The Breakdown

Explaining Southern California's economy

The Great Tablet Distraction Debate grinds on

26153 full
26153 full

The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal weighs in, cleverly, on a micro-debate spurred by this New York Times article about how people are too distracted while reading on a tablet — an Apple iPad, an Amazon Kindle Fire — to actually, you know, read.

Madrigal attacks the NYT story at three levels:

•You can just as easily be distracted while reading a book on paper as you can while reading a book in a digital format

•Reality is far more distracting than what's going in that magical little gadget in your hot little hands: "If the e-reader engages you more with the thing in your hand, even though the gadget itself is more distracting, that could be a net distraction win."

•We will evolve into an undistracted, tablet-using species: "Humans respond to the novel technologies they encounter to reshape their experiences of them. If distraction is really bothering all these people, and they really want to read books, then they will find a way to do so."

Madrigal edges into the critical aspect of this debate at level two, which is that old-school reading and tablet-reading expose us to different kinds of distraction. I wish he'd pushed this analysis further, because it really gets at why reading in a multi-media environment can be far more challenging than reading in a reality that features various reality based distractions. 

For example, if we're distracted while reading a book, we can often choose whether to engage with or ignore the distraction — and if we go for the latter, then you have to question whether it's a true distraction. On a tablet, by contrast, the distraction may demand engagement. The distraction become a parallel experience that the reader nurtures and grows. I would call this the difference between a static and dynamic distraction.

The people at the Energy Project have been questioning on the valorized idea of multi-tasking — an idea that's been turbocharged by modern gadget culture, of which tablets (iPads and Kindle Fires, anyway, not so much plain old Kindles) are a prime example. We are not really wired for dynamic distraction; it interferes with our natural need to concentrate deeply on single tasks for defined periods, then recharging prior to tackling the next task.

When we use modern media-consumption devices, we're exposing ourselves to "engagement switching," meaning that we have the opportunity to read a book, check email, do social media, run a spreadsheet, play games — it goes on and on. When we read books, we don't really switch. 

Madrigal could be right that this device-driven distraction is more focused and therefore less troubling than real-world distraction. I have no idea, and I don't have any data or research available to test his intriguing "net distraction win" theory. 

But from my own perspective, I find that reading on a device has the potential to be significantly more distracting than reading print. I use my smartphone more for this purpose than anything else (don't own a tablet), but over the years I've done a lot of reading on laptops and desktops, with the ever-lurking distractions that the Internet presents. And in the past two or three years I've made the very deliberate decision to reduce dynamic distraction and favor static distraction (if it even materializes). This means very few apps, defined email-reading periods (not always practical), writing things on paper using cursive handwriting, and spending big chunks of time with print magazines and books. I've also eliminated T.V. for the most part, although I do keep CNBC on behind me during the day, checking in periodically.

Speaking for myself, my ability to concentrate has greatly increased, while my tendency to be distracted by the real world has fallen. The bottom line is that, contra Madrigal, I wasn't evolving into a post-dynamic distraction animal. So I intentionally devolved.

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