by Derek Morrison

Multi-tasking distraction
Multi-tasked distraction
Attribution: João Pimentel Ferreira [CC BY-SA 4.0]
Click to view larger image.
We’re the king and queen of distraction
With an obsessive need to explore
No matter what’s the action
We need a new info score.

We must always be connected
No matter what we do
We naively think we are protected
We are the digital savvy new.

We believe in the myth of multi-task
We’re better than what’s gone before
The internet sun in which we bask
Our souls we have to pour.

Headphones embedded in our ears
Eyes fixed on our magic screen
We shut out the world and its fears
Become part of the virtual machine.

We think we can walk, cycle or drive
While virtual ‘friends’ updating
Injecting minutiae on which we thrive
Ignoring the thin ice we’re skating.

We make calls or text while driving
Though as dangerous as being drunk
We ensure the practice remains thriving
Because to such depths of ‘me’ we’ve sunk.

Our gods gave us many senses
We are beautifully designed
But we now employ techno fences
To render ourselves deaf, dumb, and blind.

[To listen to this verse select below]


In my HE career my specialist area was the study and development of what became known as e-learning and so I am actually a technophile. My particular interest, however, was in the dysfunctions associated with the use of information technologies. By that I mean not faults in the technology itself but the actual and potential negative consequences for people and systems when technologies were used or abused. For example, in one major national UK project I had a desk in an open plan office. Next to, and facing me were other team members sitting at their desks. We could all easily communicate verbally with each other or walk to each other’s desks. But the office was silent. Why? Because people were sending emails to each other despite their close proximity – a dysfunction. I have also had bosses, who although they were within a few yards of my office when email was first introduced suddenly developed a preference for email missives rather than actually meeting face-to-face – a dysfunction.

The poem ‘Distracted’, however, is trying to capture my growing concern about a much greater degree of dysfunction that we seem to be blindly (sometimes literally) falling into. I find the Bristol and Bath Railway Path or the connecting Ring Road Path a particularly rich field for observing this now almost ubiquitous phenomenon. A particularly ‘good’ example was provided one morning when running towards me came a young woman pushing one of those all-terrain pushchairs dressed in her lycra sports gear, baby in chair facing away from her, headphones in ear, eyes on the screen and trying to text.  I thought about turning around so that I could take a photograph, but resisted the temptation. The picture at the top of the poem, however, is what I’ve observed on multiple occasions with the ‘best’ being two hands off cycle handlebars, headphones in ears, eyes on screen, and texting – with a cursory glance up now and again to check for oncoming traffic.

Smartphone zombies, Attribution: ifunny.club (http://ifunny.club/2015/02/05/smartphone-zombies-unter-uns/smartphone-zombies-1/)

The irony of all this communications technology is that us human beings almost seem to prefer the virtual to the real. Just visualise the group of school-friends all sitting next to each other all with eyes fixed to screen and finger of virtual keyboards – no sound emerges – all communicating or feeding off something/somewhere else. Just visualise the dinner party or restaurant meal where the mobile sits next to the cutlery and the eyes are perpetually pulled down to the latest Twitter feed or Facebook posting. Or the same behaviour in meetings, as illustrated most vividly by Tory MP Nigel MIlls who found Candy Crush irresistible even during parliamentary select committee proceedings. Consider then this quote from the developmental psychologist Susan Pinker:

“In short evolutionary time we have changed from group-living primates skilled at reading each other’s every gesture and intention to a solitary species each one of us preoccupied with our own screen.” (The Village Effect, Susan Pinker, 2014, Atlantic Books)

The American political philosopher Mathew Crawford has coined the term ‘The Age of Distraction’ for modern public and private environments filled with constant attention grabbing stimuli manifested as advertisements, entertainment, or immersion in virtual worlds of one form or another. Indeed, in the absence of such distraction, some now appear to find it difficult to embrace and exploit opportunities for internal quietness and reflection. Instead, such opportunities can become sources of anxiety when cut off from the virtual world; rather than the more challenging interactions and problem-solving required in the real world (Mathew Crawford, 2015, The World Beyond Your Head: How to Flourish in an Age of Distraction, Penguin.

The social dysfunctions associated with distraction should be concern enough but there is also some really bad news for putative digital natives attempting to multi-task in dangerous physical environments, e.g. roads, and cycleways. You may think you are multitasking but you are actually distracted and your confidence level is now seriously out of line with your actual competence. Just in case you think it’s just my own dyspeptic view here are a few quotes from people who have studied this illusion a lot:

Virtually every multi-tasker thinks that they are brilliant at multi-tasking … You know what! It turns out that multi-taskers are terrible at every aspect of multi-tasking … They get distracted constantly. There memory is very disorganised … Recent work we have done suggests that they are worse at analytical reasoning … We worry it may be creating people who are unable to think well and clearly … (Clifford Nass, Stanford University).

If we are going to deal with the problem of distraction, it’s something we are going to have to do together … Maybe it’s time to press the pause button. We need to know if we are tinkering with something more essential than we realise … It’s changing what it means to be a human being by using all this stuff … (Douglas Rushkoff)

I extracted these quotes from one of my old HE oriented blog posts and so anyone wanting to delve into this a bit more deeply may find this and another posting of interest (Are you digital natives paying attention?, Auricle, 6 February 2010) and Technology Impeded Learning, Auricle, 29 September 2009).

In the penultimate verse of the poem it states:

We make mobile calls or text while driving
Though as dangerous as being drunk

The UK’s Transport Research Laboratory studies the effect of different types of distraction on driver performance. Their findings regarding texting while driving are illuminating:

It was found that participants were significantly impaired in their performance when both reading and writing text messages, with the latter producing the greatest impairment. Reaction times to trigger stimuli were around 35% slower when writing a text message. This compares to an earlier distraction study looking at alcohol consumption to the legal limit where an increase in reaction time of 12% was recorded, whilst with cannabis, the reaction time slowed by 21% … drivers also showed significantly greater lateral variability in their lane position when texting, with the vehicle drifting into adjacent lanes far more frequently when texting. This risk is not mitigated by speed reduction and would lead the driver into potential conflict with other traffic … Overall, the study highlighted that when texting whilst driving, a driver may present a greater accident risk than when at the legal limit for alcohol consumption (Dangers of Texting Whilst Driving, Transport Research Laboratory, UK, 2008)

While the above study refers to texting whilst driving the 2014 edition of “Injury Facts” by the US National Safety Council estimated that 26% of all motor vehicle crashes in the US involved cell phones, a rise from the previous year, i.e. 1 in 4 car crashes involve mobiles. 21% of those crashes involve drivers talking on hand-held or hands-free cellphones with circa 5% being caused by texting.

In conclusion, at the beginning of this commentary I declared myself a technophile. And I’m certainly no Luddite. But occasionally, I sometimes find myself reflecting whether it was concerns such as this that drove distinct social groupings like the Amish to construct a belief system and way of life that explicitly sought to reduce the technological impacts upon their social structure.

Whilst I certainly wouldn’t want to eschew the comfort of modern life and technologies, I do think we need to acknowledge and mitigate the harmful effects. It would be naive to think that corporate interests are going to do this because, just like the tobacco companies, it’s in their interests to continually nudge us to consume more of whatever device or virtual product is ‘new’. No one is immune from the effects from the influence on their behaviour. The next time we find ourselves thinking we must use up our phone contract minutes or texts quota then consider who and what is actually driving our behaviour? Because we don’t seem to be.

Further Reading
Seatbelt and mobile phone use surveys: 2014, UK Department of Transport

Transport Research Laboratory reports (search “mobile phones”)

Smartphone use while driving: a simulator study, D Basacik et al, Transport Research Laboratory, UK, 2012

Driving and Distracted, Newcastle University (UK), Press Release, 18 November 2013

Driven to Distraction, Direct Line and Brake Reports on Safe Driving 2013-2014, Report Five

Road charity Brake in call to ban car hands-free phones, BBC News, 18 November 2013

Distracted Driving Research Studies, National Safety Council (US)

The Great Multitasking Lie, National Safety Council (US)

A decrease in brain activation associated with driving when listening to someone speak, Marcel Adam Just et al, 2008, Carnegie Mellon University, Brain Research 1205 (2008) pp70-80.

Strayer, D.L., Drews, F.A., and Crouch, D.L. A comparison of the cell phone driver and the drunk driver. Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, 2006 (Summer), 381-391;

Collet, C., et al. Phoning while driving I: a review of epidemiological, psychological, behavioural and physiological studies. Ergonomics, 2010, 53(5), 589-601.

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