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Scientists Have Discovered…

It seems like every week or two I come across an article bemoaning how distracted we’ve become with our over-reliance on technological gadgetry, our inability to turn our devices off, and our constant foraging for information, checking email, etc. Usually this is framed as a negative thing primarily because of its detrimental effect on the economy—too many work hours down the drain due to our inability to focus on a single task and our proclivity for allowing our minds (and mouses) to get distracted and wander off into cyberspace or BlackBerry land.

Well, as I discovered in this article yesterday, it seems a new field has been introduced to deal with this growing problem—”interruption science.” Here are some of the findings of “interruption scientists”:

  • The average knowledge worker switches tasks every three minutes, and, once distracted, a worker takes nearly a half-hour to resume the original task
  • Interruptions and the requisite recovery time now consume 28 percent of a worker’s day
  • Employees who are routinely interrupted and lack time to focus are more apt to feel frustrated, pressured and stressed
  • Workers produce creative work on days when they are focused, not when they are scattered and interrupted (this revelation via a study in the Harvard Business Review)

The entire article struck me not because I disagree with its diagnosis—I think that technology-fueled distraction is a major problem which is having some important effects on our ability to concentrate and devote sustained periods of time to complex tasks (theses, to pick a random, personally unrelated example)—but with the means by which the cure is prescribed. Symptomatic of the whole article’s approach to the problem is one little sentence, tucked away near the bottom of the page:

Scientists are discovering that attention can be bolstered through training, including meditation.

Scientist have “discovered” this, have they? Well now that science has “discovered” that personal discipline, a commitment to focus on a specific task, and possibly even a spiritual component (the scientists didn’t tell us what we were to meditate on in order to become more productive workers) are worth promoting in order to protect the bottom line, I suppose we can all agree that there really is a problem and that we really ought to do something about it. Never mind that science’s reductionistic, instrumentalizing approach to the world represents part of the problem of human beings becoming enslaved by their technology in the first place, it is to science that we shall look to diagnose and solve our problems.

Indeed, it seems that any sentence prefixed by “scientists have discovered” now commands our unfailing attention and respect. Now, it seems, we can take it seriously. If scientists have “discovered” that being distracted leads to stress, decreased creativity, and a lack of productivity then it’s high time we did something about it.

I find it very interesting who we, as a society, look to for wisdom. Where in the past, we might have looked to religious elders or others who, through the quality of their lives and the wisdom they imparted, had demonstrated their suitability to advise us about what a well-lived life might look like, today it seems that a white lab-coat is the primary prerequisite for commanding our collective attention. Scientists are the high priests of our “technopolized” world—it is to them that we now turn to mediate our salvation to us.

Speaking of Technopoly, Neil Postman is a writer I return to from time to time when I come across an article such as the one above. Postman recommends adopting of the posture of a “Loving Resistance Fighter” in the face of a world in which science and technology reign supreme. Among other things, the “Loving Resistance Fighter” will:

  • Refuse to accept efficiency as the pre-eminent goal of human relations
  • Have freed themselves from the belief in the magical power of numbers, and will not regard calculation as an adequate substitution for judgment, or precision as a synonym for truth
  • Be, at least, suspicious of the idea of progress, and will not confuse information with understanding
  • Not regard the aged as irrelevant
  • Refuse to allow psychology or any other “social science” to pre-empt the language and thought of common sense
  • Take the great narratives of religion seriously and will not believe that science is the only system of thought capable of producing truth;
  • Admire technological ingenuity but will not think it represents the highest possible form of human achievement.

I think that Postman saw many things very clearly and we ignore his wisdom at our peril. We do not need scientists to tell us that there are better and worse ways of using our tools or that discipline, attention, and thoughtfulness are crucial components to living well. That road is a well-traveled one, populated by countless philosophers, mystics, and ordinary religious believers down through the ages. Scientists may have insight to contribute to the question of how to live well, but to suggest that the problems highlighted in this article represent their “discoveries” is highly misleading. Science is a means to an end. Whatever ends we decide to employ science in the service of do not and cannot come from science itself. We must look elsewhere for those.

The apostle Paul likely didn’t have BlackBerries and email alerts in mind when said he that he although everything was permissible for him, he “would not be mastered by anything” (1 Cor. 6:12), but I think that, despite his lack of “scientific” knowledge, he still had some keen insight into what it means to be human. To be human is, among other things, to possess the unique ability and responsibility to live wisely—to control ourselves for our own sake, for the sake of others, and, ultimately, for the sake of a God who made us in his image.

(If it’s too much of a stretch for us to accept wisdom from anyone as antiquated and irrelevant as Paul [or Neil Postman, for that matter—his book is, after all, over a decade old now!] maybe we could just imagine them wearing white lab-coats.)

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