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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 ...

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.”

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