Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Steven Johnson's numbers game

Unfortunately, Steven Johnson, once one of the sharpest cultural commentators around, seems to be turning into a caricature. His recent response to the concerns about digital life articulated by Nicholas Carr and others is woefully bad. He simply refuses to take seriously the increasingly large body of evidence about the negative consequences of always-on always-online so-called multitasking. Yes, “multitasking makes you slightly less able to focus,” or, as he later says, “I am slightly less focused,” or, still later, “we are a little less focused.” (Am I allowed to make a joke here about how multitasking makes you less likely to notice repetitions in your prose?)

But what counts as a “little less”? Choosing to refer only to one of the less alarming of the many studies available, Johnson reports that it “found that heavy multitaskers performed about 10 to 20 percent worse on most tests than light multitaskers.” Apparently for Johnson losing 20% of your ability to concentrate is scarcely worth mentioning. And apparently he hasn't seen any of the studies showing that people who are supremely confident in their multitasking abilities, as he appears to be, are more fuddled than anyone else.

Johnson wants us to focus on the fabulous benefits we receive from a multitasking life. For instance,

Thanks to e-mail, Twitter and the blogosphere, I regularly exchange information with hundreds of people in a single day: scheduling meetings, sharing political gossip, trading edits on a book chapter, planning a family vacation, reading tech punditry. How many of those exchanges could happen were I limited exclusively to the technologies of the phone, the post office and the face-to-face meeting? I suspect that the number would be a small fraction of my current rate.

And then, later: “We are reading more text, writing far more often, than we were in the heyday of television.” So it would appear that Johnson has no concept whatsoever of quality of interaction — he thinks only in terms of quantity. How much we read, how much we write, how many messages we exchange in a day.

That’s it? That’s all? Just racking up the numbers, like counting your Facebook friends or Twitter followers? Surely Johnson can do better than this. I have my own concerns about Carr’s arguments, some of which I have tried to articulate here, but the detailed case he makes for the costs of connection deserves a far more considered response than Johnson is prepared to give it.

I think the Steven Johnson of a few years ago would have realized the need to make a much stronger — and probably a wholly different — case for the distracted life than this sad little counting game. He should get offline for a few weeks and think about all this some more.


  • I don't care what Steven Johnson says about my work, but his glib misreading of David Foster Wallace's poignant (and ultimately tragic) observation that “the point of books is to combat loneliness” is shameful.

  • Well, that was going to be another post, Nick, but since you've mentioned it: absolutely. Wallace was talking about the connection readers, in the very act of reading, make with books and their authors; Johnson seems to think that the only connections that count are the ones that occur through electronic exchanges with other readers online. To say as he does that "David Foster Wallace saw only the half of it" is cheaply dismissive.

  • The always-on always-online so-called multitasking internet thing has been a huge boon to my being able to market my work. Thinking of everything, a little bit, all at once is a good environment for the sort of mindset the task requires. I can sell my films, write a sort essay here and there, and play with my kids, all at once.

    But it's terrible for editing. Terrible. I edit on my boat, or in our apartment in the city. Neither have internet connections.

    But what's worse is that it takes me about 2-3 weeks to get out of the diffuse concentration, distractable, multi-tasking mindset and into the quite, hyper-focused mind set that frame by frame editing requires. That's a long reboot, but after nearly a decade of working this way I've simply come to accept it rather than berate myself for not being able to "pull it together."

    And here's the problem with "only" 20%.

    I reckon that doing anything well enough to get paid means being able to function at a B+ level for sustained periods of time. That means 87.5% at least. Take away 20% and your just another almost talented enough amateur. I haven't got the percentage points to spare!

  • That piece by Johnson highlights how much of this discussion involves symbolic analysts talking about how distraction helps or hinders their ability to analyze their symbols. His rhetorical conflation of "great scientific and technological innovation" with chatter about Clay Shirky's book (which I'm sure is nice enough) sets of alarms, as if he's trying to prove (maybe to himself?) that, say, Cupertino Kremlinology really constitutes an engine of human progress.

    Johnson may very well believe that his heroes John Snow and Joseph Priestly could have done more, or that there would have been more such men, had Twitter arrived sooner. But making that case is more complicated than just pointing out that connectedness helps us all with the vital work of second-guessing the iPad's design.

  • Alan, thanks for the nice intro, and appreciate the criticism and encouragement to think more...

    I guess I would say that I was responding separately to two distinct ideas: one represented by the Times piece, and one represented by Nick's book, which I think is very interesting (and in fact, I selected the original essay for Best Tech Writing last year.) The number counting is just a way of measuring the "simple bits" of productivity, which is what most multitasking is really about. Most of us use email for good reasons I think, even though it is annoyingly distracting and addictive: we just get more done with it than without it.

    But the second half of my response to Nick is all about the deeper questions, which admittedly I covered in only a few paragraphs, but which I have absolutely been wrestling with in long form in this new book. Those paragraphs -- about the power of networks in idea generation -- are not at all about simple number crunching.

    I'd be curious to hear whether either you or Nick agree that the state of media theory is far better today than it was during McLuhan's time. (Not that it necessarily proves a point, I'm genuinely just curious.)

    Anyhow, thanks for the response. More to come, I'm sure.

  • On the DFW question, I'm a little confused by the response. I wasn't intending to make any real point about the passage from Lipsky's book. It was more of a play on words, really -- here's this line about books combating loneliness, and suddenly here are all these "people" showing up in my copy of the book right at that line. Did you guys think I was somehow implying that DFW would have *liked* or endorsed the "Popular Highlights" feature based on that quote? I certainly didn't mean to imply that. I think it reads as a little anecdote to introduce the Kindle feature itself. But clearly you saw it in a different light...

  • Steven, thanks for the gracious response. Just a couple of things:

    1) I can't speak for Nick, but what bothered me about your use of the Wallace quote was the implicit diminishment of the kind of connection to books that Wallace was talking about. Deep involvement in reading is a tonic for loneliness in distinctive and powerful ways; we didn't have to wait for Facebook and Twitter to know what it’s like to have loneliness assuaged by an encounter with people who are not physically present. Facebook and Twitter are cool — well, Twitter is, anyway — but they don't render other forms of connection obsolete or insignificant. Wallace was a lover of books who shunned electronic media, so he shouldn't be conscripted in that cause, nor should his preferred means of connecting with others be treated as inferior to our current pursuits.

    2) It just seems to me that in recent years you’ve stopped asking some of the hard questions you used to ask about “connected lives.” Presumably you’ve settled all these questions for yourself, but not everyone has, and I think your closure may be premature. You’re enthusiastic about a single day spent online “scheduling meetings, sharing political gossip, trading edits on a book chapter, planning a family vacation, reading tech punditry,” but people did all those things before electronic connection — they just did them more slowly. So what’s the benefit of doing them quickly? Doesn't that depend on how you use the extra time? And if you can do things more quickly, does that mean you do them better? I get an edited manuscript via email, make my corrections, maybe argue to keep some things as they were, and send it back all in one day — but it might be that if I had had to wait for the edits to come to you via snail mail I would have had more time to think and would have ben able to make the text significantly better. We need to think about these things.

    Which leads me to your question about media theory: I’ll have to think about it some more, but my first response is no, it’s not better — because we have so many more media now than in McLuhan’s day, and they interact with one another in tremendously complex ways. I don't think our critical equipment has caught up to the complexities. So I tend to believe that people like Ellul and McLuhan had a better grip on the media with which they were confronted than anyone does with the media we’re encountering today. But that’s not because Ellul and McLuhan were smarter than today’s theorists, but rather because their ecosphere was less multifarious.

    I have a post on Shirky's new book, or Jonah Lehrer's review of it rather, coming in the morning — it will address some of these maters more fully. I'm only about a quarter of the way through Shirky's book.

  • And Tony, about the 20%: bingo.

    Your comment about the time it takes to "reboot," to get back into concentration mode, is really interesting. I've had a similar experience myself, but need to think more about how it works. As soon as I sop writing blog comments and watching the World Cup and eating breakfast.

  • "So what’s the benefit of doing them quickly? Doesn't that depend on how you use the extra time? And if you can do things more quickly, does that mean you do them better?"

    Last month I had the good fortune of being able to spend a couple of weeks with a new friend; a fellow sailor and former USAF captain, and sometime poet and philosopher. He said two things that I think I'll keep with me for a very long time.

    About intense, high stress situations, "If you're not task-saturated, you're not doing it right."

    About life, "It's not the time you save, it's the time you spend."

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