The Power of Distraction

I remember very few students had their own computers when I went to university back in 1993. If you want a laugh, just take a look at the internet in 1993 in this video.  I wonder how I’d approach the work if I was going through it all again today. Given that the first time around involved wasting time on things that are pointless now we have vast oceans of information online, I’m pretty sure I’d be if anything more reliant on technology than I am today. Although I’m delighted to have missed out on the ‘drunken-photos-on-Facebook’ stage…

Clay Shirky’s a guy who knows a thing or two about the internet. In addition to writing the influential “Here Comes Everybody: How Change Happens When People Come Together“, he’s also given a number of TED talks. So with that background, it’s worth taking notice when he writes an essay with the title ‘Why I Asked My Students To Put Their Laptops Away‘.

In a nutshell, Shirky has finally enforced a ban on technology use in his lessons – quite a turnaround for a guy who teaches students about the internet. However, he’s decided that the evidence finally stacks up to warrant it. That’s the research that shows that multi-tasking actually reduces efficiency and proves that there’s longer term cognitive damage that’s being caused by the continual instant gratification being served up via social media notifications.

“Worse, the designers of operating systems have every incentive to be arms dealers to the social media firms. Beeps and pings and pop-ups and icons, contemporary interfaces provide an extraordinary array of attention-getting devices, emphasis on “getting.” Humans are incapable of ignoring surprising new information in our visual field, an effect that is strongest when the visual cue is slightly above and beside the area we’re focusing on. (Does that sound like the upper-right corner of a screen near you?)”

On top of that, research has also shown that the damage is not restricted to the class Facebook addict. It’s been shown that the effect of one person’s multitasking on a laptop also damages the performance of others who are able to simply see the multitasking taking place. As Shirky says, it’s like somebody taking a boombox into the classroom.

The research goes a long way towards explaining the growth in demand for solutions that cut us off from technology and literature that encourages us to focus on a specific task at hand in any event. The assault on our productivity is being disguised by micro-hits of gratification, pushed by social networks that sustain us throughout the course of every day. Hard work still requires focus. But somehow, I suspect that we already knew that was the case.