Distracted By Design
Last week the NYTimes published an article, Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction. In it Matt Richtel argues that today’s youth is susceptible to far more distractions in the digital age than previous generations. The focal point of Richtel’s artlcle is Vishal Singh, a high school kid who loves to make films on his computer.
There is some truth to Richtel’s argument. Today’s world encourages distraction in the myriad of digital devices and technologies we use. Omni-present phone calls. Text alerts. Email alerts. IM alerts. Push notifications. But Richtel chose the wrong subject for his article. Vishal is absolutely a distracted kid but technology isn’t the reason for his being distracted, it’s his creativity.
I know this, because in a galaxy far, far away, I was very similar to Vishal. I didn’t break 1000 on the SATs (I got 970). I graduated with a 2.7 average from high school.
But something else was going on. While my averages were poor, my specific grades on projects would be a steady stream of B’s, C’s and D’s interrupted by sporadic A’s. My mother used to defend me to my father. She told him, “Michael’s right-brained. He’s an artist, it’s not his fault.” (reality: I drew with my right hand. I still love you mom, you were trying.)
My father, on the other hand, called bullshit. He saw those random A’s. He knew what I was capable of. He was watching me in his basement laboratory, testing voltage levels on double-A batteries, and soldering wires together on broken gadgets. If I wasn’t fixing things in the basement, I was picking up parts at the junkyard for my 1984 Celebrity Station Wagon (be jealous).
When I wasn’t fixing and tinkering with stuff, I was drawing and painting and sculpting and shooting photos and making films with my friends.
Jonah Lehrer over at Wired unearthed interesting research on this creativity-distraction connection:
Those students who were classified as “eminent creative achievers” – the rankings were based on their performance on various tests, as well as their real world accomplishments – were seven times more likely to “suffer” from low latent inhibition. This makes some sense: The association between creativity and open-mindedness has long been recognized, and what’s more open-minded than distractability? People with low latent inhibition are literally unable to close their mind, to keep the spotlight of attention from drifting off to the far corners of the stage. The end result is that they can’t help but consider the unexpected.
It’s easy to blame external forces on our conditions. It’s harder to look inward and analyze our kids and ourselves. Don’t be so quick to blame technology for your kid’s inability to stay focused. First determine if it’s their creative endeavors, and not technology, that’s causing their lack of focus.
UPDATE: Looks like Steven Johnson shares a similar point of view as me:
That said, I do find something puzzling about the whole choice of Vishal as a central study, because the piece assumes that his lessening interest in books and (some) of his coursework is due to the siren song of the digital screen. But what’s clearly obsessing Vishal is his love affair with video editing. There’s no reason to think the 1985 version of Vishal wouldn’t have been equally distracted from his schoolwork by the very same hobby.