Peoples Geography — Reclaiming space

Creating people's geographies

Work, interrupted: the fragmentation of our attention

A culture of attention deficiency and distraction? An interesting recent discussion on Late Night Live (Radio National, Australia) about how many digital technologies are contributing not only to greater distraction in our work-day, but are possibly re-wiring the way we think and operate in a more split-focus, multi-tasking, cyber-centric world and influencing our cognitive functions and conceptions of time. Cyber-centric? Now, I don’t know what that could mean … excuse me while I glance at my email, scan my RSS feeds, check text messages, recharge my mp3 player, all while I write up a chapter, listen to a podcast in the background and read some of the dozen browser tabs I have open. See also What the Internet is doing to our brains by Nicholas Carr for an interesting and provocative discussion.

In the US a study has found that workers not only switch tasks every three minutes during their work day, but nearly half the time they interrupt themselves. Moreover, once someone’s been interrupted it can take up to 25 minutes to return to the main task. Maggie Jackson has been researching this syndrome and other ways we get distracted and has written a book about it. The premise of her book is that the way we live is eroding our capacity for deep, sustained, perceptive attention. In other words it’s attention that is the greatest casualty of our high-tech age.

Maggie Jackson is an award-winning author and journalist who writes the popular “Balancing Acts” column in the Boston Globe. Her acclaimed first book, What’s Happening to Home? Balancing Work, Life and Refuge in the Information Age, examined the loss of home as a refuge. Her newest book is Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age.

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10 comments on “Work, interrupted: the fragmentation of our attention

  1. schildan
    13 July, 2008

    Attention deficiency? Absolutely. When I first started writing weblog novels I made the mistake of writing chapters the same length as you’d find in a book. Now I write chapters that are very short, and very numerous (see my history of the solar system). I like to post 3 times a day. Also, I like to write a good plot-line, but I have to be careful that I don’t make things too inter-connected. People who read one post and enjoy it won’t necessarily plan on coming back for the next one, so each individual chapter has to be able to stand on its own. Otherwise I’ll lose my entire audience in no time.

  2. 99
    13 July, 2008

    Maybe I’m not getting senile too young after all! Maybe it’s this damn box…. :-P

  3. Jim
    13 July, 2008

    If you are depending on “diets of Yahoo headlines and soundbites” for some sort of image of what is happening around you then the case is closed. It is necessary for people with lots of information to make lots of effort, as the information is the reality, the knowledge is how you deal with (survive) it.
    The medium is the message and things are getting pretty intense these days. But don’t give up! Be selective and use the tools to your advantage.

  4. peoplesgeography
    13 July, 2008

    Thanks, good advice. Being a bibliophile helps too :)

  5. Michael B
    15 July, 2008

    Information is not knowledge (Einstein);
    knowledge is not intelligence (Heraclitus of Ephesos).

    An entertaining account of a man who, as an experiment, spends 24 hours non-stop watching TV pundits, reading political blogs and listening to talk radio: the “cruddiest day” of his life.

  6. peoplesgeography
    15 July, 2008

    Thanks very much for forwarding, Michael. Great find and an entertaining read as you say, with a serious undertone:

    I have been alone in a room for almost 24 hours with 6 TVs, a laptop and two radios, listening to and watching and reading only political shows and pundits and blogs, sometimes monitoring four or five things at the same time. Just to see if it can be done.

    I’ll tell you it can be, but I cannot tell you how horrible it is. It rattles the very center of your being. If you care about the state of humankind, it fills you with despair. We are as a people bleak and hostile and suspicious, filled with senseless partisanship and willing to believe anything and everything about anyone. We are full of ourselves and we hate. And we do it 24-7.

    Wouldn’t it be wonderful to create some more quietude from this seemingly ever-increasing background noise and chatter?

    Another article I was reading today during the course of my research had an interesting discussion (excerpt below; in full here):

    Fearnside: I’ve noticed that the Amish seem less self-conscious than most Americans. Why do you think this is so?

    Berry: I’d say that in their community, honesty is the norm. One of the most striking things about the Amish is that their countenances are open. We pity Muslim women for wearing veils, yet almost every face in this country is veiled by suspicion and fear. You can’t walk down a city street and get anybody to look at you. People’s countenances are undercover operations here.

    Fearnside: While traveling in the Xinjiang Province of China — which is predominantly Uyghur, a traditional Muslim culture — I was struck by the people’s openness. In particular, the children radiated gaiety and health, just as Amish children do.


    Fearnside: I fear that my generation may be the last to grow up outdoors. I used to roam for hours, hiking through the fields and woods or bicycling down country roads, completely unsupervised, which is unheard of today. Nowadays a kid is going to grow up sitting in front of a computer screen or listening to an iPod, not climbing trees or even playing ball in the street.

    Berry: Young people around here don’t come to the river to swim or fish anymore. Of course, an alarming percentage of Kentucky streams aren’t fit for swimming or fishing.

    Fearnside: It seems that we’ve been separated from our local communities by radio, television, and now the Internet. Because these forces come from outside the communities, they often don’t reflect the communities’ values. How can we stay plugged in to information and yet preserve our local connections?

  7. Ghazala Khan
    17 July, 2008

    Interview Request

    Hello Dear and Respected,
    I hope you are fine and carrying on the great work you have been doing for the Internet surfers. I am Ghazala Khan from The Pakistani Spectator (TPS), We at TPS throw a candid look on everything happening in and for Pakistan in the world. We are trying to contribute our humble share in the webosphere. Our aim is to foster peace, progress and harmony with passion.

    We at TPS are carrying out a new series of interviews with the notable passionate bloggers, writers, and webmasters. In that regard, we would like to interview you, if you don’t mind. Please send us your approval for your interview at my email address “ghazala.khi at”, so that I could send you the Interview questions. We would be extremely grateful.


    Ghazala Khan
    The Pakistani Spectator

  8. Michael B
    17 July, 2008

    “their countenances are open” …
    That Wendell Berry interview is indeed well worth reading in full.

    “Wouldn’t it be wonderful?” It would; here’s another take on that:
    “A national day of absolute solitude would do more to improve the brains of all Americans than any other one-day program.”

    Now, excuse me, Ann: while you do your interviews, I will cease interrupting and enter into a state of complete silence. Wish me luck.

  9. peoplesgeography
    18 July, 2008

    Good luck, dear Michael! So how was the monastic quietude? Solitude can be a blessed thing. It’d be great to be able to do a Thoreau.

    Thanks for another great link. Of course this prompted a look at at their 2008 and 2007 Questions as well. Aside: For some reason, this (doing so) reminds me of this wordplay, which I’m sure you’ve encountered before in the webosphere:

    1. Home is where you hang your @.
    2. The email of the species is more deadly than the mail.
    3. A journey of a thousand sites begins with a single click.
    4. You can’t teach a new mouse old clicks.
    5. Don’t put all your hypes in one home page.
    6. Pentium wise; pen and paper foolish.
    7. The modem is the message.
    8. Too many clicks spoil the browse.
    9. The geek shall inherit the earth.
    10. A chat has nine lives.
    11. Don’t byte off more than you can view.
    12. Fax is stranger than fiction.
    13. What boots up must come down.
    14. Windows will never cease.
    15. Virtual reality is its own reward.
    16. Modulation in all things.
    17. A user and his leisure time are soon parted.
    18. There’s no place like
    19. Oh, what a tangled website we weave when first we practice.
    20. Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him to surf the Net, and he won’t bother you for months on end.

  10. Kilroy
    18 July, 2008

    Can you repeat the question, please?

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This entry was posted on 13 July, 2008 by in Audio, Books, Culture, Technology, Work and tagged , , , .

Timely Reminders

"Those who crusade, not for God in themselves, but against the devil in others, never succeed in making the world better, but leave it either as it was, or sometimes perceptibly worse than what it was, before the crusade began. By thinking primarily of evil we tend, however excellent our intentions, to create occasions for evil to manifest itself."
-- Aldous Huxley

"The only war that matters is the war against the imagination. All others are subsumed by it."
-- Diane DiPrima, "Rant", from Pieces of a Song.

"It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there"
-- William Carlos Williams, "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower"