Wednesday, June 17, 2009

In defense of distraction

Sam Anderson's article in New York is a reflection on the nature of distraction. Curiously, he begins - preemptively I guess - by saying that all criticism of tech-induced social change is really kind of pointless. First, there's really nothing new under the sun; remember old Socrates (the fool!) complaining that the advent of writing would cripple memory and the mental faculties? And second, you can't do anything about it anyway, so why rail against these things? [But then we'd be without without Thoreau, Orwell, Huxley, Hofstadter, Postman,  etc., and besides, there's so much to rail against, and more all the time!] Interesting tidbits are the phrase "continuous partial attention" to describe our modern kind of focus, and the importance of randomness in keeping us pecking at the reward bar; "As B. F. Skinner's army of lever-pressing rats and pigeons taught us, the most irresistible reward schedule is not, counterintuitively, the one in which we're rewarded constantly but something called variable ratio schedule, in which the rewards arrive at random." Does that ring a bell - or drop some pellets of feed on your desk - as you're checking email, twitter, and rss feeds?  Incidentally, a nice  compendium of writings on such issues is the Library Leadership Network's  LLN Multitasking page .

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