The Epidemic of Digital Distraction

…I'm twelve stories up and being chased by two guys with four guns and I'm running out of roof which leaves me with two choices: I duck and cry, or I take a flying leap for the adjacent building's rooftop.

Without breaking stride, I jump for it. My hands make it to the next rooftop. My legs, almost. So I'm dangling there and in a brief moment of stillness, all I hear is my iPhone ricochet off the corner of an overstuffed dumpster into the alley below…

That seems like a reasonable way to start a post on how difficult it is to grab and hold a little attention in this era of twitchy fingers and shifty eyeballs, when two tweets on the same topic can pass for longform writing.

Almost no one does just one thing anymore. The screens won't let us. And in an incredible burst of human evolution, our minds have grown accustomed to monitoring multiple inputs at once. Yeah, you're reading this post. But we're nearly three paragraphs in. So if you're anything like me, it's about that time to check Twitter, count the additions to your Google Plus circles, read a handful of new incoming email messages, and chime in on a couple of ongoing instant message conversations. But wait.

…During my junior high Presidential Physical Fitness challenge, I topped out at half a pull-up. I'm the wrong guy to be dangling from the side of a twelve-story building. When I woke up this morning, I was just a writer and tech investor, tucked behind the warm glow of my 27-inch Apple monitor. How did I end up here? Well, it's long story. Long stories don't work so well on the web, and besides, one of my hands just slipped and now only a four-fingered grip is keeping me from becoming a chalk outline on the street below…

On a recent morning, my wife was busy with several work related tasks on her Macbook Air when our two year-old daughter sprinted across the room and dove onto the couch, knocking the computer lid shut. Without looking up, my wife re-opened her laptop and said, "Don't dive onto to the couch when Mommy is working, Jen."

Only, our daughter isn't named Jen.

It's getting harder to concentrate on anything, even the stuff that's clearly the most important. My daughter is too young to email us a note that she's about to jump on the couch, tweet a message from midair, and then provide a link to a YouTube clip of her flight as she heads towards her couch landing. But that's what it takes to get undivided attention. Little what's-her-name didn't stand a chance.

The other day, I asked my son if he wanted Daddy or Mommy to take him on the bus for his first day of Kindergarten. He answered: "I want the iPad to take me." Who can blame him? His parents are barely the equivalent of a single app.

…As my whitened knuckles are about to give, I feel the grip of a large, strong hand around my wrist. Someone is trying to pull me up. So I do what any neurotic Jewish man would do in that situation. I pass out…

AT&T regularly runs commercials for its version of the iPhone touting what the company sees as one of its key advantages: You can make calls and browse the web at the same time.

Makes sense. I mean, can you imagine just talking on the phone or just browsing the web? Sure, maybe that's fine while your also driving in your car or jaywalking across a heavily trafficked street or teaching your child to ride a bike, but otherwise, it just seems silly to waste that kind of time unitasking.

…A naked light bulb glows dimly in an otherwise dark and dank room. I see a perfect face just above me; puffs of glitter float down from her golden, brown hair making me feel like I'm suspended in a disco-themed snow globe. It takes a second for me to hear what she's saying as her fingers cradle my head, one of her thumbs caressing my cheek. "Say my name." She whispers, "Say my name."

"Beyonce?"…

I have three friends who are accomplished novelists. Two of them have cut off all Internet access to their homes. The other leaves his devices behind and sits in an unconnected cafe with a pen and a stack of paper for several hours a day. They know that even their impressive abilities to concentrate can't compete with a connected computer.

These strategies are working for now, but the realtime Internet is starting to sneak in. They all have kids and other parents want to be able to make last-minute playdate schedule changes, so they all bought smart phones. Their publishers demand that they use social media to promote their writing, so they've all started to Tweet and build-up a Facebook following. Their eyes water when I mention that now Google has introduced a new social network.

They can sense the inevitable. The Luddites' days are numbered. The Gluddites are coming. It's only a matter of time. They can run but they can't hide.

…I squeeze and re-open my eyes a few times. I hear a voice say, "Wow, this guy is really out of it." I then feel an iPad (the heavier first generation model) slam down on my head. The next thing I see is the inside of ZipCar's trunk…

I recently heard a pitch from the founder of company that – like many start-ups these days – has the goal of garnering a large percentage of your mindshare on the second screen. The second screen is how media types refer to your computer while you're watching TV. To them, the idea that you'd ever just be watching television seems about as likely as you reading hieroglyphics by torchlight.

The founder described a scenario. Say you're watching the latest episode of Mad Men. We can connect you with thousands of other people who are watching at the same time. You can discuss the show, post opinions, and make and share polls. Meanwhile, we'll scour web and serve up the latest gossip and news about John Hamm so you can read that while you're watching the episode.

I looked at him and said: "Tell me the truth. You don't really like TV, do you?"

The idea of reading gossip about John Hamm while watching a new episode of a great show like Mad Men might seem crazy, but the truth is that both my wife and I have our laptops open during almost every other show. And we've already aged out of the target market. Several friends have told me that their teenagers absolutely never just watch television, even when they've rented an action movie. Some other screen is always on.

If you're a content creator, you have a few options. You can create content that is simple enough to be easily absorbed during a series of quick glances from viewers whose attention is divided. You can attempt to make your content so unbelievably riveting that even the most jaded member of Generation Realtime can't take their eyes off it (I'm thinking here of a show like Game of Thrones which is essentially an hour of frontal nudity interspersed with graphic beheadings). Or, you can provide second-screen content to further engage viewers while they half-watch your shows.

Where does that leave me when all I've got is this pile of words and I'm four paragraphs away from my last action scene?

…I'm splashed in the face with ice-water and wake to find my ample torso chained to a chair in front of a new Ikea desk, empty other than a yellow pad and a finely sharpened number 2 pencil. Beyond the edge of the desk, I see a semi-circle of nerdy-looking guys each holding a pistol in one hand and an iPhone in the other…

Recently a guy who goes by the name of Lezevo and often shares videos of himself playing Call of Duty 2 decided to share the personal details of his just finalized divorce. Someone as familiar as Lezevo is with immersive shoot'em up video games knows how unlikely it is that people will listen to thirteen minutes of someone talking about his crumbling union. So he layered his voice over a video of himself shooting up buildings, taking down helicopters, and creating a trail of carnage. The viewer is entertained by explosions and action-packed battles as the speaker calmly shares the ups and downs that led to the cratering of his marriage. Kaboom.

In addition to coming up with a pretty satisfying metaphor for the way many divorcees feel about the experience, Lezevo may have also created a blueprint for the way we need to think about sharing the details of our lives. The content can be deeply personal. The audience can still be wildly public. And once you've gone past 140 characters, you're not going to hold anyone's attention without machine guns.

…The nerd directly opposite me cocks his gun and points it towards the yellow pad on the desk. "Dave," he says, "We need the next blog post." I now recognize these editors and readers and manifestations of the voices in my head, and I instinctively complain that I've been busy lately and that I've had a major case of writer's block.

"You've sent 12,000 emails, pushed 1,800 tweets and dropped at least 30,000 words into your instant messaging client since the last time we saw a new piece from you. That sound like writer's block?"

They all laugh as their eyes shift back and forth between me and their iPhone screens.

"Sorry. Pal. You're gonna sit at that desk and write until you have something to post. No tweeting, no browsing, no screens, no Angry Birds, nothing, until you're done."

I pick up the pencil from the desk. Before I start to write, I have to know one thing: So, I guess Beyonce was never actually part of this, eh?

"Nope. But you should include her in your post anyway. It'll keep things moving…"


[top art courtesy of Shutterstock]
Dave Pell is an internet addict, early adopter, and insider. He has even been known to tweet.