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The Perpetually Distracted “Informavore”

I’ve been meaning to bring up an article from last month’s edition of The Walrus for a while now, but time has not permitted it. The article is called “Driven to Distraction,” and discusses the effect of the “ubiquitous technology” of our modern world upon our ability to think (I tried to link to the article, but it’s in an area only available to print subscribers. I guess you’ll either have to trust my summary of it, or go find an actual hard copy—which may not be a bad idea, given the content of the article…).

The omnipresence of technological gadgetry, the myriad online forums for “connection,” and the truly staggering amount of information that is available to most of us at the click of a mouse has led to some interesting consequences. According to the author, John Lorinc, the ordinary ways that the days of the “technorati” are spent—checking and responding to innumerable emails, online “multi-tasking,” wading through oceans of information (and remembering little of it), and feeling lost and disoriented without some form of technology to remain “connected” with others—raise some important questions:

Do we control this technology or has it come to control us? And have we arrived at a point, fifteen years after the advent of the web, where we need to rethink our relationship with a technology that may well be altering the way our minds function?

Lorinc argues that our minds are, quite literally, becoming divided and distracted. We are increasingly unable to devote sustained periods of time to specific tasks because we have grown accustomed to and enslaved by the instant and easily accessible distractions available through our various modes of technology (hence the term “informavore,” coined by scientists at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center to describe the curious phenomenon of “information foraging” that is a part of so many people’s lives).

There is no shortage of evidence for this—I see it every day at school and on the bus (and in my own life!). The first thing most people do when they get on the bus is become immersed in some activity involving technological gadgetry. Same thing at school—instant messaging and a whole host of other online diversions are a common way of passing the time in lectures, long hours studying in the library etc. Speaking from personal experience, it’s a very fine line between using technology for necessary work, or for an occasional distraction and allowing it to needlessly chew up huge amounts of time.

The lost production time is, obviously, a huge problem, and is addressed by Lorinc in this article. I tend to gravitate to the broader question of what our (ab)use of technology says about us as human beings. About two decades ago – before the rise of the internet—Neil Postman was warning us about the dangers of an image-based culture obsessed with entertainment. The primary target of his wrath was television—he argued that when television becomes the primary means of public discourse, everything has to pass through the grid of “will it sell?” and “is it entertaining?” in order to qualify. The result is a culture obsessed with entertainment, and incapable of grappling with anything that isn’t delivered in two-minute sound-bytes accompanied by a sufficiently sensational collection of rapidly changing images.

It seems to me that the rise of the internet, and everything it has spawned, has only exacerbated this problem. We have never had so much information, so much entertainment, so much stuff at our disposal, but it seems like we have also never been more poorly equipped—cognitively or morally—to deal with it appropriately. The picture painted by Postman and, to a lesser degree, by Lorinc, is one of human beings who are dominated and controlled by their weaknesses and impulses, unable to resist temptation, and gradually becoming conditioned by the very media forms they have created.

It’s not a very flattering picture, to put it mildly. The “solution” offered by Lorinc seems rather tepid to me—he makes some vague gesture at understanding that we have to know our limits, create some space where we unplug etc. This doesn’t seem to address the problem of a people who may engage in this kind of behaviour even if they know it’s counter-productive and/or damaging. As with most issues, understanding the problem, while important and necessary, is not equivalent to solving it. If only it were that easy.

(For those who may be wondering, the irony of the substance of this post and the medium used to deliver it is not lost on me. That’s not to say that I have a really good explanation or defense, just that I recognize it. Some days I think this is a good medium for discussion, other days it seems like one more distraction to be avoided…)

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