Almanac

Cover Story - August 21, 2013

Distraction Subtraction

Local author offers insights on reducing distraction and regaining focus in an increasingly connected world

by Renee Batti

What does your smartphone have in common with a 4-year-old child? "When they want your attention, they want it right now. They don't distinguish between what's really important and what can wait," author (and smartphone-owner) Alex Soojung-Kim Pang observes.

Mr. Pang, a Menlo Park resident and the father of two children, knows from personal experience that, with both child and device, it's in our best interests "to help them grow up a bit."

That goal is among the many he hopes to help digitally connected people achieve with his new book, "The Distraction Addiction: Getting the Information You Need and the Communication You Want, Without Enraging Your Family, Annoying Your Colleagues, and Destroying Your Soul."

If the title makes the book sound like an echo of the handful of cautionary books published in recent years urging you to unfriend your devilish devices and reclaim your life, rest assured. A professional futurist with a doctorate in history of science, Mr. Pang is one who understands and appreciates the benefits of a connected world.

Technology that enhances our ability to access information and stay connected with others is here to stay, he says. But with its seductive, addictive power, it has the capacity to degrade our ability to focus and our overall quality of life.

Extending our human capabilities through technologies is natural, and it's nothing new, Mr. Pang says, citing our early human ancestors' development of tools and other artifices of progress. "It's just a human impulse that has gone in the wrong direction" in this period of our history.

Other books, he says, have "done a good job at diagnosing the problem: Our daily lives consist of fragmentary moments piled on more fragmentary moments" because of our increasing use of the Internet and communications devices.

"My book tries to answer the question: What do you do next?" Mr. Pang says. Its an urgent question in a world where a growing number of people complain of shortening attention spans and difficulty in checking off things on the to-do list. "Distraction Addiction" provides a road map to "cultivating, extending, or recapturing our ability to focus on things," he says.

"When I started writing this book, I expected it to be much more technology-focused," he notes. But as he developed the research and writing project, he realized the book needed to focus on "how to have a good life in a high-tech world.

"It's a book for people who live with technology — for people who may love technology, but people who have a dysfunctional relationship with it."

Mr. Pang will launch his new book, set to be released on Aug. 20, at Kepler's bookstore in Menlo Park on Tuesday, Aug. 27.

Finding a way out

Sitting in a Willows neighborhood cafe in Menlo Park — Cafe Zoe, where he says he wrote about half of his new book — Mr. Pang says during an interview that writing about the problem of distracting technologies occurred to him when he noticed changes in his own ability to sustain his concentration on a single subject over a long period.

Working as a futurist, he had to scan "a huge amount of fragmentary information," he says. "After several years of doing it, I knew I was doing it well, but it was affecting my ability to focus." For a person who "gets along on brain power," the realization was unnerving, he adds.

At around that time, he was awarded a Microsoft Research fellowship, and in crystallizing his research ideas for the fellowship, "the term contemplative computing popped into my head," he says. During his stay in England — the fellowship took him to Cambridge — he outlined most of the book, in which he elaborates on the contemplative computing concept he developed.

"It really did start as a way to (tackle my own) problem," he explains. "I knew that unless I was going to become a carpenter, I didn't have the option of turning (technological tools) off. ... I was going through my own crisis, and finding my way out of it made me realize it was a problem you could solve."

In one of many references to scientists, researchers, philosophers and authors, Mr. Pang paraphrased the American philosopher William James, noting, "You are what you attend to." If you lose the ability to pay attention, to focus, he says, "you lose an essential part of yourself."

The book offers a wide range of approaches and philosophies to help readers use technology in beneficial ways, rather than as distractions. It is possible, he writes in a chapter on experimenting with strategies, "to use familiar technologies more mindfully."

One of Mr. Pang's smartphone strategies to prevent constant distraction is using two different ring tones: one for family members and the other for anyone else. "There are people in my life who have the right to interrupt me," he says. "Everyone else can wait — unless I'm not doing anything else.

"The way smartphones work, everyone has equal rights to your attention. Real life doesn't work that way, and neither should your phone."

He also uses what's known as Zenware software when he writes to help him avoid distractions — a strategy he details in the chapter "Simplify."

But the book is more than a self-help guide to a more satisfying life. Mr. Pang writes in prose free of academic jargon about the latest neurological, psychological and sociological research into how technology is changing our lives in profound and potentially enduring ways.

Those details include research and theories on multitasking, which Mr. Pang divides into two categories: performing multiple activities simultaneously "that all converge for a common goal," and performing unrelated activities simultaneously. The first category can produce admirable, even brilliant results, he says, giving the example of musicians performing together: They are paying attention to their playing, to that of their fellow players, and to their audience.

The second category? He calls that "switch-tasking," and the results are often middling, sometimes disastrous. Examples are texting while driving, and talking on the phone while reading emails. "There's a cognitive price to trying to do (unrelated) things simultaneously," he says. When switch-tasking, "you think you are doing what you're doing well, whereas in reality," you often achieve poor results, he adds.

Family life, work life

Mr. Pang works as a senior consultant at Strategic Business Insights, on SRI's Menlo Park campus (the think tank is an SRI spin-off). A visiting scholar at Stanford and Oxford universities, he received his doctorate in history and the sociology of science from the University of Pennsylvania. His writings have been published in many academic publications as well as "Scientific American," "American Scientist," and "The Atlantic Monthly."

He has crafted an outdoor office in the backyard of the Fair Oaks home he shares with his wife, Heather, and two children, Elizabeth Jae and Daniel. He often writes there, avoiding most distractions save an occasional demand for attention from his English Labrador retriever, Davis.

Book launch

Alex Pang will discuss and sign his new book, "The Distraction Addiction," at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 27, at Kepler's bookstore, 1010 El Camino Real in Menlo Park. Admission is free. Go to keplers.com for more information, or call 324-4321.

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