Avoiding distraction

My previous post gave examples of how David Souter and Donald Knuth chose not to use some common technologies. John Venier left an insightful comment.

I think the avoidance of technology in these cases is really an avoidance of distraction. These same fellows would probably not keep a parrot in their office if it screeched every couple of minutes, regardless of their affinity for birds.

I believe he’s right. My intention was to write more broadly about how tools influence our thinking, but the examples I gave were only about one kind of influence: distraction.

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6 thoughts on “Avoiding distraction

  1. Your examples included once other influence: artificial light. I’m still confused why the justice relied exclusively on the sun for reading. I’ve never heard of anyone being distracted by a desk lamp.

  2. Regarding distraction, James Altucher recently wrote a nice post on it (in his inimitable style): http://www.jamesaltucher.com/2011/12/stop-listening

    The fact that I follow this blog (and Altucher’s and others’) makes me wonder about how distractible I am. I stopped watching TV a decade ago, but to be honest, the Web is an even worse source of distraction.

    A more serious observation is that I believe my brain has been radically altered in the past 15 years since I first started using the Web in 1995. The way it works is different, the vast amount of information gained (even on a daily basis) is astronomical. I’d like to believe this is for the better, but I’m sure we all know people who also get huge amounts of information online, but who we believe to be severely and dangerously misinformed precisely because of that.

  3. Like the grammar in your first line missing the ‘use’, I can concur, distraction leads me too often astray. I cannot truly say my avoidance suceeded for any one technology anymore though, since I recently did go out and buy a games-console (not for me).
    Keep inspiring us John, and I may find a way to cull computer games in my home someday. At least for a while… Ug, I’m starting to feel like a smoker plotting the day I will give it up. :-)

  4. I would give anything to have the will-power to do discard all forms of distraction. Sometimes I feel like I’m addicted to distraction. I can’t stop browsing, trawling the internet for useless information. The internet is making me feel dumber. I used to be so sharp in my undergrad years, now I’m halfway through a PhD but I feel brain-damaged.

    I used to be so proud that I never felt the need to watch TV, and yet, here I am drowning in StackOverflow, Facebook statuses, twitter updates and blogs, and I really can’t blame anyone but myself.

  5. Conrad: Thanks for pointing out the missing word. I must have been distracted. :)

    Steven: You’re right that the preference for natural light doesn’t easily fit under avoiding distraction. I find the buzz of fluorescent lights distracting, but that’s another matter. Sunlight does influence our moods differently than artificial light. Perhaps that was Souter’s motivation, perhaps unconsciously.

  6. I’m not concerned when people say the internet makes them feel dumber, I think they are recognising a feeling ; or are trying to say, “I’ve lost control”. A distraction in-itself. I know its going to sound tired, but we do live in interresting times, times of high-speed change. Staying just a little way ahead of a wave of change could be some peoples’ way of smoothing the ride, or of being in control without actually letting the wave of technology suck them in. I don’t see the way the web is rewiring my brain as bad, just a new challenge to turn it to do my bidding instead.

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