IMAGE: Suriya Siritam — 123RF

The smartphone as a weapon of mass distraction

Joseba Elola, a journalist at leading Spanish daily El País, called me in relation to an article (link in Spanish, pdf) he published on Sunday to discuss the idea that smartphones are preventing us from working and concentrating, something along the lines of a weapon of mass distraction.

With its continuous notifications the smartphone can be distracting. The device is much more than a telephone, which has long distracted us, and is a powerful pocket computer that keeps us connected at all times. But that is not a problem. In fact, for many people, it would be far more distracting not knowing whether we have received some notification. We simply find ourselves with a new work life context that would be pointless trying to avoid.

We have to learn to work with interruptions, something that is perfectly manageable over time. I typically work with about 10 browser tabs open, checking them routinely, in addition to my smartphone, which I sometimes use as a screen. Over time, I have come to see that this approach is far from being unproductive: obviously, it has affected my way of working, but not in a negative way, quite the contrary. I consider myself an extremely productive person who also depends on such a fickle factor as inspiration and creativity, and what has happened over time is simply that I have adapted the way I work, and have learned to concentrate with greater flexibility.

The smartphone is only distraction if we have not yet managed to locate it correctly in our environment. Our brains soon begin a process of adaptation to new environments — a process that occurs more naturally among the young. If you think you smartphone gets in the way and makes you less productive, there is no point in removing a fundamental connection to the world: do the opposite. Get used to working with it, keeping it at your side, using it to provide small pauses or for certain tasks. After a while, you will have developed an ability to focus on tasks that require shorter attention. The brain is much more powerful than some people think and is perfectly able to multi-function.

In short, I do not believe the smartphone is creating a generation of easily distracted dimwits unable to concentrate. All the evidence suggests the very opposite: younger generations better develop their reading comprehension and written expression, and that the average marks in standardized tests have not fallen, and in fact have increased, despite the ubiquitous smartphone. Let’s stop dramatizing this, as though we were talking about the end of mankind’s ability to concentrate, and instead use the technologies around us. They can make a huge contribution.

(En español, aquí)