Is There a Way to Engage with the Digital World Without Enraging Your Family and Destroying Your Soul?

Reviewed: The Distraction Addiction: Getting the Information You Need and the Communication You Want, Without Enraging Your Family, Annoying Your Colleagues, and Destroying Your Soul by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang (Little, Brown; 290 pages; $28).

Every age has characteristic illnesses. The Victorians had nervous anxieties. The Roaring Twenties had psychological breakdowns. In our age, we can't concentrate. We battle to pay attention. We suffer from an illness spawned by our immersion in digital worlds. We are the prisoners of our distractions.

The Internet, and our digital devices - our laptops and smartphones especially - are often blamed for our attention deficits. Is there no remedy save for getting off the grid?

In a perceptive new study of how best to cope with the relentless interruptions presented by digital life, and its costly effects on our ability to stay focused, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang persuasively and carefully constructs a remedy he calls "contemplative computing."

The need for an alternative to the tyranny of the Web is clear. "Living with the Internet has created a reflexive need to be connected, even when we think we would benefit from being offline," writes Pang, a visiting scholar at Stanford and Oxford universities, and a senior consultant at Strategic Business Insights, a Menlo Park think tank.

How best to wean ourselves off our digital addiction is the core of Pang's timely book, "The Distraction Addiction," which at times reads like a diet book for the boggled mind. Informed by his own experiences with meditation and Eastern religion, Pang also combs the latest research on neuroscience and psychology. He embraces a paradigm for improved thinking that depends on an elusive but intriguing concept of "flow," popularized by the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. A state of digital grace, which Pang defines as "calm," is the ultimate goal because, he writes, "My calm mind is able to do things that my ordinary mind never can."

Heightened consciousness has been sought for centuries by mystics and seers, scholars and athletes. Pang insists that because of our immersion in the Web, today all of us must find ways to raise our level of thought. Many software programs, he reports, can cleverly shield us from distractions. He finds so many worthwhile calming programs - many available for free - he even coins a clever term: "zenware." Conceding that "there's no perfect technological fix" to our distraction addiction, Pang embraces the very large irony that we digital addicts must rely for solutions on the very computing tools that shatter our attention in the first place.

While celebrating the digital experience - and conceding computers and the Web improve lives in manifold ways - Pang favors a regular "digital sabbath." He's optimistic that waging a lonely battle against distraction will reap rewards even in the face of emerging technologies - driverless cars, and Google Glass, for instance - that promise to increase them, perhaps even dramatically.

"We needn't accept the idea that a future in which computers ... think with and for us is inevitable," he writes. "Don't resign," he insists. "Redesign."

That's also Pang's advice to computer and software companies, whom he argues are often guilty of delivering overly complex and attention-destroying products. Convincingly, he argues that innovators ought to do much more "to figure out how computers can be designed to help people think deeply and not be distracted."

Inevitably, clear thinking involves our bodies as well our minds. Pang beautifully riffs on the creative benefits of walking, citing the seminal strolls taken by biologist Charles Darwin and philosophers Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. Pang deftly adds the Latin dictumsolvitur ambulando - "it is solved by walking" - to his anti-distraction tool kit.

To be sure, much of Pang's advice is common sense, even pedestrian, reflecting the folk wisdom "everything in moderation." More troubling is Pang's presumption that the entire burden of kicking your distraction addiction falls on the victim. Pang might have explored not only individual response to the problem, but also societal or collective action.

Just as laws limit the sale of alcohol or drugs, and to regulate pharmaceuticals - all done in the name of helping the individual - might government assist in reducing the incidence of "distraction addition" by imposing responsibilities on the providers of digital devices and Web services? If cigarettes carry warning labels, might the Web?

Techno-libertarians, of which Pang appears to be one, routinely conceptualize all problems as individual. Of course, on some level we are all condemned to grapple on our own with information overload and its pernicious cousin, distraction. In our existential fight to create "a restorative environment" to think clearly and calmly, Pang offers original and often inspired ideas, which if embraced, should tilt the odds in favor of humans winning the war for control of their own minds.

"Connection is inevitable," Pang writes. "Distraction is a choice."

Excerpts from 'The Distraction Addiction'

"Meditation is the original neuroscience, the world's oldest conscious exploitation of neuroplasticity, and it's a twenty-five-hundred-year-old answer to the twenty-five-year-old problem of digital distraction. It helps you restore cognitive abilities that electronic overindulgence can erode."

"Books and print are valuable when you need to read intensively and with few distractions. What's interesting is that reading books is often a very physical kind of reading. People talk about having to underline, annotate, and move between several books at once in order to engage in a kind of nonlinear, cross-textual reading."

"Tweeting mindfully means knowing your intentions; knowing why you're online right now and asking yourself if you're on for the right reason. ... As a practical matter, this means that if you read something and your first impulse is to post a sarcastic comment or to blather on, stop and consider why this is the case."

"Walking stimulates thinking because it offers a break from the hard focused work of writing, composing, or calculating but doesn't completely distract the mind."

"Unless you're a reporter, currency speculator, or emergency-department doctor, you'll discover that your world doesn't fall into chaos when you go offline. An amazing amount of e-mail is either fluff or stuff that can wait; we just assume that all messages are urgent."


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