Friday, February 27, 2009

More thoughts on continuous partial attention and distraction overload

I remember the year I got a cell phone. It was 1997.

I remember it because not only was I enormously pregnant (we don't forget those times...ever), but also because the only reason I had one was because my husband worked for the phone company. Otherwise I would have been too embarrassed to carry one! Hitherto the time that I became one of them, I was known to have said, Who are these obnoxious people who think they are so important that they need to have a phone in their car? There is a phone anywhere you could ever need one for 25 cents, for crying out loud!

I would never have been caught dead talking on one in public! People who used cell phones in public (worst of all, at restaurants!) were just drawing attention to the fact that they had one. And why did they have to be so loud, anyway?

About that time we got internet.

I had two little kids and a grumpy attitude toward a tech-loving husband. Like we have time to "check email" or worse, "surf," when there are diapers needing to be changed, baths to be given, and bedtime stories waiting to be told! Hrrrmphhhh.

But soon phones became more common, and internet connections became faster so "checking email" didn't take all evening like it used to. But now we had time to check out a few cool new ideas like ebay and online checkout, and there was this new thing called a weblog. Suddenly being an "internet user" had lost its stigma.

I don't suppose we are going back to pre-internet and/or wireless technology any time soon, but I do like to remind myself of how intrusive (frivolous, annoying, etc) the general public felt about both of these when they first came out.

They interrupted relentlessly. In my mind, anyway, they took the person - that one sitting right here with me - off to someplace else, mentally, if not physically. They took time out of the day and left less for the work at hand.

We take these things for granted now, a small price to pay for the convenience that technology offers. No, I would not like to go back to writing checks and licking stamps to pay bills, or to have to walk to the nearest service station to call for a tow truck.

But I do wonder sometimes if we are like the proverbial frog who doesn't notice that he is being boiled for supper because the water in the stew pot is being heated - very slowly - all around him. We don't realize we've been robbed of something - we don't even know what - because the cultural shift has been so gradual. We've passively accepted the changes as "the way it is."

Things like hobbies, shopping, and talking with friends used to be confined to evenings, weekends or free days. Now we can do these things with a touch of a button "in between" everything else, "just for a minute." But is that "everything else" still getting done?

Last night I met with six of Allie's-15 friends, and every one of them had a phone at the table. It was amusing and sad at the same time to hear all the beeping and buzzing that went on while we tried to have a conversation (more on that another time!!). I guess they haven't heard my soapbox on cell phone usage. Yet.

What I find in my own life, is that constant distraction and continuous partial attention - not just relative to technology, mind you, but also the busy-ness that our culture defines as "normal" - muddles my sense of priorities. It puts anything and everything on a level playing field.

Is that flashing red light on my phone as important as the child who needs my attention? Does receiving an email about a worthy cause merit stopping what I've set out to do today in order to reply? Is going to yet another meeting at church as important as visiting my mother? Is posting to my blog as important as making sure my children eat a healthy lunch?

I guess what I'm realizing is my own willingness to take long detours with the "urgent" at the expense of the "important." Technology is only one part of that, but it is perhaps the one thing that is most in our power to control.

I'm challenged to evaluate my priorities - again. It's a constant thing, I'm finding. Turning off my email alerts was a good start, but I think I've been lax - passive - about other ways I've let our culture constantly distract or take partial attention away from the important things, like sticking to tasks and focusing on those who mean the most to me.

Any other thoughts on this?


Lisa Hellier said...

I've been a reader for some time, but it's this post that sparks my comment. Mostly because I've been lately debating my own penchant for hyperconnectivity. Your points are well made and continue to push me towards some self-imposed limits on my dive into technology. Thanks for your thoughts.

Cara said...

I appreciate this post. I am noticing myself "escaping" daily tasks (and sometimes my children!) by checking e-mail and the blogs I read. I need to set some limits on myself with regard to how often/how much time I spend on the computer.

Susanne said...

I find I have to, on a consistent basis, evaluate where I am with the interruptions of technology in my life. Like you said, it comes upon you slowly and you don't even realize how entrenched you are with the urgency of all this stuff. Great post, Katherine.

Ginger said...

GREAT thoughts! It is a bit insane to think how quickly things have changed in 10+ short years. We're a bit like that frog in the boiler - technology and the culture have slowly demanded more of us. Thanks for challenging us to stop and think!

Andrea said...

I love this post. And thanks for the reminder. We need it CONTINOUSLY. Now I am getting off bloglines and going to make some muffins!!

Andrea said...

(I know I spelled "continuously" wrong in my last post. Just sayin'.

Aimee said...

I gave up facebook in an effort to unplug for a bit and try to focus on the things and people that truly matter in my life. The first few days were a little rough. And then, today, there's been a little sigh of relief that I can do other things with my time. Like, play a game with my kids or bake some bread. I struggle with putting the urgent ahead of the important and looking for ways to make my life more meaningful, not only for my family and friends, but for me as well.

Thanks for such a timely post.

Aimee said...

I meant to say in the earlier comment that I gave up facebook for Lent. I'll probably check in on Sundays, but I can already feel its hold on me lessening, and it feels great!

Dahl Family said...

I have also been a long time reader of your blog Katherine! I have to say when I first began to blog myself, I was trying to find another Mom who blogged about her life and 5 kids!:) Low and behold-I came across yours! You truly know how to put into words what (I believe) a lot of Moms are thinking. So thank you for sharing your life and heart!
As for your last post I also find that in this day and age my attention can so easily and quickly be drawn away from the important things that as Moms we are to be prioritizing. Let alone it's challenging to teach our kids that balance as well, since they are actually growing up in this generation of technology.
Yet isn't the Lord kind to remind us and help us to realize what our priorities are and to help us get back on track?

Jen @ Rolling Through Looneyville said...

I live in this weird mixed world of wanting to be connected and wanting to be a hermit. You can't pay me to answer the phone on most days, but let me tell you, I sure know when an email pops in.

I read my emails on my phone, and that actually helps being as it's such a darn pain to respond that I generally wait until I have a few minutes after the kids are in bed to do that.

I've been asking (or pestering... I need to stop) my husband if he'd consider moving my computer from the basement to the family room so it'd be easier to access... but after reading this and thinking it over, I think that would mean bad things. (Like my 10 month old learning to make herself lunch because Mama had to "check ONE more email"). For now, it's a nice inconvenience to have that down there.

I have work to do on my technology love. I'm getting there.

I will mention one pet peeve though... now that we are fully entrenched in the age of cell phones, it annoys me to no end that people assume that I will answer the phone at any time and when I don't? That I will call back within the hour.

I love that it adds an element of safety to our lives, but I hate feeling tethered by expectations of usage.

Hmm... might post about this too.

Love Being A Nonny said...

All of your comments are right on target. I too find myself *lost* in the computer world. i am so thankful I don't have little ones at home any more. I would have a hard time balancing my time. When mine were little, I didn't have the competition of the computer...and I'm glad. we spent our time coloring and playing outside. I appreciate those of you with little ones around that blog....and know the balance. That's a tough one.

As for cell phones, don't even get me started on how rude kids are. I fault their parents in most situations....except for the times their parents aren't around. I see young teens in restaurants WITH THEIR PARENTS, AT THE TABLE, texting and talking. There is a time and place for everything. They may just be thankful their teens are WITH them, and I DO understand that...(I had three teens at one time). BUT, we have lost a LOT of respect in our technology world. OOPS...i shouldn't have gotten started on this one!

LOVE your posts!


60 toes said...

I got my prize in the mail yesterday, thanks so much. We have been off school for a few days due to a BIG snowstorm, so it came at the perfect time.

Sarah said...

Oh yes...I feel your pain! I look back fondly at the years we had "dial up" and I wouldn't be caught dead on the computer. It's SO hard to not get "addicted" to all the technology. Love/hate relationship for sure! Great post! (love your blog...I have 5 too, ages ranging from 14 to 1! A lot of juggling!