I’m an easily distracted person, as anyone who’s ever had the misfortune to talk to me at a party will agree. It’s not that I’m not interested in what someone is saying, and I do pay attention, but I have a tendency to scan the room and tune in to other conversations from time to time.
It’s even worse when I’m sitting at my computer on a Sunday evening trying to write an article, do my tax return or simply make sense of the long list of things to be done in the coming week.
Marx could work for weeks in the Reading Room of the British Library with only the tea room and perhaps an occasional fellow writer to distract him, but working on an internet-connected computer is a challenge to anyone trying to focus on the job at hand.
Cory Doctorow, well-known as a science fiction writer, prolific blogger and campaigner for civil liberties, talks about ‘writing in the age of distraction’ in a great article in Locus magazine.
He points out that ‘realtime communications tools are deadly. The biggest impediment to concentration is your computer’s ecosystem of interruption technologies: IM, email alerts, RSS alerts, Skype rings, etc. Anything that requires you to wait for a response, even subconsciously, occupies your attention’.
Cory is, of course, absolutely right.
But he is a man with the discipline needed to write rich narratives like his phenomenally successful ‘Little Brother’, aimed at teenagers but essential reading for anyone concerned with freedom in the database world, and to manage the vast number of submissions that come in every day to BoingBoing, where he is one of the editors.
Like many others, I’m rather less focused. Sometimes I manage to concentrate on the task in hand, and I can spend hours in libraries or cafes, tuning out any distractions and interruptions to focus on an article or essay or presentation, oblivious to offline or online temptation.
But most of the time I tend to do things differently, skipping between my word processor, various web sites in the many different tabs I have open in the two different browsers usually active on my desktop, along with the odd Skype chat, Google talk conversation, Facebook update, Friendfeed stream and – of course, regular Twitter updates.
Every now and then I’ll find ten minutes to pay attention to the project I’m supposed to be making progress on, although the temptation to respond to someone else’s comment, put a picture online, catch up with the latest blog entries from my friends or just watch the real-time status updates flow through on Friendfeed is often too much.
Being distracted by other people’s blog posts, comments and references is bad enough, but the continued digitisation of previously analogue resources, coupled with the capabilities of the major search engines, is making it even harder to stay focused when online because it’s just too easy to start off down a path of exploration that ends up watching yet another Downfall mashup at 3am.
Yet despite the damage it may be doing to my productivity, the ease of access to previously unavailable resources is clearly one of the most important characteristics of the emerging network society.
I first noticed this back in 2004 when I was walking down the street humming Transvision Vamp’s ‘Baby I Don’t Care’and realised that I had it on my iPod so could listen to the original instead of trying to remember how it went.
It was, I said at the time, an example of ‘serenpodity’, serendipity in the digital age.
The vast information resources available online over home broadband, pervasive wifi and even 3G phone networks make the 40Gb worth of songs I could carry around in 2004 look rather pitiful. These days I can have access to the the world’s digital repositories when I want it, and where I want it.
This was brought home to me very clearly this weekend.
Over the last few weeks I’ve been buying some old music that I used to own on vinyl but never acquired on CD, from bands like Dr Feelgood and Eddie and the Hot Rods – good solid pre-punk guitar music well-suited to a man of my age.
And last night I hit Amazon’s MP3 site and bought myself John Otway and Wild Willy Barrett’s eponymous album, just so I could listen to ‘Cheryl’s Going Home’.
Of course I had to share this with my online friends, and this prompted one of them to comment that my regression would quickly lead to a desire for Andy Pandy, the children’s puppet show from the 1950’s and 60’s.
It took less than a minute to find a suitable clip on YouTube and post a link, prompting yet more nostalgic reminiscence online and another good excuse to avoid work.
In our information saturated age it is increasingly likely that if you can remember something, you can find it online.
One of my favourite scenes from The Rocky Horror Show is when Frank N Furter tells us ‘Don’t Dream It – Be It’, but these days it should be ‘don’t dream it, Google it’, and have it delivered over a fast internet connection.
We’re some way off from having full and easy access to the entire analogue past on our digital networks, and I could only see Andy Pandy because someone had gone to the effort to capture and upload the titles from an old programme in defiance of copyright restrictions.
But things are changing. There’s the Internet Archive, a fabulous resource for all net users, and the British Library is working hard to ensure that today’s websites are archived for future generations.
The work currently going on to digitise the entire BBC Archive will make a big difference, not just because there are around a million hours worth of audio and video material to go online but because the BBC can set standards for the whole process and ensure that as other major resources go online they do so in a way that will be integrated with what has gone before.
It may not be long before the entire record of human achievement is available on demand, indexed and catalogued according to open standards that anyone can use.
And then I’ll never get any work done.