What’s for breakfast? An ebook perhaps?
February 9, 2009 | 2:52 pm
By Robert Nagle
Attention economist Linda Stone on fine dining with mobile devices:
Continuous partial attention and multi-tasking are two different attention strategies, motivated by different impulses. When we multi-task, we are motivated by a desire to be more productive and more efficient. Each activity has the same priority – we eat lunch AND file papers. We stir the soup AND talk on the phone. With multi-tasking, one or more activities is somewhat automatic, like eating lunch or stirring soup. That activity can be paired with another activity that’s automatic or with an activity that requires more cognition, like writing an email or talking on the phone. At the core of multi-tasking is a desire to be more productive. We multi-task to CREATE more opportunity for ourselves -time to DO more and time to RELAX more.
In the case of continuous partial attention, we’re motivated by a desire not to miss anything. There’s a kind of vigilance that is not characteristic of multi-tasking. With cpa, we feel most alive when we’re connected, plugged in and in the know. We constantly SCAN for opportunities – activities or people – in any given moment. With every opportunity we ask, "What can I gain here?"
I think we need to distinguish between ebook readers (which I regard as essentially an offline reader) and mobile/3G/wifi/whispernet/twittering devices. The latter occupy our time and attention, but they also reduce the brain’s ability to relax and focus (This may be a generational thing; See Mark Prensky’s essay about Digital Immigrants). Elsewhere Linda Stone has written about email apnea, the tendency’s of people’s fight-or-flight system to kick in when they check email. I would broaden that term to refer to checking twitter and RSS feeds. 99% of all that stuff is trivial and definitely can wait. (Yes, journalism is a special case, but really, do you think David Rothman’s analysis of the Kindle will be any less interesting if you read it a week from now? )
This hit home to me in January while web surfing when I accidentally spilled a bowl of hot oatmeal on my lap. This would not be a remarkable event except that it was the third time I had spilled oatmeal on my lap in two weeks! On one such occasion, I was in fact typing an ever-so-important comment on some random blog while I held the bowl precariously with the other hand. Then, everything spilled. During another oatmeal spill, I was checking email—have you ever tried eating another spoonful at the same moment you are pressing the Send Mail button? In fact, while writing this blog post, I have a bowl of blueberries on my left leg which I occasionally dip into. (I will eat my oatmeal later).
Nutrition expert Michael Pollan in his recent book In Defense of Food wrote about how in France people eat crappy foods but eat less of it because eating is a more social activity..a natural inhibitor to overeating. I fear that eating-surfing has pernicious effects not only for our waistline but also our literary diet as well. I like blogging. I also like baking cookies. Does that mean I should eat a lot of cookies? Recently I bought a kitchen table (something I’ve done without for years). The new addition has dramatically changed my reading habits. No more web surfing dinners! No more oatmeal spills! When I read, I read. I don’t read-then-check-email-then-check-twitter-then-check-newyorktimes—then-check-TeleRead-then-check-facebook-then-check-Boing-Boing-then-check-my-email-then…. That twitchy mouse clicking is not really reading; it is playing a weird kind of text-videogame where time is wasted and nothing is accomplished except that you are convinced Rush Limbaugh is wrong (again!) and that your facebook friends have more interesting lives than you do.
For me as a single man, reading and eating have always gone together. Reading at lunch hour, on the bus, at a cafe. Sometimes when working at a job I cared little about, my only refuge was that precious hour of reading during breaks. Man, I read maniacally, trying to soak up as much as possible into my imagination before my break ended. Now though, I eat at my desk at work, as I’ve been doing for the last 5 years. Reading a book (or ebook) would seem positively bizarre to people now. Yes, I sneak in a few blogs and emails, but they seem like empty calories.
Ebooks have the potential to bring us back to reading immersively. My parents receive the daily newspaper, and although I now savor the proliferation of media outlets, I still miss the comfort of being able to read a package of words delivered to our doorstep every day. It’s true; people read print newspapers a lot differently from how they read the online versions. With print newspapers, I’m more likely to read local crime stories or obituaries—when is the last time you’ve read an obituary online? Reading a print newspaper while eating breakfast is relaxing. When you read a book or newspaper at the kitchen table, you are not making mental transactions about which articles are worth reading; you just read. This kind of reading relaxes you and lets you concentrate on a single quirky voice that is not yours (and lacks a blogger’s usual snarkiness). I realize that reading ebooks in this era requires a bit of an adjustment; the public domain stuff just isn’t fast reading and depends on the person adapting to the 19th century pace of life. That may not be possible or even desirable (especially if you are late for the next business meeting or if the blackberry –that spoiled brat—demands your attention again). At least when you read an ebook, you are learning about alternate means of escape; you are learning how to block out the daily distractions and frustrations.
With my new kitchen table, I have been tempted to set up my laptop and do the usual surfing-reading. At least with a kitchen table I could surf-eat without oatmeal burns. But if I replace one crappy habit with another and revert to the usual twitter-reading, I’m afraid someday I will lose the ability to dream.