Tag Archives: multitasking

Distraction, “the Attentional Commons” and Birmingham

Share

Birmingham New Street: the attentional commons colonized by commerce

It so happened that while I was reading about a concept of the “attentional commons,” I was staying right next door to a building that perfectly illustrated the problem that Matthew Crawford talks about in The World Beyond Your Head, as I’m going to explain below. But first, let’s take a few moments to deal with New Street Station.

I cannot think of an uglier, more monstrous, pretentious and dehumanizing building in contemporary Britain than Birmingham New Street Station. Not that you’d even know it was there at all now, because it’s been smothered by a gigantic steel tablecloth with all signs of movement, travel, public service, usefulness and even the name of the station itself hidden from view. Being inside it is no better: you cannot use your own judgement and vision to see where the trains are, or any local landmarks to get your bearings. I know roughly where the town hall, the cathedral, the Bull Ring, and the Hippodrome are, and I used to know where the station was, but inside Grand Central (as the place—whatever it is—is called now) there is no geography, no public space, no lines, no corners, no light and shade. It’s like being imprisoned in a light bulb.

The Station Street entrance to New Street station: a terrible assault on the attentional commons

The Station Street entrance to New Street Station/Grand Central, with its permanent TV screen of advertisements: abuse of the attentional commons

The people I pity most are those who live in Station Street, whose buildings are bathed 24 hours a day in the changing coloured lights of the enormous advertising “eye” over the front entrance of the building, where in the past, a moderately sized and lit sign with the name of the station and a British Rail logo should  have been. The eye is the biggest insult of all. Whereas human eyes move in order to take in aspects of the environment, this massive advertising screen fixes your stare, and is too big to be avoided by any regular eye movement.  High above it, John Lewis’s glass and steel gasometer dominates and obliterates the skyline.Everything of human proportions and everyday use is dwarfed and humiliated in its sight. It’s a kind of Stalinist monumentalism adopted by a department store, except I think a Stalinist would at least have built a park or something to give the building and the public some breathing space.

John Lewis, Birmingham: colonizing the attentional commons with a massive logo and an oversized building

Never Knowingly Undersized, John Lewis’s grandiose, vacuous gasometer hiding the wonderful civic architecture behind it.

Giving distraction a name: the assault on the attentional commons

I could not give a name to the visceral annoyance that Grand Central induces in me every time I see it, until I read Matthew Crawford’s  The World Beyond Your Head: How to Flourish in An Age of Distraction, where he uses the term attentional commons. He begins by emphasising that human attention is a limited resource, continually at risk of depletion by the advertising that increasingly occupies every spare bit of space around us (on the side of buses, tickets, hotel key fobs, on televisions in departure lounges and post offices, for example).  Our attentional resources, and the “attentional commons”  are being plundered by private advertisers.

Airports are probably the worst example. Just once in my life, I was in the business class lounge at an airport, and experienced exactly what Crawford describes: what you get for travelling business class is the absence of advertising, and the freeing up of your attention for your own stuff. It’s what we used to expect of the outside world as a normal condition, but no longer: in one example cited by Crawford, adverts for l’Oréal in the bottom of the security trays at airports compete for your attention, so that you might easily miss the USB drive that you put in there.

I’ve got another example that involves humans.  I have only twice in my life left my debit card in a machine at a shop, and in both cases, it was because at the crucial point where I needed to focus on putting in my PIN and removing the card, the shop assistant started asking me whether I wanted the chance to enter a free prize draw, or get a two-for-one offer instead of the thing that I had bought.  In both cases, I was just about to leave the country on a trip, so my attention was already used up on all the other things I needed to do.  This is a claim on my attention, with disastrous consequences, and it’s at a point where I think the shop has an ethical obligation to observe what Crawford calls my right not to be addressed.  If you’re driving a car, and your passenger can see you’re negotiating a difficult situation on the road, they’ll shut up and let you concentrate. We have an ethical responsibility to be respectful of the limited attentional resources of others—and it’s that responsibility that is increasingly ignored in public life.

The right not to be addressed

Crawford’s point is that we take it for granted that we have a right not to be addressed in this way, but this right is being eroded in the form of advertising and noise (there’s an interesting parallel here with what Bart Kosko says in Noise about things like email spam, which constitute intrusive, unethical  “noise”).

I think we need to sharpen the conceptually murky right to privacy by supplementing it with a right not to be addressed. This would apply not, of course, to those who address me face-to-face as individuals, but to those who never show their face, and treat my mind as a resource to be harvested by mechanized means. (p. 13)

WP_20160405_18_12_52_Pro

Out of place, out of proportion, and in your face: the steel canopy over New Street Station blocking light and assaulting the landscape.

And that’s what is so vile about Grand Central. Its enormous tent-like shape hides the station beneath it, and overwhelms and obscures the public space all around it. And as if that weren’t enough it has a permanent TV show of adverts on its eye-shaped screen, commanding and appropriating attention. Inside, everything about travel, trains, stations and information is dwarfed by the shopping centre. It’s the kind of station brilliantly described in a novel I can’t remember the name of where platforms and trains are an embarrassment that the architects have tried to hide away.  “Grand Central” is also another example of the insidious privatisation of public space, it’s oversized, inhuman proportions thrust up against the surrounding landscape with the lack of grace of an overweight giant taking over the seat next to you on a plane. It isn’t even elegant: the steel canopy gives up a few feet above the street, as if the designer couldn’t work out how to finish it off.  If a builder did this to your house, you’d sue them.

 

Corporate manspreading

It’s manspreading on a massive corporate scale, but we barely have a name for the rights that are eroded when so much public space is intruded by adverts and demands on your attention. Now we do. It’s a concept of an attentional commons, and the right not to be addressed. I’m not sure what we can do about it, but I hope at least that the residents of Station Street are going to give Grand Central hell until they turn that bloody TV screen off.

WP_20150903_12_33_38_Pro

Grand central, seen from the Bull Ring. This is a building that has “f*** you” written all over it. Attention-seeking, narcissistic, and obsessed with dominating everything around it, it’s an architectural psychopath.

More about attentional commons and distraction

Daniel Levitin on the perils of multitasking

Share

levitin

“Instead of reaping the big rewards that come from sustained, focused effort, we instead reap empty rewards from completing a thousand little sugar-coated tasks.”

That’s a quote from a great article in the Guardian about multitasking by Daniel Levitin, Why the modern world is bad for your brain  (thanks to Vicki for sending me the link).

If you’ve been reading this blog a while, you’ll know that multi-tasking is one of my pet hates: it’s a myth. You can’t do it, you can just flit from one thing to another, and do none of them particularly well. See this page for links to all my previous rants about multi-tasking.

The Levitin article is a teaser for his book, The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, which offers advice, based on an understanding of how your mind works, on how to live better with all this going on, rather than try to pretend that there’s something great about behaving like an overstimulated, distracted 12-year old when you’re an adult.

I reckon it’s probably one of the uncomfortable truths of the modern world, that no-one who achieves anything wonderful does it without turning their social media, indeed, the whole darn internet off while they do it, but in a world where the high street is dominated by people selling laptops, tablets and smartphones, it would figure that the dominant message out there is that online, networked multitasking is a Good Thing. I’ve been enjoying reading Russell Brand’s Revolution – and in the middle of that, he tells the reader to go and look some fact for themselves: he goes offline to write, so can’t do it himself. That might come as much of a surprise as learning that Jim Carrey doesn’t eat sugar, but it’s true.

 

Laptops in the classroom and multi-tasking

Share

The case for banning laptops in the classroom is a blog by Dan Rockmore in the New Yorker on the surprising proposal by one of the lecturers to ban  laptops in programming classes  at Dartmouth.  I say ‘surprising’, but it doesn’t actually surprise me, since I’ve noticed that of all people, programmers and other exceptional thinkers in just about any field tend to regard notebooks or conversation as a more appropriate tool than computers for doing conceptual work (see earlier posts of mine praising [real] notebooks and even record cards).

But the main point about laptops in class is that they’re distracting. The message of one study on the subject “aligns pretty well with the evidence that multitasking degrades task performance across the board.” What I like about the guy that proposed the ban, apart from the fact that this blog adds to my growing list of articles busting the myth of multitasking is that he’s not blaming the youth of today for being distractible, but acknowledges that laptops distract him as well, so why would it be any different for the people he teaches? 

At a conference last year I looked round the lecture room during one of the presentations, and noticed that many of the big-name researchers, due to give papers later in the conference, had their laptops open. Some were blogging, some were tweeting, some were rejigging their PowerPoint presentations, others were editing papers, checking emails or on Facebook. One was googling a term that the presenter had just used, another was looking up the book that they had just referred to on a slide. One was checking the football results, another was actually watching a game. Oh yes, and one was organizing his albums in iPhoto.

Remember, these are professors I’m talking about (in the colloquial sense of high-end academics), not adolescent undergrads. Coming from the ballet world where a teacher wouldn’t let a bunch of 6-year olds behave like this, I was pretty appalled. But what appalled me was the lack of leadership and sense of collective responsibility. I wanted the conference organizer or the person chairing the session to stand up and tell the room to get a grip, put their laptops away, and give the person at the front 20 minutes of their attention for god’s sake. As for tweeting and blogging about conferences while you’re in them, isn’t this a form of Facebook-style snap-and-post narcissism? Look at me! I was there! I heard this! It was really cool! But while you were typing that, your focus necessarily drifted from the next few sentences, if it was ever there much in the first place.

I don’t think it’s the fault of the lecture as a form. I like lectures. People who speak well can inspire. The talk I attended by Ken Robinson  eight years ago still inspires me, and remains a model to aspire to. But it’s a relational thing – lectures depend on the attention of the audience as well as the attention-grabbing skills of the lecturer.  And if lecturers themselves can’t keep their minds off football, funny kitten pictures or email, then don’t expect students to fare any better.

Multi-tasking and supertasking

Share

As you’ll know if you read my blog, I’ve got a thing about multi-tasking – I think it’s a dangerous myth, and I’ll post anything I find to keep debunking it. Here’s another, though from an unusual angle: Meet the supertaskers (Psychology Today), describes a very small group of outliers, people who can actually deal with too much at once, and are great at it: supertaskers. But the take-home point is this: they do it by learning what to ignore. And if you want to get better at doing that, the way to practice is by focusing on a single task, and learning to ignore distractions ruthlessly. Well worth turning off the distractions and reading the article.

This ties in nicely with another recent article from The Atlantic How not to try‘, which discusses the curious and perplexing conundrum that trying too hard to do something distracts you from actually doing it. Learning to somehow ignore your own effort is the key to finding the focus you need.

The problem with reading online

Share

Four years ago, I started an MA in music education at the Institute of Education in London. The first module was on the philosophy and aesthetics of music, and included the kind of books that I had been avoiding for 25 years, like Hanslick’s Vom musikalisch Schönen. With philosophy, there are no short cuts, you just have to read in depth and slowly.  Mid-term, I went to Malta for a short break to meet an old friend, and took my books with me, including an anthology of texts on the aesthetics of music in the original German. It’s one of my happiest memories of that time, sitting on my balcony, with nothing but a book, reading slowly, going over the same paragraph again and again until some of it made sense. Four years later, I’m still struggling to understand a lot of the same material now, but the pleasure is deep and immense when you realise that something once unfathomable has sunk in and become understood. It’s like watching a tree grow.

If I hadn’t started that MA, I would never have made the effort to achieve that understanding. Writing essays forces you to do grapple with other people’s thinking and writing, and searching, googling, information gathering is irrelevant to the task. The work is in your head. It’s deep, satisfying, and laborious.

So I knew exactly what Randy Connolly was talking about in his short presentation What’s wrong with online reading? You keep hearing about how wonderful the online world is now, how ‘everything’s on Google’ and children today are amazing, multi-tasking geniuses whose brains (as ‘digital natives’) will develop in ways that we oldies simply can’t understand because we didn’t grow up with the internet. The trouble is, despite the hype, there’s not a lot of evidence that this is really the case. What’s more, online reading is not all it’s cracked up to be. It’s causing us to skim and forage without thinking a great deal, and we lose concentration as a result. Connolly’s interest in this subject started, in part, with an article called ‘Is Google making us stupid?‘Given that this is a long article, and given our tendency to skim when things are on a screen, it’s probably best to download and print the article first.

Google can’t make us stupid of  course, that’s up to us. If we don’t take time to think, read carefully and stop scanning and foraging as our only mode of intellection, then we’ll end up – as even some academics admit – unable to read and concentrate in a sustained way. Connolly’s presentation is 141 slides long, but  doesn’t take more than about 5 minutes to go through because each slide has very small amounts of information on – which will ensure that you take it in. It’s well worth taking the time.

And if all this is your kind of thing, you’ll probably like all my rants about the myth of multitasking.

 

Multi-tasking, phones & phenomenology

Share

I never expected to see four fixations of mine (multi-tasking, the dangers of driving while phoning, phenomenology, and dance) come together in a single scholarly article, but today’s the day.

The latest issue of Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences is devoted to dance and cognitive science (see here), and one of the articles, by Robert Rosenberger, “Embodied technology and the dangers of using the phone while driving” is an attempt to unravel from a phenomenological perspective just what it is that is distracting about mobile phone use while driving, particularly since it seems that a lot of the evidence suggests that hands-free phones causes a similar drop in driving performance.

It links very nicely with the book I’m reading The Audible Past, where the author Jonathan Sterne talks about the concept of a private aural space that is created by audio technology.  I see a connection between this and what Rosenberger calls  ‘field composition’ – the way that a user’s field of awareness becomes ‘composed’ by a mediating technology (such as a phone, or a car). What Rosenberger is saying is that a phone and phoning creates a particular field of awareness that has a different phenomenological character to that of a car and driving.  Although that sounds intuitively correct, the distinction between this and a thin account of ‘distraction’ or ‘multitasking’ or ‘cognitive load’ is important if we are to find out what it is that is distracting, and whether a hands-free device is going to make any difference.

I think if Rosenberger lived in Wandsworth, he’d see a whole other level of distraction, where people on the school run use ‘hands-free’, but look down at the phone (i.e. not at the road) while they’re talking, but that’s another subject.

Give yourself a break from multi-tasking

Share

Just try it. Give this podcast from Headspace about the healthy use of technology 15 minutes of your time. Pause to reflect on the way you use technology, and the extent to which switching between one window and another, between email and document, text message and Facebook, music and video, might be knocking up toxic cerebral froth.

You’ll know from my anti-multi-tasking rants that I don’t have a lot of time for the idea that ‘multi-tasking’ is a good thing. Although this podcast doesn’t use the term ‘multi-tasking’, it does refer to the documented negative effects of overstimulating your brain by constant task-switching on digital technology. It’s an important message, because it’s not just kids that try to do ten things at once with technology, it’s all of us who have the means. We need, I believe, to stop buying into the idea that we have endless processing power. I might just sign up to Headspace and give myself a break.