For all the value it brings to our lives, technology is amazing in its ability to distract us. We just can’t give complete attention to anything or anyone-work, driving, conversations, friends and family-when that email arrives with a "ding" in our computer mailbox or pops up on our ubiquitous Blackberry.
But emails aren’t our only distraction. Our attention has been eroded to an alarming degree by the fact that we live in a hypermobile, hyperconnected society, says Maggie Jackson author of Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age. She writes: "We can tap into 50 million Web sites. 1.8 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 while juggling other tasks."
The truth is we’re not as good at all this multitasking as we think, a series on National Public Radio has been exploring. "People can’t multitask very well, and when people say they can, they’re deluding themselves," MIT neuroscientist Earl Miller, told NPR. "The brain is very good at deluding itself." The human brain can’t possibly focus on two distinct tasks at once, Miller says. But it can switch "between them very rapidly." Researchers using brain imaging say they can actually see the brain struggling as it tries to go back and forth between, say, keeping your eyes on traffic and typing a text message.
And now we are going to have to pay a price for not paying attention. Starting next month, $75 fines will be imposed for sending a text message or surfing the Internet while driving in Chicago. The City Council, expanding the 2005 restriction that forbids talking on hand-held cell phones while behind the wheel, voted unanimously on the measure last week. In September, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill prohibiting any state resident to text/email while operating a vehicle. That followed a deadly train collision, which was said to have been caused by a train engineer who was texting just before the accident happened.
How dangerous is it to text while driving or operating machinery? Are distractions a threat to our ability to connect, reflect and relax? What are the downsides to living in a culture that can’t pay attention? What mistakes have you made while trying to multitask? Do you think some people can actually handle multitasking better than others? Given the demands on our time and the pace of many of our lives, do we have any choice but to multi-task?
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