Vivek Haldar

The Distraction Addiction

I recently finished reading “The Distraction Addiction” by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang. It’s a comprehensive look at both the technology and human sides of why our devices and how we use them make us so scatterbrained. The refreshing angle is the even-handed focus on how to use both technology (better software and tools) and ourselves (being more mindful, cultivating better tech habits). The chapter on mindfulness and meditation gave me a perspective on it I hadn’t read before. He ended the book with eight principles, not tools and toys, for getting a better grip on our minds and our devices. Had me nodding my head in agreement throughout. Overall a good read, with tons of examples and perspectives from folks he spoke with.

If anything, I think he oversold parts of it, but that’s probably because someone who hangs out in my corner of the internet already knows that yes, we obsessively and compulsively use our connected devices, and yes, it hurts our focus and even our relationships, and yes, there are tools like Freedom and WriteRoom that claim to help.

I also wish he had delved a bit more into a word from the title of the book: addiction. About how we use our devices and connections in addictive ways, with no tangible benefit. About how, just like addiction to other substances, one needs to come face-to-face with the empty void that’s sucking them in before they come to their senses. How is a compulsive itch to swipe-to-unlock your phone different from a yearning for a shot of cocaine? You would’d sneak out a flask of whiskey from your jacket and take a swig in the middle of a meeting, but it’s completey acceptable to peek at your cellphone.

Reading the book reminded me and made me go back and read this manifesto for calm computing, written back in 1996. (At the risk of sounding pedantic, I’ll say that was a glaring omission from Pang’s citations). In it, the authors foresee our current crisis of attention, more than a full decade before the onslaught of net-connected smartphones. And they correctly identify the need for technologies that, as they say, “both encalm and inform.” The central principle they identify is that our interfaces need to show us both a center and its periphery, and appropriately move items between them. That’s what makes it not overwhelming when we perceive the natural world, or when we walk down a busy city street. Things naturally flow from the periphery to the center of our attention and back. Indeed, I know of no modern prevalent UI that does this, nearly two decades after the authors wrote this. Modern UIs are what I like to call attention-flat: everything is arranged on the screen either in a way that pulls attention equally (many windows visible) or in a way that completely obscures the periphery (one window maximized, hiding all others).

That makes me think there’s much more we can do on the technology front, particulary with UIs, to tackle the issue.

Great read. Recommended.