And then along comes YouTube, the agent of our destruction. And FaceBook. And BoingBoing. And Slashdot. And Digg. And Fark, the Drudge Report, Neatorama, Apple's Movie Trailers page, eBay, Flickr -- (I get paid by the word, so I'll just keep going) -- Break.com, Wikipedia, Craigslist, Amazon.com. Google, for crying out loud. (This is a reputable web site, so I won't mention porn, online poker and extreme-video sites.)
Whenever we've got something boring, unappealing or difficult to do, we know that passive, easy, fun, interesting and compelling content is just a click away.
The Internet is an incredible productivity tool that offers unprecedented access to information and communication with others. But it's also distracting. Really distracting. More alarmingly, it's getting increasingly distracting every day.
In a recent blog post, essayist, programmer, and programming language designer Paul Graham offered the profound insight that Internet-based distraction "is not a static obstacle that you avoid like you might avoid a rock in the road. Distraction seeks you out." And "as we learn to avoid one class of distractions, new ones constantly appear, like drug-resistant bacteria."
He also points out that distraction and work look and sometimes even feel the same. You've been at your computer for six hours straight. How much of that was productive work, and how much amusement? It's hard to say, accurately. If Internet-based distractions threaten our ability to get our work done and succeed in our careers, if they seek us out, and if they evolve like viruses to become more compelling and addictive, what does that mean?
Heres what it means:
1. We're not "preparing kids for the future." There is a strong push worldwide to prepare kids for the future by installing Internet-connected PCs in schools. Part of this effort is to bridge the digital divide between rich and poor. But maybe growing up without video games and a PC in your room is an advantage. Maybe the have nots will be better equipped than the haves to face the distraction super-virus of the future because they wont become addicted as children to the Internet-distraction impulse.
I have an Indian friend - an overachieving genius type - who graduated at the top of his class at IIT (Indian Institutes of Technology) and for the last decade has been launching startups in Silicon Valley. He now has two young kids of his own, who he hopes will follow in his footsteps. When he was growing up in Bangalore in the '70s and '80s, he had no Internet distractions and nothing all that compelling on TV or on the radio. Teens didnt have their own cars, or shopping malls to hang out at. All his cultural influences were teachers, parents and grandparents (some of whom with Ph.Ds), and fellow private-school, over-achieving classmates. The most entertaining thing in his life was math homework.
His kids will grow up in another world, one with Xbox 3,060 (complete with virtual reality helmet), 5,000 channels on TV, friends video-texting their holographic cell phones in the middle of the night and inconceivably addictive distractions online. What will it take for his kids to succeed the way he did? Will they even want to? And who had the better preparation for the future?
2. Training needs to include distraction coping mechanisms. Company training programs teach applications, and sometimes even productivity. But maybe its time to institute training programs that explicitly help people cope with online distractions.