A Nation Distracted

What we risk by being so unfocused and how to start paying better attention

  • Focus

    image by Gluekit / www.gluekit.com

  • Focus

The following is part of a series of articles on why people are so distracted, and what they can do about it. For more, read The Focused Life.

I am alone inside a glass booth, enveloped in a swirling storm of dialogue snippets, data shards, and clashing story lines. This is a play, for an audience of one. Within the booth is a café table, two chairs, a fake daisy in a vase, and a Mac computer. Over a soundtrack of clinking dishes, I hear two hushed voices, talking as if at another table. A man and a woman are meeting secretly, worried their spouses are having a cyber-affair. The Mac comes to life and unfurls an instant message chat: the virtual whispers of the cyber-lovers. I listen and read, as the two couples simultaneously, online and offline, debate whether cyber-love is real, whether harm has been done. The parallel scripts wash over me, clashing and overlapping, competing for my gaze and for my ear.

I listen twice and then try the next booth, and the next. There are six plays in all, each no more than 12 minutes long, told by and through computers. This experimental theater, on display in the soaring atrium of a college library in upstate New York, is equal parts video game, amusement park ride, and high-tech storytelling. It sends you hurtling into worlds where you are asked to fix what you can’t see, decide what you don’t understand, relate to those you can’t fully trust. The narratives are fragmented. The experience is disorienting. This is not how we live. Or is it?

We can tap into 50 million websites, 2.5 million books in print, 75 million blogs, and other snowstorms of information, but we increasingly seek knowledge in Google searches and Yahoo! headlines that we gulp on the run. We can contact millions of people around the globe, yet we increasingly connect with even our most intimate friends and family via instant messaging and fleeting meetings that are rescheduled a half dozen times, then when they do occur are punctuated by pings, beeps, and multitasking.

Amid the glittering promise of our new technologies and the wondrous potential of our scientific gains, we are nurturing a culture of social diffusion, intellectual fragmentation, and sensory detachment. In this new world, something is amiss. And that something is attention.


Roz Smith
3/22/2010 2:17:11 PM

The most effective way to strengthen the attention span is through games and play--for both children and adults. Making the effort to focus on the task at hand leads to learning.

thom browne_1
2/26/2010 1:51:09 AM

mind no mind. ATTENTION , NO ATTENTION. doing not doing. Leave young minds alone,attention and no attention that is part of growing up. Do not interfere with that process,its akin to molestation. This reverence for words like genius and expert and high levels of awareness, are your own privat affair and part of the journey of growing,youth does not last long if people purport to knowing whats right now. Perhaps in ten years time your perception will have moved on to differnt theories, who knows what damage you may have done with all these theories and experiments on youth full minds. Thank You for your attention>>>>>>>>>>

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