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(Matt French/The Globe and Mail)
(Matt French/The Globe and Mail)

Digital overload: How we are seduced by distraction Add to ...

While watching an episode of Sherlock the other night, my 13-year-old sat on the couch texting from his iPod, repelling enemy incursions on Clash of Clans on an iPad and glancing randomly at the TV. When I suggested he was missing the witty repartee between Watson and Holmes, he shrugged and said: “Mom, I’m paying attention. This is how everyone watches TV now.”

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Who was I to judge? My BlackBerry lay on the table beside me, its e-mail alert flashing with false urgency. And I often spiralled into the Internet’s vortex myself, clicking, for instance, on an academic article about technology and distraction and somehow winding up at a viral video about a Brazilian cyclist who is sideswiped by a speeding truck and lands, miraculously, on a mattress. How I got there, I couldn’t say. According to my browser’s Web history, I checked out a science book on Amazon, then hopped to the latest news about the missing Flight 370. Along the way, the headline “You won’t believe what happens to this cyclist” proved irresistible – which was precisely the point. In these information-overloaded days, the game is on, to quote Sherlock, and the prize is our eyeballs.

Software companies and app developers are desperate to grab our attention. Scientists are studying how to capture it. Bosses, worried about lost productivity, are keenly trying to focus it. Even our live-blogging, picture-sharing friends are looking for a piece of it. Never has our gaze been so carefully measured or so highly coveted.

But if our attention is so valuable – a finite resource in a land of perpetual interruption – then why do we give it away so carelessly? There is growing scientific evidence that sprinting through the day in a state of super-charged distraction takes a serious toll on our mental and physical health.

Like the slowly boiling frog, we have failed to notice that the convenience of staying connected has become a stress-inducing burden. Our smartphones whine at us like petulant children, as Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, a Stanford University expert on technology and distraction, puts it. And we just keep saying yes, answering every tweet, e-mail and ring tone, and therefore, often unconsciously, saying no to something else. It’s careless spending: “Your ability to focus on what’s important is absolutely fundamental to the life you want to live,” says Mr. Pang, who explored the subject in his recent book The Distraction Addiction.

Technology was supposed to make life simpler, but Words with Friends is only fun until the “your turn” reminders start to nag. E-mail, according to workplace surveys, is the most reviled of time-wasters. And when we check yet another pointless e-mail while reading bedtime stories to our kids, what did we miss? When a smartphone interrupts dinner with friends mid-sentence, what real connection was lost?

“We have been seduced by distraction,” says psychologist Daniel Goleman, the author of Focus: the Hidden Driver of Excellence. “We are being pulled away from paying attention to the things that enrich our lives.”

It’s so hard to resist the life that the social-media machine has created for us, one in which we are both consumer and producer, sharing generously of our own creative energy and expending our attention in a self-nourishing loop, from which someone else – Google, Facebook, Apple – plucks the profit. We’re digital junkies, exponentially creating our own pit of distraction while despairing that we are so distracted. Almost all the data in the world has been created in the last two or three years – mostly by the lay denizens of the Internet. In a recent media interview, Dave Evans, the chief futurist at Cisco Systems, calculated that there are now 12-billion devices connected to the Internet. “In a decade,” he promised, “there will be 50 billion.”

That’s us, by the way, on the other end, hooked into the matrix. Canada is already a world leader in online consumption; according to a recent online Ipsos poll, those who owned a smartphone – that is, half the country – claimed to spend 86 per cent of their time staring at one screen or another.

No wonder our attention spans are spent by day’s end. There is no place for quiet contemplation. When are we ever able to think of nothing, to daydream in the grocery line, to zone out in the elevator? In our pockets, above our heads, at our desks, there’s always a screen beckoning.

“Of course, everything can’t speed up,” says David Levy, a professor at the Information School of the University of Washington. “You can’t speed up the time needed to be intimate with one another. Thinking is not an activity you can speed up. It needs time to muse and reflect, and some of the things we need to do in order to think, like walk, or read deeply, or even take naps, simply don’t fit into this globalizing idea of more-faster-better.”

If you thought juggling a conference call in the minivan on the way to hockey practice was stressful, wait for it. At London’s first Wearable Technology Show this month, Steve Brown, whose title at Intel is Chief Evangelist and Futurist, cheerfully promised that “computers are getting smaller and smaller, closer and closer to our fingertip, our nerve endings, our brains.”

Before they implant themselves any further, we might want to set limits on our maxed-out mental inboxes.

‘Unchecked infomania’

How do we give up the digital fix? Collecting Twitter followers is like a virtual pat on the back. Checking Facebook in the middle of the day can be energizing and mood-boosting. We get a rush – what scientists have called a “dopamine squirt” – when anticipating the contents of a potentially juicy e-mail, much like pulling the arm on a slot machine, says Neema Moraveji, director of the Calming Technology Lab at Stanford University. Sometimes, the stress of distraction pales against our fear of missing out.

But it’s all about the dose, and being connected 24/7 doesn’t encourage restraint. Facebook, when visited obsessively, has been linked to depression and eating disorders in teenage girls. Managing a stack of e-mails – only to have them pile up again – has been found to raise heartbeats and blood pressure. At Stanford’s Calming Technology Lab, researchers observed that even simple web searches caused people to take shorter breaths, or hold their breath entirely, restricting oxygen to their brain. Usually, they weren’t even aware of it.

“When you are at a computer, reacting to things, wondering if things are happening, there is a chronic vigilance, a feeling always being on the edge of your seat,” Dr. Moraveji says.

The behaviour is called e-mail or screen apnea, a phrase that technology consultant Linda Stone first blogged about in 2008, when she noticed she was holding her breath while sending e-mails. Essentially, explains Ms. Stone, the flight-or-fight response kicks in whether humans are running away from a tiger or anxiously confronting an overflowing inbox. In the short term, that response is extremely useful – it saves you from the tiger, it even channels your energy for that important PowerPoint presentation.

But if you never, or rarely, shut it down, this can lead to long-term stress and its potential risks: teeth-grinding, diabetes, heart disease and depression.

Much as we like to believe otherwise, most human beings are lousy multi-taskers. Faced with too many jobs, the brain’s working memory gets overwhelmed and makes mistakes. Ms. Stone, a former Microsoft and Apple employee, also coined the term “continuous partial attention” to describe how being inundated with tasks and interrupted by technology chronically splinters our focus.

In fact, being “always on” may look good in a society that glorifies busyness, but it’s a killer intellectually. Last year, researchers at King’s College Institute of Psychiatry in London reported the constant use of e-mail and other social media – what they called “unchecked infomania” – led to a temporary 10-point drop in the IQ of the study’s participants. That was twice as much as pot smokers. Another clear sign of stumbling brain power: In a Pew Research Center survey, 22 per cent of adults who text admitted being so distracted that they’ve run into something – an event common enough that one London neighbourhood has announced plans to pad its lampposts for safety.

But it will take more than a smack from a wrought-iron pole to get us to give up our tech fixations. So the boss is stepping in. The economic cost of distraction – both in lost productivity and employee stress – is now tallied well into the billions of dollars. Researchers at the University of California, Irvine, found that after being interrupted, it takes 25 minutes for workers to return to their original tasks. If that happened once or twice, why worry? But tech workers in the study were found to switch activities, either voluntarily or because someone demanded it, every three minutes.

A few companies have forced employees to take disconnected “quiet time,” or have restricted internal communication in the evening. Volkswagen recently shut down its server after 8 p.m., bringing a forced halt to e-mail traffic.

The disease as cure?

The anxiety over our unchecked infomania and its risks has fuelled an entire industry of wellness experts, including enterprising software developers and app creators who have recognized an untapped market in tech-based stress management. “What a clever way to make money,” Mr. Goleman observes wryly: “Create a problem you can then solve.”

The idea that technology, the disease, may also be the cure, has its followers. There are apps, such as Buddhify 2, that encourage meditation, and interactive bio-sensor devices, such as Inner Balance, an ear sensor that connects to your smartphone and monitors your heart rate. If the beats are too fast, the wearer is prompted to breathe deeply while being cheered by upbeat on-screen messages and tracked by a progress report.

This summer, Dr. Moraveji is launching an app-based breathing sensor called Spire. And for further evidence that consumer devices are inching ever closer to linking directly our brains, consider last year’s grand prize winner of AT&T’s $30,000 (U.S.) Hackathon prize: Computation neuroscientist Ruggero Scorcioni created a headset that tracks brainwaves and blocks incoming phone calls when the wearer is in a state of concentration.

For more passive options, there’s Focus@Will, a subscription service that plays music while people work and claims to help the average listener hold their attention for 400 per cent longer than usual, or about 100 minutes. (Like many similar offerings, the developers say their approach is based on science.) Another program, called f.lux, adjusts the colour of the computer screen to match the time of day, dimming in evening and brightening at sunrise. Social media addicts opting for more rigid rehab can also turn to “Internet blocking productivity software.” Other software will track your web use over the day, providing a summary of your Twitter time-wasting.

Paradoxically, we may also reclaim some of our screen time as the web becomes better at anticipating our interests. For instance, Lisa Zhang, a data scientists at Rubikloud, a Toronto-based tech company, says targeted advertising, where users give their permission to be advertised to, can be more efficient. Consumers should be conscious of the amount of information being collected about our habits and tastes, says Ms. Zhang, who analyzes millions of data points in a day. “But it’s really a matter of balance. Collecting data, to make our experience more individualized, there are benefits to that.”

On the other hand, won’t knowing more about what we like just make the Internet better at distracting us?

The stress of stress

It’s probably naive to expect technology to rescue us from technology, especially given the money to be made off our digital gluttony. But this is largely a problem of our own making. “It serves our ego to think that modern capitalism will come crashing down if we don’t check our e-mail at 11 p.m. before we got to bed,” says Mr. Pang.

“The truth is the world will get by just fine.”

Never before, we like to tell ourselves, has a generation been so burdened by the frantic blur of everyday. But as William Powers recounts in his book Hamlet’s BlackBerry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age, anxiety over new technology and the busyness of life dates back as far as ancient Rome.

Seneca the Younger, tutor to the Roman emperor Nero, is recorded lamenting that “the love of bustle is not industry, it is only the restlessness of a hunted mind,” a phrase to which many modern-day information workers would surely relate. The title of Mr. Powers’s book was inspired by a line in Hamlet, a reference to an Elizabethan-era book, known as a “table,” that contained coated paper that could be wiped clean. “Yea, from the table of my memory/ I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records.” (That Hamlet took measures to reduce his “mental load” was further evidence that Shakespeare was ahead of his time, Mr. Powers concludes.)

Another example in the book, from the 1850s, describes the merchant who returns home after a day of hard work, “trying amid the family circle to forget business, when he is interrupted by a telegram from London” that requires immediate attention. And so, the writer wearily observes, “the businessman of the present day must be continually on the jump.”

The familiar worries about distracted attention and aimless busyness accompany every new form of communication, from the printing press to the telephone to the Internet. And always, points out Mark Jackson, a historian at Oxford University and author of The Age of Stress, the ensuing anxiety is the domain of intellectuals and the affluent middle class (even though it is poverty, not wealth, that creates the most destructive levels of stress).

Stress has become, says Dr. Jackson with some disdain, the modern-day version of gout, a diagnosis that served as evidence the 19th-century patient was prosperous enough – and his diet rich enough – to get him sick in the first place. The word “stress” didn’t enter into the vernacular until the 1950s – introduced, incidentally, by a Montreal-based researcher named Hans Selye – but stress as a status symbol has a lengthy precedent.

In fact, the pre-Facebook research of Dr. Selye, famous for articulating the early thinking of stress as a health risk, contains some compelling hints at a modern-day solution.

Stress, argued Dr. Selye, who died in 1982, “is not what happens to you, but how you react to it.” Later on, he came to see the speed of modern civilization, the political trauma of the Cold War and new technology as high-risk stressors. But even he pooh-poohed the notion that we were more stressed than generations prior.

In an interview in 1977, Dr. Selye weighed in on this question himself: “I doubt whether modern man experiences more distress than his ancestors. It’s not that people suffer more stress today. It’s just that they think they do.”

In other words, we are more stressed about being stressed.

Swept away

In David Levy’s class on mindfulness and technology at the University of Washington, one of the assignments requires students to videotape themselves while online to track their social media patterns. The results, says Prof. Levy, are revealing. Students watch themselves responding instantly to every distraction. They notice their facial expressions, their hunched shoulders. One student, Dr. Levy recalls, recorded himself posting a message to Facebook that later he had no memory of doing.

“Their biggest takeaway is to open up the possibility of having more choice when we are online,” Dr. Levy says. “So much of what we do is driven by habit. It tends to be semi-conscious or unconscious. Students are beginning to realize how important it is to set their attention – what am I wanting or needing to be doing at this moment?”

It is about being the master of your own digital life, says William Powers. “We are kind of like pinballs knocking around this electronic pinball machine, and not doing it very thoughtfully,” he says. “I can’t just be passive and do what Facebook and Twitter want me to do, which is stay connected 24/7 and look at ads. I have to stop letting the screen lead me around. That’s very different than saying, ‘Throw it out the window.’ ”

It’s comes down to being mindful, he writes in his book, rather than blindly adopting “digital maximalism” as a way of life. “What I am proposing is a new digital philosophy, a way of thinking that takes into account the human need to connect outward, to answer the call of the crowd, as well as the opposite need for time and space apart. The key is to strike a balance between the two impulses.”

Linda Stone suggests that people stop thinking about “time management” and start thinking about how to better manage their attention – to think about where we need or want our focus to be. That answer is individual; only we know when the convenience of sending an e-mail from home becomes a burden.

“What do we want to connect to?” she asks. “When I am on a date, do I want to be texting my friend, or do I want to be on a date? If I am a teenager, and I have just taken a photo at a party, do I want to be in that viral reality, looking to see how many likes I am collecting? We aren’t owning those choices.”

We are, instead, being swept into them, always on, yet never fully paying attention.

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