The distraction trope

In the Guardian, Jonathan Freedland is the latest curmudgeon to recycle Nick Carr’s distraction trope, microwave it, and serve it with gravy. The argument is that Twitter—though possibly a wonderful thing for Egyptian revolutionaries (we can argue that trope another day)—is distracting us Westerners from our important work of deep reading and deep thinking and something simply must be done. We have a crisis of concentration brought on by a crisis of distraction, he tells us. Some people I respect react and call this matter urgent.

Bollocks, as my Guardian friends would say.

I want you to think back with me now—I’m hypnotizing you, which should alleviate the stress of distraction, at least momentarily—to the moment in 1994 or soon thereafter when you discovered the World Wide Web and a new activity: browsing. Didn’t we all, every one of us, waste hours—days, even—aimlessly, purposelessly clicking links from one site to the next, not knowing where we would go and then not knowing where our hours went? Oh my God, we would never get anything done again, we fretted. We are all too distracted. We were hypnotized.

I know from market research I did that back then that it was not long before browsing diminished and died as our primary behavior online. We became directed in our searches. We came to the web looking for something, got it, and moved on. That’s partly because the tools improved: Yahoo gave us a directory; brands took on the role of serving expected content; Google gave us search. But this change in behavior came mainly because we got over the newness of browsing and had other, more important things to do and we learned how to prioritize our time again.

It is ever thus. Think back to the early days of TV and cable: My God, with so much to watch, will we ever get anything done? The exact same argument can be made—indeed, one wishes it were made—about books: With so many of them unread, how can we possibly ever do anything else? But, of course, we do.

Twitter addiction shall pass. Have faith—faith in your fellow man and woman. I was busy doing other things yesterday, important things, and so I pretty much did not tweet. I survived without it. So, I’m depressed to say, did all of you without me. I just wrote in my book that Twitter indeed created a distraction to writing the book, as I was tempted by the siren call of the conversation that never ends. But it also helped with my writing that I always had ready researchers and editors, friends willing to help when I got stuck or needed inspiration.

Twitter is a tool to manage and we learn how to do that, once the new-car smell wears off. That’s exactly what has happened with blogging. And here is the moment the curmudgeons triumphally declare the triumphalists wrong and blogging—which, remember, was also going to destroy us—dead or dying. What killed blogging? Twitter. Ah, the circle of life, the great mandala.

But I can guarantee that the distraction trope will be pulled out of the refrigerator and reheated again and again as the curmudgeons raise alarms about the destructive power of the next shiny thing. I’m loving reading a long-awaited new book by the esteemed Gutenberg scholar Elizabeth Eisenstein. In Divine Art, Infernal Machine, she takes us back to exact same arguments over the printing press among the “triumphalists” and the “catastrophists.” That is perhaps better title for our curmudgeons. She quotes Erasmus arguing that

the benefits of printing were almost eclipsed by complaints about increased output: swarms of new books were glutting the market and once venerated authors were being neglected. “To what corner of the world do they not fly, these swarms of new books?… the very multitude of them is hurting scholarship, because it creates a glut, and even in good things satiety is most harmful.” The minds of men “flighty and curious of anything new” are lured “away from the study of old authors.”

And isn’t really their fear, the old authors, that they are being replaced? Control in culture is shifting.

What are our catastrophists really saying when they argue that Twitter is ruining us and Western (at least) civilization? They are branding us all sheeple. Ah, but you might say: Jarvis, aren’t you and your triumphalists making similarly overbroad statements when you say that these tools unlock new wonders in us? Perhaps. But there is a fundamental difference in our claims.

We triumphalists—I don’t think I am one but, what the hell, I’ll don the uniform—argue that these tools unlock some potential in us, help us do what we want to do and better. The catastrophists are saying that we can be easily led astray to do stupid things and become stupid. One is an argument of enablement. One is an argument of enslavement. Which reveals more respect for humanity? That is the real dividing line. I start with faith in my fellow man and woman. The catastrophists start with little or none.

Ah, but some will say, these tools are neutral. They can be used by bad actors as well. That’s certainly true. but bad actors are usually already bad. The tools don’t make them bad.

Take the Great Distractor of the age: Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook. The real debate over him in The Social Network and among privacy regulators and between catastrophists and triumphalists is about his motives. I write in Public Parts:

If, as the movie paints him, he acts out of his own cynical goals—getting attention, getting laid, getting rich—then manipulating us to reveal ourselves smells of exploitation. But if instead he has a higher aim—to help us share and connect and to make the world more open—then it’s easier to respect him, as Jake [my son] and I do. . . .

There is the inherent optimism that fuels the likes of him: that with the right tools and power in the right hands, the world will keep getting better. “On balance, making the world more open is good,” Zuckerberg says. “Our mission is to make the world more open and connected.” The optimist has to believe in his fellow man, in empowering him more than protecting against him. . . .

He believes he is creating the tools that help people to do what they naturally want to do but couldn’t do before. In his view, he’s not changing human nature. He’s enabling it.

I talked with Ev Williams at Twitter and he says similar things. He’s not trying to distract us to death. (That would be Evil Ev.) He’s trying to help us connect with each other and information, instantly, relevantly. (That is Good Ev.) It’s up to us how we use the tool well—indeed, we the community of users are the ones who helped invent the power of @ and # and $ and RT to refine the gift Ev et al gave us. I heard a similar mission from Dennis Crowley at Foursquare: helping us make serendipitous connections we otherwise wouldn’t.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the one who started this whole mess in the beginning (damn you, Sir!) is trying to push all the toolmakers to the next level, to better understand the science of what they are doing and to unlock the data layer of our world. Wonderful possibilities await—if you believe that the person next to you isn’t a distractable dolt but instead someone with unmet potential. There’s the real argument, my friends. And you are my friends, for remember that I’m the one who respects you.

  • There’s always ways to be distracted, if you are willing to let something to distract you and there’s always ways to concentrate, if you just want to.

    Ability to pick the pearls from flow of information and jump from skimming to concentration will be the key to success in the future.

  • You’re quite right: Pronouncements on all things innovative, Twitter or otherwise, are often coloured by the writer’s perspective on life. If one has faith in humanity, one tends to see new tools as enabling; if one has little faith, the tools are crippling.

    I err on the side of optimism and faith in humanity by the rule of Occam’s Razor: innovators and entrepreneurs are more likely trying to create something great rather than to manipulate people or extract revenue from them. Naturally, as the tools evolve, they may acquire less-than-desirable characteristics due to economic reasons, but that doesn’t change the original motivations.

  • I love what you have said and yeah I get totally distracted from what I do by playing the online games and Twit!!!!

    I been working on a story since 2007 and i have been prolonging it on the bases that I just rather watch Twit network and you, Gina and Leo also Tom Merritt.

    Twitter for me is a good tool as you pointed out. I find new sites and also I am into the Anime culture so I find new Anime titles from twitter and the people i follow and who are following me.

    Facebook in my eyes is dead and i will not ever go back into that system of social behaviour.

    Love you Jeff and keep spreading the Love!!

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  • Excellent Article Jeff.

    You have done what few are willing or capable of doing to these discussions…. Apply CONTEXT. The main element being the evolution of these technologies is rapid, with each new iteration seeming to be “THE ONE”.

    Unfortunately, this omnipotence may be the result of your age compared to the usual suspect commentors… (call it experience if you are feeling sensitive).

  • John W Baxter

    I sit in front of computer screens through the workday (what happened to the 8 hour workday?). And Twitter isn’t on them, because that is distracting.

    When a break happens in the work, I stand up, pick up my iPad, walk a bit (it’s physically good to get up and walk), and catch up on Twitter.

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  • AWS

    I find it interesting that such a self-absorbed blow-hard lectures us about how we need to look at the big picture. But I guess it was ever thus, right?

    “I talked with Ev Williams at Twitter …” and tell us how much your Davos trip cost you, Jeff?

  • tom

    As usual you are completely right. Blogging faded because the reasons so many people started them originally were eventually better served by facebook and twitter. But the best bloggers, and those who want to produce things that last longer than a facebook post or a tweet are still blogging, and if they’re any good, people are still reading. All these mediums are merely tools, and it is silly to call a tool a “distraction.” A tool is either useful in a given situation or it is not. There is no right or wrong or good or bad to it. They are only tools, waiting to be used by those who need them.

  • Dave D

    There’s a difference. I never used to be able to watch tv or read from my mobile phone. There were only so many books a person could realistically afford. Now information is instantly available, omnipresent, and massive in scope.

    If you don’t agree, do an experiment. Cancel your mobile phone. Nothing better illustrates how modern technology has exploded in distraction potential than it.

  • The sound of old media dying.

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  • I like all this new SocMed stuff, and use it heavily – but I have found it far more distracting than previous comms incarnations. I also find the kids concentrate better once they are off it for a bit.

    These are my empirical observations. It is ambiently distracting IMHO.

    However these are early systems and I suspect over time we will adapt to us, and it will adapt better to us.

  • The Industrial Age worker needed to manage their time.

    The Information Age worker needs to manage their attention. The tools and toys we have in front of us are almost irrelevant.

    This shift is uncomfortable for some people (like Mr. Freedland), and they’ll blame it on whatever the latest technology is, hoping beyond hope that maybe, this one at least, will be a fad.

  • Has the Guardian gone back in time re social media? Not only stuff like this gets published but also Guardian Talk has been deleted. Completely gone since last Friday. No warning, little explanation. Jeff Jarvis is now very rare on the media pages, could be a budget issue but are they moving in some other direction?

  • tyandor

    I think Jason Fried’s talk at TEDXMidwest (Why work doesn’t happen at work) presents the root problem: it’s the M&Ms.

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    • Dag nabbit good stuff you whippresnpaeprs!

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  • Overall, I tend to side with the triumphalists. I do believe that Mark Zuckerberg has good intentions in that he is trying provide tools to enable rather than enslave his user community. I am just not comfortable however in that solely his vision is so overbearing. That one person’s vision now has the potential to *become* the Internet due the critical mass of its user community. So far, nothing really bad has happened though. Sure, there have been some slip ups a la Beacon and Instant Personalization’s first iteration. I was also very reluctant to allow Facebook to become the enforcer of identity. But now, I am OK with it. Combine this focus on identity enforcement and the new Facebook Commenting JavaScript API, and it begins to make sense. The timing of its release could not have been better when you consider the recent Google algorithm change to deprecate the the content farms in the SERPs. Think about that for a minute. Many many people (techies mostly) are mad at Facebook for not providing a Google like back end pay off. Sure, there are multiple motivators that drive up the demand for the Facebook special sauce. We just wish they would be more concrete about those motivators and thus more transparent in regard to its intent to its users. But … Consider the reasoning behind Google’s algorithm change. They wanted to make is to the content that deserves the juice the most gets the most juice. Facebook immediately also comes along and says, “Hey, you know, we got all these users in one place. Use our comment system, and you can get all this exposure and inbound traffic to your blog. But everything gained there will be rel-nofollowed.” But thats OK. If your content is good, that shouldn’t matter. People will begin to come back on their own once they discover your content is good. Combine that idea with Facebook’s focus on identity of its users. That focus forces people to behave. I like that. Anyway, there was a rant recently on Gizmodo about how Facebook is AOLifying the Internet and how its trying to be everything and that can’t be good. But with so much critical mass, I think it can pull that off. I just don’t think it needs to be the next walled garden. Has it come to that yet? I don’t think so. But will it? And if so, when?

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  • Late to the party, but here are my notes on this scandal.

    It’ not only the way people view life (pessimism or optimism, triumphalist or catastrophist) that would set to an outlook for the latest in technology and social media tools, but it’s what you recognize as the overall potential of the tool.

    Considering social media, some people could view it as the best way to connect with people. Many people see it as a way to market, whether it’s you favorite TV show or can of beer, and some people view it as a distraction. I think that is something that just exists in any modern society that is able to find these tools. I think the people of Egypt are in that camp as much as people in America. Their situation I can argue is different.

    Another thing I want to bring up is how are we connecting better. I agree that if I am following Jeff or an intellectual person on Twitter and they share an article I might not have seen, that is great. Even if it is something silly, more the better.

    But then I consider Egypt or Japan and think that beyond people I meet directly in front of me that I can speak to, the screen of the internet is still a barrier. I do not know the people suffering, from Japan or even Katrina, even terrible disasters in our backyard, I don’t know how much I can know them for real. There tweets are only half the story and could really serve too much as a distraction if I am inundated with a story.

    I was bothered by a passage in Freeland article: “How capable will people be of creating great works if they are constantly interrupted, even when alone? ” Legit fear, I could say, however, I do see him needless bring in some kind of cultural war reference. However, I completely agree with his final sentiments: “We need, in short, to rediscover the off switch.”

    All in all, strong points to your piece Jeff, but there is something to take away from Freeland’s piece.

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