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The Distraction Addiction: Getting the Information You Need and the Communication You Want, Without Enraging Your Family, Annoying Your Colleagues, and Destroying Your Soul
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The Distraction Addiction: Getting the Information You Need and the Communication You Want, Without Enraging Your Family, Annoying Your Colleagues, and Destroying Your Soul

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by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

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The question of our time: can we reclaim our lives in an age that feels busier and more distracting by the day?

We've all found ourselves checking email at the dinner table, holding our breath while waiting for Outlook to load, or sitting hunched in front of a screen for an hour longer than we intended.

Mobile devices and the web have invaded our lives,


The question of our time: can we reclaim our lives in an age that feels busier and more distracting by the day?

We've all found ourselves checking email at the dinner table, holding our breath while waiting for Outlook to load, or sitting hunched in front of a screen for an hour longer than we intended.

Mobile devices and the web have invaded our lives, and this is a big idea book that addresses one of the biggest questions of our age: can we stay connected without diminishing our intelligence, attention spans, and ability to really live? Can we have it all?

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, a renowned Stanford technology guru, says yes. THE DISTRACTION ADDICTION is packed with fascinating studies, compelling research, and crucial takeaways. Whether it's breathing while Facebook refreshes, or finding creative ways to take a few hours away from the digital crush, this book is about the ways to tune in without tuning out.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this practical guide to better, more “contemplative computing,” Pang, a historian of technology, teaches readers a valuable set of skills to better enable them to deal with an increasing reliance on ever-more intrusive and distracting forms of mobile technology. Along the way, the author provides an elegant tour through current neuroscience and an examination of the nature of attention to find better ways to handle our contemporary digital mediascape. In seven extended chapters, Pang assesses attention-focusing tools (e.g., aesthetically minimal word-processing software like WriteRoom and Internet blockers like Freedom), as well as strategies like meditation and scheduled “Sabbaths” away from stimulation like e-mail, push notifications, and other calls for attention. Pang’s methods will be familiar to readers of other time-management manifestos, but he successfully renders them concrete, practical, and contemporary. His history of technology is also fascinating, drawing from sources far removed from the digital sphere. Pang’s tome is a valuable resource for anyone seeking to take control of his or her digital life, and it’s a great primer on the interplay between mind and tech. Agent: Zoë Pagnamenta, Pagnamenta Agency. (Aug. 20)
From the Publisher
"Amusing and edifying.... THE DISTRACTION ADDICTION is not framed as a self-help book...It's a thoughtful examination of the perils of our computing overdose and a historical overview of how technological advances change consciousness." — Washington Post

"A perceptive new study of how best to cope with the relentless interruptions presented by digital life...Pang persuasively and carefully constructs a remedy he calls 'contemplative computing'... to think clearly and calmly, Pang offers original and often inspired ideas." — San Francisco Chronicle

"Skeptical without pandering to technophobia or neuroscience.... The Distraction Addiction brims with suggestions for how to embrace 'contemplative computing,' a mindful approach to digital technology... Instead of shunning the technological in pursuit of the mythical authentic experience, Pang wants to clean up the mess it created." — The New Yorker

"Pang's strength is his ability to weave together previously written-about ideas from such varied sources as histories of science (e.g., Darwin's daily walk) and Silicon Valley propaganda (the 'digital Sabbath')." — Cleveland Plain Dealer

"An elegant tour through current neuroscience and an examination of the nature of attention. Pang's tome is a valuable resource for anyone seeking to take control of his or her digital life, and it's a great primer on the interplay between mind and tech." — Publishers Weekly

"Pang reminds us that our brains are still capable of feats far beyond the reach of computers." — Mother Jones

"Pang implores us to use technology more mindfully in this thoughtful book that is rich in research and anecdote. Perfect for readers who enjoy books on the nature of attention such as Maggie Jackson and Bill McKibben's Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age and on the behavior of human-computer interaction." — Library Journal

"Pang bolsters his advice with anecdotes of intellectual breakthroughs by great thinkers of the past, coupled with interviews with present-day scientists and techsavvy professionals. These accounts, including the surprising use of social media by Buddhist monks and a lengthy analysis of Darwin's method of reflection through walking, are the best part of Pang's book, placing today's current tech "addiction" into a broader context of human history, development, and philosophical insight." — Booklist

"Pang's notion of mindful, or contemplative, computing is useful." — TechCrunch

"A wise, urbane, funny, and delightfully deep book. This book is about much more than distraction and addiction in the smartphone age. It's about living life wholly and fully by paying deep, thoughtful attention to our tools and our bodies, and to the people we love. This book speaks to modern times, but its message is timeless." — Michael Chorost, author of World Wide Mind: The Coming Integration of Humanity, Machines, and the Internet

"The era of the smartphone and the iPad seems to present us with a deeply unappealing choice: either we can resign ourselves to a life of tech-induced anxiety and distraction, or we can renounce the many benefits of the web-connected world. In this important and hopeful book, Alex Pang explains that there's a third possibility. Using the approach he calls "contemplative computing," we can harness technology to foster, not disrupt, attention and calm — and thereby use our gadgets in the service of a meaningful life, rather than letting them use us." — Oliver Burkeman, Guardian columnist and author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking

"Does technology rule you? Or do you rule your technology? The Distraction Addiction is a how-to guide for staying sane, balanced, and intentional in an age of constant digital distraction. If you want your phone, facebook, email, and all the rest to make your life richer without making it more scattered, this is the book for you." — Ramez Naam, author of The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet

"Time starved? Distracted by the immediate? Tossing in an ocean of swirling information? No landfall in sight? Need a lodestar; a pilot, perhaps a Zen master? Turn to Alex Soojung-Kim Pang: he has charted these waters. With Pang's help you can surprise yourself. The Distraction Addiction is an intelligent, entertaining and essential guide to navigation in our techno-times." — Peter C. Whybrow, Director of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, and author of American Mania: When More is Not Enough

"The Distraction Addiction is guaranteed to distract and provoke us from the normal clichés of the day. It stretches our understanding of technological affordances and the extended mind, bringing into reality what we usually think of philosophically. Read this book and be surprised and delighted by its deeply humanist sensibilities." — John Seely Brown, co-author of The Social Life of Information

Kirkus Reviews
How to combat the crush of digital information available today. With the invention of personal computers and smartphones, the world of information and updates from friends and family is just a split second away. "People who spend all day with computers used to be called hackers," writes Stanford and Oxford visiting scholar Pang. "Today, that's all of us." This overwhelming volume of information has prompted what many call a "distraction addiction," where everything feels urgent and in need of your immediate attention; this situation usually results in ineffective multitasking. Pang offers simple techniques to create a more peaceful and productive life. From taking mindful breaths to using meditation, the author focuses on the need to step away from the screen, suggesting walks to recharge an overly tired brain, like Charles Darwin did on his Sandwalk, what he called "his thinking path." Pang analyzes computer programs that effectively disconnect one from the Internet, forcing users to concentrate on the task at hand rather than clicking at every ping of their inbox. He suggests monitoring email and social media use, writing down the frequency, length of time and physical location where each site is checked, then eliminating those sites that take up time but provide little constructive feedback. For those willing to go one step farther, Pang recommends a digital Sabbath, one day a week when any or all screen-related activities are turned off in order to reclaim face-to-face relationships, start new hobbies and engage in interactions with the outside world. By following these methods of self-control, readers can better utilize the tools at hand and follow the buzz on the airwaves while still feeling in control of their lives. A well-researched program to help reclaim personal downtime from the inundation of cyberinformation.
Library Journal
Professional futurist and historian of technology Pang (visiting scholar, Stanford and Oxford; former Microsoft Research Fellow) provides the path back to attention in this Zen-inspired book containing chapters entitled: "Breathe," "Simplify," "Meditate," "Deprogram," "Experiment," "Refocus," "Rest," and "Eight Steps to Contemplative Computing." He argues persuasively that we are addicted to and hobbled by our dependency on technology. Pang implores us to use technology more mindfully in this thoughtful book that is rich in research and anecdote. He suggests helpful techniques, such as using computer programs that prevent Internet access, thereby letting us concentrate on the task at hand, rather than intermittently "multitasking" by reading email and searching the web. He also recommends taking Sunday sabbaticals from reading email. VERDICT Perfect for readers who enjoy books on the nature of attention such as Maggie Jackson and Bill McKibben's Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age and on the behavior of human-computer interaction.—Lynne F. Maxwell, West Virginia Univ. Coll. of Law Lib., Morgantown

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Little, Brown and Company
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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 and Company

Copyright © 2013 Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-316-20826-0



Before you read any farther, get your smartphone or iPad or laptop and check your e-mail. This is probably something you do multiple times a day; for many of us, it's almost a reflex, and we hardly think about it. Productivity experts recommend checking work e-mail only a certain number of times a day, but lots of people hit the new-mail notifier on the computer's menu bar or punch the Get Mail button in the e-mail program every few minutes. It's an automatic, nervous habit, like glancing at one's watch. Computers automate the practice and check for us several times an hour. If you have alerts running on multiple devices and several e-mail accounts, that can translate into hundreds of interactions with your in-boxes every day.

So go check your mail. But this time, as you do, don't think about the messages that might be waiting in your in-box or about how you really should have answered those messages from last week. Try not to let your thoughts wander. Instead, pay attention to yourself. Try to observe what you do. Watch how the computer reacts to you and how you react to it.

In particular, notice how you breathe. Did you hold your breath? Chances are, you did, and that small unconscious habit is a window into a big world of issues. It shows how a disembodied transfer of information that we think has nothing to do with the physical world actually does have a bodily, physical dimension. It illustrates how we don't use information technologies in the way we use bicycle pumps or elevators or salad tongs; the technologies turn into extensions of our minds and memories. They become entangled with us.

Linda Stone is a technology consultant, writer, and former Apple and Microsoft executive, the sort of person who can coin a phrase like continuous partial attention, which describes the way a person divides his focus among multiple devices, never giving any single one his complete attention. In 2008, she noticed herself holding her breath while checking her e-mail. After observing people at cafés and conferences, asking friends, and doing some informal surveys, she found that lots of people held their breath when they checked their e-mail.

Stone called the phenomenon e-mail apnea. The term is a play on sleep apnea, a breathing problem caused by either a physical obstruction in the airway that keeps air from reaching the lungs or a failure of the brain to signal the lungs to breathe. People with sleep apnea can stop breathing hundreds of times a night, sometimes for up to a minute. It's not usually fatal, but it can contribute to fatigue and impaired cognition, and even to physical problems like obesity and heart disease.

E-mail apnea is probably more pervasive than sleep apnea. Somewhere between 100 million and 350 million people worldwide have sleep apnea; in the United States, it's estimated to be as common as heart disease, clinical depression, or alcoholism. But roughly two billion people worldwide, nearly a third of the Earth's population, use computers. Roughly two billion people have broadband Internet access. More than twice that number have mobile phones.

It's not a stretch to assume that e-mail apnea, like sleep apnea, isn't very good for us. Stone speculates that holding one's breath while checking mail is triggered by the fight-or-flight reflex. It reflects the anxiety many of us feel as we check for new messages in our in-boxes, not knowing what new fires we'll have to put out or what problems we'll have to solve. We see variants of it in other electronic interactions: when you're waiting for a critical text message, for example, or when you unexpectedly have to update the printer driver in order to print out the document you really need for a meeting that's starting in a few minutes.

E-mail apnea is the kind of chronic condition that can make a person's life a little more unpleasant, and make a person more unpleasant to others. Those six billion devices making all of us a bit more anxious do connect us to one another, after all. But we're barely aware of the problem.

E-mail apnea shines a light on an important but usually unrecognized dimension in our relationships with information technology: the degree to which our minds, bodies, and technologies can become entangled. Researchers used to believe that the mind and consciousness emerge out of the brain's cognitive functions. But as they've gotten to know more about how the brain works and how the mind reacts to new technologies, some philosophers and cognitive scientists have begun to argue that the boundaries between mind and body, and even the boundaries between the mind, the body, and tools and surroundings, are pretty fuzzy. They argue that it's wrong to think of the mind as being contained by the brain. Rather, they propose a model of an extended mind, consisting of brain, body, devices, and even social networks. The extended-mind thesis argues that we need to understand cognition, or thinking, as something that can happen anywhere in this system; a person might internalize some cognitive functions in memorized rules or in his subconscious, outsource others to technologies, or use a combination of memory and device to get things done. Even something as apparently simple as reading turns out to be a vastly complicated ballet of unconscious processing and conscious action that's coordinated across body, book, eyes, and hands.

Homo sapiens has a very long history of entanglement; interactions with technologies change the way our bodies work and the way our minds work. Entanglement allows us to extend our physical and cognitive abilities; do things that we could not do with our bodies alone; accomplish tasks more efficiently, easily, or quickly; and achieve the kind of mastery that lets us lose ourselves in our work. It stretches the body schema, the unconscious mental map of where one's body ends and the world starts. This is why a common statement like "my iPhone feels like part of my brain" actually expresses some deep truths.

The term entanglement combines several phenomena that scientists and philosophers have studied separately. I prefer the term entanglement over other options for a couple of reasons. The term extended mind, coined by philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers, sounds a little too positive. Extending one's cognitive ability or memory sounds like an unambiguously good thing; we need a term that acknowledges that some intimate engagements with technologies feel less like extensions and more like constraints. We also need to recognize that even the most positive extensions come at a price; nothing in our relationships with information technologies is completely positive or negative.

Entanglement also suggests a degree of complexity and inevitability. We naturally distribute our cognitive capabilities across our brains and an array of devices, and we all use technologies to extend our physical capabilities; it's something we've been doing unconsciously almost since birth. We're stuck with our devices. But you can choose whether you're tangled in your devices, like a fly in a spider's web, or entangled with them, like a strand in a rope. The second creates something that's stronger than its individual parts. You know what happens to the fly.

The concept of entanglement might sound like a transhumanist fantasy, the sort of thing that leads to dreams of uploading human consciousness into computers. Certainly there are lots of people who would welcome a disappearance of the boundary between humans and machines; futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil, for example, envisions a future in which robots and artificial intelligence are as smart as humans, nanoscale robots are able to map every atom in the brain, and mankind has moved from having a single consciousness in each person's head to having all minds distributed among bodies, robots, and the Cloud. But people already talk about information technologies as if they were extensions of themselves. Users often describe their mobile devices as being parts of themselves; they also describe themselves as being "addicted" to the Internet.

The popularity of these metaphors is illustrated by a pair of studies conducted by researchers from the University of Maryland. In 2010 and 2011, they recruited college students in ten countries to stay offline and away from all media for twenty-four hours. After putting away their cell phones, many reported feeling like a part was missing. "I reached into my pocket at least thirty times to pull out a vibrating phone that wasn't there," one American student said. A student in China said, "I just like touching my cell phone with my hands, which made me feel full." One British student "actually craved having my phone, and routinely checked my pockets for it every five minutes," while another described it as "very strange not to have my phone constantly connected to my hand." Many reported feelings of withdrawal. "This day is simply composed by struggle and suffering!" one Chinese student wailed, while another said, "After twenty-two hours living without any media, I can say without exaggeration, I was almost freaking out." One American student reported that he "felt like a drug addict, tweaking for a taste of information," and another that "[I] needed my electronic 'fix'" and that going offline "literally felt like some sort of withdrawal." A British student simply admitted, "I am an addict. I don't need alcohol, cocaine or any other derailing form of social depravity.... Media is my drug; without it I was lost." Psychologists in the United States now argue whether Internet addiction (a term first used in the scientific literature in the late 1990s) should be recognized as a medical condition like alcoholism.

Thinking in terms of extended minds and entanglement helps clarify what's at stake when our relationships with information technologies go bad. As devices moved from tools we used at work or in class to things we lived with, they became more deeply integrated in our lives, and their potential to affect the shape and workings of our minds grew. When a device doesn't work well, it isn't just an inconvenience. You experience the malfunctioning device as a part of you and, at the same time, as something outside your control. It is like a limb that won't obey your commands. The problem with too many devices today is not that they are too engaging or addictive. The problem is that they are poorly designed.

Knowing what entanglement is and how it works is a big step toward using computers in a more contemplative way. We can't begin to have better relationships with our devices until we have a clear picture of what better is. Entanglement teaches us that we shouldn't worry about becoming too dependent on technologies. Throughout history, Homo sapiens has been inseparable from technology.

Our protohuman ancestors first used stones as tools about two and a half million years ago; the Acheulean hand ax, a sharpened, pointed, versatile tool that required substantial skill to make, was invented about 1.8 million years ago, and variations of it remained among our ancestors' most prized possessions for more than a million years. (I've held million-year-old hand axes that still have their edge. Imagine any present-day technology even lasting a million years, much less still being usable and useful.)

Humans have literally never lived in a world without tools, and tool use in humans evolved in concert with both biological and cognitive innovations. Our ancestors' brains—particularly the frontal lobes—expanded dramatically about the time they began to make and use tools. This neurological expansion helped increase our ancestors' capacity to form abstract ideas about how objects could be used; to remember those uses; and to teach them to others. The production of stone tools in flint-rich lands for use in hunting or fishing elsewhere also provides the first evidence of our ancestors' planning for their futures.

Our species' external features have also changed along with our use of tools. The development of bipedalism created an opportunity for our ancestors' hands to specialize in feeling and grasping rather than walking. This in turn made it possible for protohuman hands to become more tool-friendly; evolution selected for hands that had shorter fingers, and nails rather than claws. (Recent studies show that apes are unable to make hand axes and other stone tools because their wrists are too stiff and their fingers too short.) However, these evolutionary changes also made humans more dependent in some ways: they needed tools for hunting and fighting, and materials such as leather for protecting the skin from rough surfaces.

For the past couple hundred thousand years, humans have eaten more meat than gorillas or chimpanzees, but our species hasn't developed the sharp teeth or fearsome speed of other predators. In fact, although meat has come to occupy a larger part of our species' diet, our teeth and jaws have become weaker. Why? Teeth haven't evolved to tear living flesh from moving prey. Evolution selected for teeth that allowed humans to more efficiently consume cooked meat; animals were killed using technologies like spears and traps, and then the meat was cooked over fires. We're also less furry than our primate cousins, and we walk and balance differently, allowing us to make use of two other ancient technologies: clothes and shoes.

The human body took shape in a world where arrows, spears, traps, and knives became the technological equivalent of killer jaws and massive haunches; humans could rely on fire to soften and sterilize food. Technologies have changed mankind's environment and diet, and human evolution reflects that.

The evidence of cognitive entanglement is limited, because archaeologists have been looking for it for a much shorter period, and physical evidence of cognitive changes is ephemeral. One form that we can trace over the past twelve thousand years, though, is the discovery, cultivation, and use of psychoactive drugs.

In their natural state, the plants coca and khat are low-level stimulants, and they probably helped humans for whom cooked food and clothing were novelties to ignore hunger and maintain alertness during long hunts. Drugs became stronger and more refined with the rise of civilization, trade, migration, and imperial expansion. Old World paleobotanical sources (microfossils and preserved seeds, for example) and artifacts like ceremonial bowls and burners suggest that by about 10,000 BCE, peoples in Asia were chewing betel nuts as a stimulant. Ephedra and cannabis were cultivated by Chinese farmers by 4000 BCE, while their European brethren took to growing opium. Two thousand years later, nicotine and alkali-based hallucinogens were in use in the Middle East and Europe. Cannabis spread along caravan routes from China to central Asia and India and thence to Africa, while opium moved in the opposite direction, into Asia and the Near East.

In the ancient Americas, "plants of the gods" and rituals for achieving altered states of consciousness were pervasive. Andean peoples prepared ritual drinks made from the hallucinogenic San Pedro cactus from 1300 BCE, and coca and caffeine-rich guayusa were grown and traded from at least 500 CE. Ayahuasca, the "vine of the souls," was popular in the Amazon. In and around the Caribbean, a snuff called yopo was widely used; in low doses it is a stimulant, while in high doses it becomes a hallucinogen. Central America, with its rich tropical forests, was a veritable pharmacopoeia. The Maya in what is now Guatemala were using sacred mushrooms like teonanácatl as early as 500 BCE, and shamans in the Mexican region of Oaxaca developed rituals featuring brews made from mushrooms, ololiuqui (a kind of nightshade), and peyote from 100 CE.

Other entanglements developed with the domestication of animals and the rise of agriculture, the growth of urban settlements, and the development of complex societies. The growth of long-distance trade and the appearance of far-flung political entities created a need for reliable communication and record-keeping, and that stimulated the development and use of writing in Asia, Mesoamerica, and the Near East. Writing supported social enterprises of unprecedented complexity, but it also had a powerful effect on the human mind. As Walter Ong memorably put it, "Writing is a technology that restructures thought."


Excerpted from The Distraction Addiction by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang. Copyright © 2013 Alex Soojung-Kim Pang. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang has spent the past twenty years studying people, technology, and the worlds they make. A professional futurist with a PhD in the history of science, Pang is a former Microsoft Research fellow, a visiting scholar at Stanford and Oxford universities, and a senior consultant at Strategic Business Insights, a Silicon Valley-based think tank. Pang's writings have appeared in Scientific American, American Scientist, and the Los Angeles Times Book Review, as well as in many academic publications.

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The Distraction Addiction: Getting the Information You Need and the Communication You Want, Without Enraging Your Family, Annoying Your Colleagues, an 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Just read the sample. Very true facts. Seems necesary for certain people
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It's ironic that thisvis an eBook.