In a wonderful post at Mind Hacks, Vaughn, writing on “The myth of the concentration oasis” makes an argument that rather challenges my resistance to it:
The ‘modern technology is hurting our brain’ argument is widespread but it seems so short-sighted. It’s based on the idea that before digital communication technology came along, people spent their time focusing on single tasks for hours on end and were rarely distracted.
The trouble is, it’s plainly rubbish, and you just have to spend time with some low tech communities to see this is the case.
He’s been doing just that — spending time in low-tech communities — as he does a psychiatric stint (as doctor, not patient!) in Medellin, Columbia, and draws on his observations there to note how utterly, completely, constantly distracting pre-electronic life is. He argues the vision of a distraction-free environment we have now lost is a delusion; we have always been constantly distracted.
This goes against my grain and prejudices in many ways, but he has a point:. Today’s plethora of distractions make me miss a) a couple periods in my life when I COULD have long periods of distraction-free time (in college, and when I shunned all other work (at considerable financial penalty!) while writing my books) and b) a different historical period, that probably exists mainly in my head, when people got to have such long periods of quiet reading and writing regularly.
Truth is, such periods have probably been available only to a very lucky few — scholars, monks, writers, composers — who could have them only because some combination of good fortune and raw luck and social inequity gave them such quiet and isolation while others supported them either financially or logisitcally.
Exceptions abound, doubtless. But I suspect Vaughn’s right when he asserts that quiet and a lack of distraction has always been rare.
Definitely read the whole thing; like all his posts, it runs no danger of being too long, no matter its length. And for a counter (and his take-off point), check out the Wired interview with Maggie Jackson, author of “Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age.” Jackson also has a blog post making her argument at the Times.