Technological Distraction

Published in IEEE Spectrum Magazine, July 2017

I can’t help it.  I should be focusing my attention on the task at hand, which is writing this small essay.  Instead I keep checking the Internet on my smartphone.  Surely whatever is out there on the net must be more interesting than having to concentrate on the task in front of me.  But my attention span has shrunk alarmingly, and I’m easily distracted.  Worse, I seem to look for and welcome distractions.   I look around me at this coffee shop and everyone seems to be staring at their cell phones.  I don’t think we used to be like this and I wonder: has technology done this to us, and if so, is this bad or good?

A new book by Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen,  The Distracted Mind:  Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World, examines this phenomenon from the points of view of neuroscience and psychology.  The authors contend that, just as ancient humans foraged for food, we now forage for information.  “We are information-seeking creatures,” they affirm.  I suppose, however, that they do mean to include communication and entertainment in the general concept of information.

Our behavior is likened to that of squirrels foraging for food in a patchy environment.  As a squirrel experiences diminishing food in its present patch, it instinctively decides when to move to another patch.  The squirrel is apparently aware of the marginal value theorem, which determines when the rate of diminishment in a given patch justifies the cost and time of moving to a new path with a greater expected return.  This probably was worked out many years ago by a great squirrel mathematician and then widely circulated in the squirrel community.

Maybe we’re not as smart as squirrels.  As we browse in an information patch, we constantly judge the perceived value of jumping to a new patch, and in this we are led astray by boredom and anxiety.  We’re easily bored, and there is the FOMO effect, the great Fear Of Missing Out.  So we jump quickly, in spite of what intelligent application of the marginal value theorem might say.   For example,  the average time we remain on a web page is only about four seconds.

We think we’re good at this multitasking, but is this really true?  Our ancient brains weren’t designed through evolution for this behavior.  In spite of the parallel architecture in our brains, we are effectively dealing with a one-core processor, and every multiprocessing engagement requires a switch in context that is costly in resources and lost time.  And as we get older, these costs become greater.  Experiments show that from twenty years of age on, it’s all downhill.

Technology in its development of the Internet, smartphone, and social media has not had a passive role in this behavior.  It has led to an incredible availability of information.  As the authors of the book say, technology “reaches out to us.”  It is alluring, and the behavior it induces has many consequences. Studies have shown that the more a child multitasks, the lower the test scores and grades.  Multitasking is often a dangerous activity, as when we are driving.  We're also less inclined to introspective thinking.  Instead of awaiting deep thoughts, we choose what we believe will be instant gratification.

But I keep coming back to my dilemma.  If this is so bad, why do we do it?  Maybe there are benefits that have not yet been quantified.  But if there are not, and this trend continues, what will be like in another couple of decades?  So many questions, so few answers.

If this essay seems disjointed, please forgive me.  I’m kind of old, and this ancient brain is all I have.