without apps). 

The importance of social technologies are highlighted when disruption occurs (the leader of an organisation or government is suddenly removed) or when disaster strikes (like the tsunami and nuclear plant failure in Japan or the earthquakes in Christchurch, New Zealand). At those moments, functionaries in established bureaucracies come to the fore and community activists rise to the occasion. In times of change and upheaval, ordinary people demonstrate how extraordinarily important and necessary they are, as they thread themselves into action and help to repair the social fabric, technological systems and built infrastructure. Alone, we are important pieces of the puzzle, but not the whole picture; a beautiful flower, but not the garden; a citizen, but not the vital city that supports and us all and to which each one of us belongs and makes a valuable (if sometimes unnoticed) contribution.


What a brilliant and sensitive analysis of "our most important technologies — the social structures and organisations that we build that enable us to collaborate, coordinate and cooperate with other human beings (with or without apps)."   And I love your insight into how, during a time of crisis, the very humans who are most responsible for the smooth operation of society, but who are often invisible to those in power, suddenly become vitally visible and important.  Unlearning is about making visible patterns we don't usually see--including the patterns of elitism, (dis)respect, tacit acceptance of, and often lack of recognition for those people who make it all work.  I remember hearing a story once about a black out on NY city subways where the leaders, guiding people through the stilled, pitch black, and terrifyng subways to get to the next stop were certainly not the managers on the trains but those who understood the infrastructure (whether specific to the subway or not) undergirding cities--sanitation workers, city electricians, and so forth.  I love how you brought out the larger human lesson of "unlearning."   Thanks, Mark.


deep gratitude for great insight. swimming-in-it insight.

perhaps when we have our bearings.. our grounding.. (ie: authenticity & attachment) ..the inevitable changes no longer overwhelm us.. but rather.. become our delight/adventure.




 .. .  But I'm not quite there yet. 


I do believe that after dislocation and the culture shock of the new comes the adventure---if we can grasp it in the open spirit of "unlearning" instead of the rear-guard actions of defensiveness, dismissal, rejection, turn off, and close-mindedness.


Now, if only I can embrace the adventure.  I know I will.   I know it.  I know it   ("I think I can, I think I can, I think I can" said that Little Engine Who Could).   That makes me wonder in what situation unlearning and the new are adventures and which close us down?   Interesting question for any eductor since, on some level, all deep learning is really about exactly and precisely this.


Thanks so much for writing and for the insight, Monika!


Cathy, courage!  I moved 18 months ago from one job to another, from one city to another, from one home to a new one---by myself, leaving friends, husband (temporarily), and familiarity behind. I lived in three temporary sets of quarters before moving Into a new home needing renovations, which I arranged for on my own.  Into new computer systems I had to learn so that I could teach them. Living with few of my familiar things, then half of them, before finally finishing the move.  Thankfully, I returned to a city I knew well.  Thankfully my new colleagues are forgiving and friendly and helpful. Thankfully my body and my memory have recovered. Thankfully those I am tasked to support are contacting me when they need help----a sign that I have indeed become whole once more. 

Yes, I was distracted, but I was also exhilerated by the challenges! The knowledge and skills I already possessed allowed me to eventually get grounded---and even find my summer pants.  It will happen for you as well.  Technology is very helpful for maintaining connections with those you trust to help when you get stuck.  Your support system is only a text message or email away. And your new support system is anxious to help.

In a year's time, you'll look back and think, yes it was dfficult to uproot after decades in the same comfortable place, but I have found my way.  It's great when your mind is once again your own.


Yes, it is challenging--in the good and the bad sense but, thankfully, the good outweighs the bad. Thanks for your kind words of encouragement!


I appreciate your common sense perspective on the hype of multitasking. Clearly the problems related to managing and organizing our behavior pre-dated the development of mind amplifying, digital technology. Our immersion in the world of digital tools and the inevitable analysis of the consequence of using them has led us to blame the tool for a personal problem. 

As you suggest, turning our minds inward, finding what is freaking us out, is the most productive response. There's no question that we are tempted with the potential for distraction. We have a candy store of video and still images, audio, text, social interaction; all at our fingertips. Our reflexes are tempted. I appreciate the reminder to be reflective of our reflexes.

Mind extending technology is in it's infancy as you and your readers know. One of your colleagues at Duke, Miguel Nicolelis is a pioneer of technology that connects the brain directly to a computer interface. In one of his demonstrations he shows how a monkey can manipulate items on a screen with his thoughts while using his hands for other purposes. How will we cope when we have 3 or 4 hands? No matter how many hands, senses or other appendiges we have, we will be faced with choice, with executive control, with reflection on what is important. 

Thanks for sharing your personal transition through change and bringing it into perspective with our other choices in life.