Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

I Connect, Therefore I Am Distracted: Q&A With Author Alex Pang

Tech-enabled distraction is one of the more pressing issues of our time, I’d argue. We seem to be increasingly terrible at paying attention, and at detaching ourselves from our devices.

But while many of us think about it from a personal perspective — a can-we-please-just-have-a-conversation-without-pulling-out-a-smartphone perspective — researcher Alex Soojung-Kim Pang has taken a wider view and written a book about it.

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

Pang is a futurist with Strategic Business Insights, a spinoff from SRI, which consults to companies like Nissan, Motorola and GM about technology.

His book, “The Distraction Addiction,” comes out August 20 from Little, Brown and Company. Written at times like a manual, the subtitle is “Getting the Information You Need and the Communication You Want, Without Enraging Your Family, Annoying Your Colleagues, and Destroying Your Soul.”

Pang took issue with a recent story I did on some emerging mobile apps that are designed for the car, so that drivers can listen to their personalized news and email, and automatically reply to incoming texts with “Sorry, I’m driving.”

He argued on his blog that multitasking “more safely” is still multitasking, and driving is a terrible place to pay less attention.

Pang chided me that we can’t solve all our problems with more apps, or as he put it,

“Using technologies to support ‘better’ multitasking in the car on the grounds that most of us are already doing it is like Cosmopolitan arguing that because a quarter of people admit to answering their cellphones during sex, those people should wear Bluetooth headsets to bed. Or that we need smartphones equipped with sporks so we can more easily eat and text.”

I’m okay with a little well-informed online trolling informed criticism. So I figured it would be worth checking out the book and talking to Pang about distraction. He described his book as a sort of answer to Nicolas Carr’s “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains” and Sherry Turkle’s “Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other” that looks at practical responses to the issues raised.

Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.

Liz Gannes: When did you realize that distraction was something worth focusing on?

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang: For me it was about five years ago or so. It was really a kind of professional-slash-mental crisis. When you are a futurist, you do a lot of work for clients, and a lot of work also involves scanning across a bunch of different literatures to find patterns and interesting wild cards. And after doing that for years I felt like it was starting to seriously affect my own ability to read longer stuff and remember things. I could still perform professionally, but I would go into a room to get something and had to stop to wonder what it was. For someone who had pretty much spent their entire professional lives succeeding on the basis of raw brain power, this was an incredibly scary development.

Don’t you think there’s a risk in stepping away from technology — for instance, deleting your Facebook account — because you don’t know what you’re missing, especially as it changes so fast?

The answer, first of all, is to understand it and control it. And second, to recognize there are different kinds of stepping away. There’s a difference between going out with your girlfriends and getting divorced. I interviewed a bunch of people for the book who take “digital Sabbaths,” and the first thing they would say is, “I’m not a Luddite.” You take a break from these technologies and you can get refreshed and when you come back they feel new again.

You don’t necessarily have to do a month on a beach in Cambodia in order to get that restorative effect. The people who worry most about these problems are not Amish farmers, they’re people who live day in and day out with smartphones, with multiple screens open.

I just got back from a week in the Grand Canyon where it wasn’t possible to use a smartphone, or anything else connected, and it was great, but I am finding it a little bit strange to talk about that experience. It seems like it often turns into this self-righteous bragging thing where people are saying “I was offline, it was so deep, I’m much more in the moment now.” It’s almost the new “I don’t watch television and I’m better than you.”

It is possible to take any good thing and turn it into a status symbol or a sign of social and moral superiority. I do think there is this a defensive reaction against the idea that our default state now should be constant connectivity.

But if you just paid $400 to go on some digital retreat somewhere, you’re going to want to feel like you spent your money well so you talk about it. However, you can do this without being so humble-braggy.

You had criticized a story I did on technology that might help drivers keep their focus on the road while still being connected. But driving is not a super zen thing — why not figure out ways to stay safe while keeping engaged?

I think it’s easy to overestimate the possibility of being safe while you’re engaged. Driving is one of those things where so often we become less aware of how dangerous it actually is. It’s a minor miracle that we don’t all kill ourselves [driving]. Another issue is that systems that automate challenging activities, like driving or flying, can over the long run degrade our ability to do those things. Assisted takeoff and landing systems make pilots worse when things go really bad.

In our everyday commutes, it is a challenge to be mindful. There are a thousand and one good reasons to get crabby and frustrated. But I would say that challenging situations like that are exactly the ones where you can find the greatest degree of reward if you can learn to be mindful.

It’s easy to be meditative on a mountaintop or a monastery. But in today’s always-on, high-tech but constantly distracted world, learning to practice Zen calm can be an amazingly valuable thing.

Okay, but I was talking about things like using personalized news apps — instead of listening to the radio that’s the same for everyone within hundreds of miles — or firing off texts that say I’m busy and driving, without me ever having to look at my phone. Those are not the most important technologies in the world, but they’re improvements on the slow-moving world of car technology.

I see nothing wrong with listening to a playlist of podcasts. Unless you’re listening to something incredibly funny, it’s not going to be anything more distracting than NPR.

But the research on trying to interact with voice-activated systems shows that it actually has a higher cognitive burden than we expect. It looks like there’s a difference between listening to your email and dictating a reply. The work required to dictate a reply is a non-trivial distraction.

For a lot of us, the step from listening to replying feels like a small one, but we humans are brilliant at rationalizing what feel like small but are statistically dangerous choices.

Isn’t there value in offloading some mental tasks to computers, so we can do things we like and are well-suited for?

Oh, heck yeah. I have not memorized a phone number that was not my wife’s or kids’ in 10 years. I don’t think that makes us less human. We have evolved to do this. What we do need to do, though, is to be more attuned and more sensible about what things we offload and what things we don’t. We are, in a real sense, the sum total of our memories. The human task of understanding yourself is one that requires being able to think back and construct sensible stories.

Did you think back when you were starting this project that you’d be writing a book that was so much about understanding yourself and living mindfully and being contemplative?

No. It was going to be more obviously a technology book rather than a book about moral philosophy or how to live. It was going to be a kind of life-hacking, GTD sort of thing. It was only over time that I realized I was really more interested in taking one more step back and asking bigger questions about the place of technology in our lives.

You do, in the book, recommend some software like the app Freedom that forcibly helps people disconnect by shutting them off from their computer.

Definitely. Part of the reason some of these programs work is that the process of using the program and telling it how long you want to be offline makes a contract with yourself. It externalizes your own commitment to do so. That process has has some value to it, what behavioral economists would call a “nudge.”

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