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Reflections on distraction

POSTED IN: My DTL blog: Chris' blog

My wife Isabelle sent me a link to an Ephipheo.TV video that argues being constantly connected to the internet -- checking emails on your smart phone, looking up articles on Panda attacks on wikipedia, watching videos like the Epipheo video -- causes us to live in a state of continual distraction.  This state of distraction can actually prevent us from learning things, because there is never the quiet, reflective time for memories to consolidate.

The video is short and worth watching: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cKaWJ72x1rI

Isabelle was thinking of me when she sent me the video-- I do have the tendency to check my iPhone far too often.  But the video also touches on some larger issues about how the internet has changed learning and experience in general which I want to try to unpack.  

First a concept that will be helpful: "flow."  Being in the flow state is being so completely and joyfully immersed in performing a task that there is nothing in the moment beyond the task itself.  Other ways for describing this experience include being "in the moment", or "in the zone."  The term was coined by the psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi:  if you're ready for a distraction, you can read about flow on Wikipedia.

The experience of constantly interrupting what you're doing to check your smart phone for emails, or to look up something on Wikipedia, is the antithesis of a flow state -- you're shifting context from whatever you are doing to see if you have new email.  

Now a little personal history.  I'm 48 years old.  The role of computers and of the internet has changed dramatically over the course of my life.  I first used a word processor (on an Apple II+) to compose and write in grade 12, when I was 16 years old.  The internet as we now know it didn't really come into existence until I started my Ph.D. fieldwork in the mid 1990's.  Before that there was special-purpose data available over the network (I used a 1200 baud modem to connect over a phone line to Lexus/Nexus in law school), but most of the information that I consumed was in printed form.  

I also started out as a young adult writing a lot of letters, meaning a multi-page handwritten, typed or word-processed communication to a friend or a family member.  For me, letters were a sort of shared personal journal -- a reflection on my life sent to someone else.  I used to write several of these a week.  Now I write emails, often hundreds of them a week, most extremely short, and almost always written while I'm also doing something else.  Very occasionally I write an email that is like what a letter used to be, but for the most part I haven't written anything like a letter in the last fifteen years.  And as email transitions to text messages and IM, I'm getting further and further from the experience for letter-writing.

If I look at the trajectory of my life, the opportunities for flow experiences while learning and communicating have decreased.  Writing a letter (whether I used pen and paper or a computer) was often a flow experience -- I let everything else go, focused on communicating to my friend, and wrote.  Writing an email is almost never a flow experience, and writing a text message never is.  The same is true for receiving information -- reading a book can be a flow experience, but browsing Facebook or reading a wikipedia article on Panda attacks isn't.  

The problem isn't as simple as "the insidious advance of technology."  I'm writing this on a MacBook laptop while listening to Mozart through my iPhone earbuds, and yet I'm in a flow state right now.  I also experience flow states when I'm writing computer code (especially Clojure).  As the Epipheo video suggests, the problem is when the ways we use technology gets in the way of our ability to provide sustained attention to a task, and to be reflective.  

The way the internet works right now, it seems like we're all in a race to the bottom to see who can be distracted the most.  How do we change that dynamic?  

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About the Author

Chris Tennant

Chris Tennant

I co-founded Dream to Learn in 2013. I love the outdoors, growing and building things, and the challenge and beauty of writing computer code. I live in Eugene, Oregon with my wife Giuditta, my two kids Joshua and Rebecca, and our cats Sprinkie and Hugino.

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Created: June 28, 2014


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