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Fractured/Focused

at 1:00 pm

In my last weeknotes, I mentioned that I had purchased an iPad. The iPad seems to be a polarizer of sorts—for many reasons, but one in particular that interests me most—in that it limits the extent to which you can multitask. You can play audio and browse the web at the same time, but you cannot play audio and watch a YouTube video at the same time. If you are signed in to Google chat and then, even just briefly, open another application, like iTunes, you will be signed out of your chat. The iPad will stop the browser's connection to the web. At first, I found this a bit frustrating. But I'm already seeing benefits to this limitation in certain contexts.

Focused on the iPad

So the iPad, in that it limits web connections to one application at a time, and limits the user interface to one application at a time, could be said to encourage focus. To me, that's a great thing. Noticing my own decline in focus has been a concern for a while, and I saw the iPad as an experiment that might enable me to focus more closely in certain contexts—reading, in particular. So far, this has definitely been the case. If I'm chatting with someone using the iPad, my attention is fully focused on that conversation. I'm also much more inclined to keep the conversation itself focused (and brief) because typing on the iPad isn't great in extended amounts.


*No iPads were harmed in the making of this picture.

Fractured on the iPad

But I've quickly realized that I can't really replace my computer at work with my iPad. Trying to replicate my laptop-connected-to-a-nice-big-monitor-based workflow on my iPad results in a distinctly fractured experience. This might change slightly if/when I get the keyboard dock accessory, but the way the iPad handles web connections will probably keep it that way. When I'm at work, I constantly run a browser, which almost always has multiple tabs open—email, chat, calendar, our website's CMS, and our internal project management application. Even though each of these is a distinct application, the way the browser works fuses them into one almost seamless application in my mind. On the iPad, toggling between web-based applications is more akin to turning one off and another on than keeping them all on at the same time. By the way, this is the train of thought I was on when discussing holistic browsing experiences back last summer in my article about the future of the web. I fully expect advances in parallel computing to make this kind of "natural" multitasking—which is actually just rapid toggling between applications, not simultaneous uses—even better and more productive for us. In the meantime, the illusion of a holistic experience fostered by multi-tab browsers running distinct applications does quite well. When I run my browser at work, there are few non-work distractions that can derail my focus. However, that doesn't mean that instant messages that pop up, which I often must shift my focus to, don't interrupt my focus on other important things. But, isn't that just the way the modern workplace is?

Here's the part where I shift my focus to that thing-I-heard-recently and turn the post into something a bit more philosophical...

In an interview with Steve Paulson on a recent To the Best of Our Knowledge program on sense of place, Terry Tempest Williams, author of "Finding Beauty in a Broken World," spoke about what happened to her sense of attention during her time studying prairie dogs in the west:

"...there is nothing happening here! It was like I was in a rehab center with no place to get out. On the fourth day, I thought, 'what's happened? I cannot write fast enough to record everything I'm seeing.' It wasn't the prairie dogs that had changed. It was that my own soul had quieted down to the point where I could suddenly see again. We move so quickly. We're in this distracted, fragmented, fractured world. We don't even recognize wholeness when we're standing in the middle of it. The other thing that stunned me was that every morning and every night... the prairie dogs emerged from their home borough. They would stand, they would face the rising sun, and I promise you they would press their palms together and stand--almost in a gesture of a sun salutation--for twenty to thirty minutes. And then they would go on about their day. Again at night, they would return to their home borough, press their palms together, face the setting sun, and stand in stillness. Day after day after day, and one could imagine, clear out back to the pleistocene. What do they know that we have forgotten?"

When I read this, I immediately am swept up in the notion of a technology-free life, which, when framed by the hint of contemplative prairie dogs, seems sublime. But, sublime or not in theory, human culture is technological. The possibility of me living a technology free lifestyle is just about zero, and frankly, the likelihood of me enjoying that life is probably slim as well. Technology enables comfort, and we are so far off the beaten evolutionary trail of a "natural" life that it's actually quite natural for us humans to thoroughly rely upon technology. A friend recently commented upon my ascetic lack of furniture by saying, "Dude, you have a body. You'll be more comfortable sitting in a chair." Quite right.

Kevin Kelly provides a helpful balance to my prairie dog-enabled radical swing away from technology: In an interview with Nora Young on the Spark podcast, Kelly talks a bit about how play is an essential element of the experience of using the web:

"One of the interesting things about play is that from an efficiency standpoint—from the usual metrics of productivity—it's usually considered very wastefull. I think one of the great attributes of the web, actually, is that it can let us waste time in our otherwise very productive lives. So, part of my routine is to kind of go where things lead me to go and to pursue a curiosity to its end. I think that's very childlike in many ways and delightfully enjoyable and totally unproductive...This playful inefficient aspect of [the web] is a main attraction, and I think, the foundation for a lot of the innovation that we're seeing. Lots of things start off as very frivolous and are made just because they can be, and from that, new things will develop...Lots of the things we're seeing that we take as the core foundation aspects of the web began in a playful manner...I think we would be very poor people if we only were productive, I mean, if we were productive all the time—if the only thing we did was work. If the only thing we use this tool for was making more money or making more stuff. I think we should actually delight in the fact that we can use it to waste time, and we shouldn't feel bad about it because we already work too much."

What Kelly is saying isn't directly tied to Williams' point, but it is directly tied to why I am so quickly swayed by her experience. It ties right in to the tenuous relationship we have with our technology that I began to explore (and was probed in much greater depth in the comments) in my post about human enslavement to technology. When I consider the extent to which I rely upon technology and juxtapose that picture with the "natural" one Williams describes, I react instantly—really, in fear—to what I or we might become—some kind of soulless consuming cyborg creature. But that's just not realistic, and Kelly points this out. Humans create technology, so our technology is naturally going to be imbued with human characteristics—play being one of the more significant ones.

Ok, so quite the digression... What do you think about how the devices you use affect your sense of attention or focus?

Comments

Chris Butler | May 5, 2010 8:21 PM
Pak-Kei: I agree with you on some points, and not on others. The "iPad vs. Enlightenment" article brought up a very good and important perspective. It's true that part of reading is aggregating portions of what you read and archiving it in whatever way suits you best. The author of that article points this out as an essential scholarly tradition—one facilitated by the lo-fi pencil and paper, but quite difficult on devices like the iPad. So, there, I agree with you. As a fairly content owner of an iPad, I do feel that this is a significant shortcoming. I bet it won't remain one for long (not because I "trust" Apple, but because I believe that this kind of thing will be important to any reader). In the meantime, I have been wondering how to use my iPad to read—which is a really nice experience, by the way—but also note and organize that material in the way I might normally. Perhaps for now I'll just stick with my paper notebook.

Where I disagree is in the idea that I (or others) have become more segregationist in our workflow because that's "what Apple wants." Sorry, but I'm just not that impressionable!! Perhaps they do want that—after all, it does help with selling lots of different devices—but they will ultimately acquiesce to the way that most people tend to want to use things. I think you may have gotten the wrong idea when I wrote about appreciating the lack of multitasking. It's not because I want what Apple wants, but because focusing on just one thing is pretty nice every now and then.
Pak-Kei | May 5, 2010 6:15 PM
In short, iPad's disadvantage is not about the bigger things like "not being able to create", but the more subtle things it ignored, like facilitating the gathering and exchange of knowledge.
Pak-Kei | May 5, 2010 6:13 PM
@Chris: Thanks for mentioning this in your tumblr:

The iPad vs. Enlightenment on New York Times

It's exactly my point!!! :)
"Yes, the iPad makes it easier to carry around a dozen books and magazines, but that’s not the only promise of the technology. The promise also lies in doing things with the words, forging new links of association, remixing them.

We have all the tools at our disposal to create commonplace books that would astound Locke and Jefferson. And yet we are, deliberately, trying to crawl back into the glass box."
The problem of your take on the iPad is that it is too much about categorizing our daily life into distinct components, like a computer: reading should be just concentrating on reading, working should be just working, and so on - and that's what Apple wants you to think.

For years and years, we are angry at Windows because it lets us do anything and we end up breaking our machines to declare that we are different from computers. Meanwhile, we are happy because we are now forced to be limited and think more and more like a computer? That doesn't sound right to me.
Chris Butler | April 25, 2010 2:43 PM
Wayne: You're right that, for now, the iPad is an additional device that fits in nicely with an array of them—each being better suited to particular situations than others. I find that I don't use my iPad much at work, since my efficiency and effectiveness at work are reliant upon a pretty tight process that would be tough to adapt to a new device. But, since I bought the iPad, I've used my laptop very rarely at home. So, it's certainly a matter of context. I do wonder, though, how long it might be before we adapt more of our working processes to the tablet paradigm.

Evelyn: Agreed. I stumbled across a quote this week that speaks to your point quite well, though it comes from a controversial source. Nicholas Carr, in a post he published on his blog and the Britannica blog, quoted Ted Kaczynski (the Unabomber), who, in 1995, wrote,
"[As] machines become more and more intelligent, people will let machines make more of their decisions for them, simply because machine-made decisions will bring better results than man-made ones. Eventually a stage may be reached at which the decisions necessary to keep the system running will be so complex that human beings will be incapable of making them intelligently. At that stage the machines will be in effective control. People won’t be able to just turn the machines off, because they will be so dependent on them that turning them off would amount to suicide."
Carr answers that snippet with "Mad rant becomes ecstatic rhapsody becomes offhand remark." Indeed! But Kaczynski isn't far off, is he? As you say, we do take our technologically-enhanced "memory" for granted. In fact, I mentioned this last year when I was thinking about how Google enables me to not have to remember much at all anymore, and, theoretically, live completely in the now.

Thanks for reading and commenting!
Evelyn Ogilvie | April 25, 2010 1:44 PM
I also love the quote from Terry Tempest Williams. Been thinking about it since I first read it and think there's something to it that we aren't as concerned about as we probably should be. We can do so many things today that we couldn't do without the help of our computers and software. Our base knowledge begins with those things in place. If they were taken away, we'd be quite helpless. Williams asks of the prairie dogs, 'what do they know that we've forgotten?' It's an eerie question. We take memory for granted now that we don't have to remember much anymore. The prairie dogs are free of that kind of concern, but we are not.
Wayne | April 21, 2010 7:48 AM
Ipad is great device for those that need it - it will not replace the laptop the phone the desktop or whatever else, for example I would love one to use while browsing the web before sleeping while laying in bed. In such position laptop is very difficult to use hands hurts keyboard not visible if the light is switched off but iPad is right what I need.
Chris Butler | April 15, 2010 3:03 PM
Pak-Kei, I hear what you're saying, though I'm not particularly troubled by it. If the iPad were my only web-connected device, then, perhaps I might be concerned about my diminished ability to contribute. But, I can do all the creating I want using other tools. The iPad is an auxillary tool that I use to take in information, which I find much easier and more preferable to do with it than with my laptop. In fact, it enables me to focus on one thing much better than I might on my laptop, so I can actually read through articles without being interrupted by an instant message, email, or something like it. Sure, I could do this on my laptop by just deactivating other applications, but the iPad is uniquely configured to make reading more natural, and to translate text, audio, and video content much more optimally.

Is the iPad a necessary device? Not at all. But neither does it take us backward in terms of progress we've made.
Pak-Kei | April 13, 2010 6:18 PM
I think you both misunderstood my points. I am not Cory Doctorow.

First, I was talking in terms of industrial design - the tactility of the iPad is cold, rigid and generally inhuman when compared to dead tree paper, which brings me to the second point, in which its inflexibility in the physical world reverberates on the inflexibility in the digital world.

But by the opposite of consumption, it's not so much about editing the whole article or a giant project, but it's the simple acts of being able to edit or collect things from what you consumed. It's not a polarized, all or nothing kind of deal. We aren't always in absolute making mode or absolute reading mode - we aren't computers. Papers adapt to our variable nature, these iDevices aren't or over-complicate it.

For example, with a newspaper or a magazine, I can underline things, I can crop things out or collect them - and I can do the same pretty well on a web browser on the desktop. Save images to hard drive or a note software, no problem.

It's not that the iPad browser cannot save images either. It can - it's just rigid and mechanical. You just need to switch back and forth apps if you even want to jot a simple note.

Things get worse in apps. Apps are pretty, but they are also essentially gated community versions of the web sites. Want to save a photo of your friend and you on Facebook app? No. Want to remember a paragraph of an answer on LinkedIn app? No. You can achieve all these in a web browser on a computer.

In the iBooks app, Steve and company *grants* you the ability to annotate. But where can the annotations go beyond the iPad? The biggest problem of having eBooks in education is that we are still going nowhere in terms of all these simple acts that can be achieved on paper. During research, one can sit on a couch and read all the papers... an iPad would come in handy, right? No. What if I want to underline, write some notes on the side, or a diagram? Yes, you can annotate to a certain degree... but how do you export them? And even if you can, is it still stuck inside the iBooks ecosystem?

It's true that we can simply consume and have no input whatsoever, but doesn't that mean we just took ourselves a step back from the freedom that we gained from the web (that we lost in television)?
Chris Butler | April 12, 2010 4:40 PM
Tio: I know exactly what you mean. In fact, this post is kind of like that, in that it starts with one concrete idea—looking at the differences between how a mobile device might enable or distract attention—and then segues into a more abstract discussion around the two quotes I collected last week. That kind of serendipity is one thing I would not want to lose on the web. Interestingly, I do find that this kind of web browsing is harder for me to do on a mobile device like the iPad, because I'm used to opening links I find within pages in other tabs so that I can keep a "bird's eye" view (so to speak) of what I've looked at in my session.

Pak-Kei Mak: I think I'm with @Evelyn Ogilvie on this one. I really don't mind that I can't mess around "under the hood" of my iPad, or that it's a bit more difficult to compose a blog post on it, or that I can't run Photoshop on it. For me, the value of the iPad experience is primarily in how it allows me to more comfortably experience written, audio or visual content. When I'm in making mode, sitting at my desk and using my computer suits me just fine.

Evelyn Ogilvie: See my comment above. Couldn't have said it better myself...

Justin: Oh, I'm not worried about it at all. As I said above, I actually appreciate the inability to multitask in most contexts in which I'd use the iPad. You're right, though, I'm sure the mobile OS will change quite a bit in the near future.
Tio | April 9, 2010 6:51 PM
Pak-Kei Mak,

I have never owned an Apple product and hold no brief for Apple. Howver, it may be of interest to you that Nuance, which makes dictation and document processing software, is now offering a version of its dictation software for the iPad. I have been using their Dragon Naturally Speaking dictation software under Windows for several years, and have found it to work well for me. Much as I like DNS for desktop PC's, I should think mobile versions such as Dragon Dictation for iPad equally or perhaps more helpful for users of mobile devices equipped with virtual rather than mechanical keyboards. Per promotional email received from Nuance, Dragon Dictation for iPad is, at present, available as a free download from the Apple App Store. See www.dragonmobileapps.com/index.html for more information.
Justin | April 9, 2010 10:43 AM
Chris,

I wouldn't worry about the lack of multi-tasking on the iPad. The next rev of the iPhone OS is reported to have multi-tasking capability and I'm sure rev2 of the iPad will have the same feature.

Apple is notorious for introducing a basic product with what appears to be a lack of features (remember the first iPod?) and then slowly, and almost imperceptibly, builds in more functionality. It's likely that rev2 or 2.5 of the iPad will also have the ability to take input via a stylus (or your finger).
Evelyn Ogilvie | April 8, 2010 10:07 PM
I don't know if the iPad is as much a harbinger of terrible things to come as @Pak-kei Mak seems to think. So what if it's a consumption-oriented tool? So are books, or a magazines, newspapers, radios, or televisions. None of those offer users a way to alter the content- you either read/watch it or you don't, right?
Pak-Kei Mak | April 8, 2010 8:43 PM
If the monitor is a symbol of an output device, and the keyboard and mouse is a symbol of an input device, the iPad essentially symbolized the severing of any sort of input by the user.

The glass screen is cold and inhuman, and it doesn't feel right when you touch it. It's not tactile, it's not soft. Has nothing of the quality of touching, say, a piece of wood, or another person's skin.

The worst feeling I have with the iPad is that I cannot even write on it. With only the occasionally-on nimble virtual keyboard, it's as if Apple doesn't like users to have any input at all, but just consume, consume and consume. We made a highly versatile tool known as pen and paper, just to complicate it so much to let corporations gain more absolute control over what we can read and where we can write.

The Magic Doodle I had when I was 3 years old seems a lot more human than this.

If the iPad is indeed the future, it's going to be very bad for humanity. Shame on Apple for turning from a company for creative professionals into a company for consumption.
Tio | April 8, 2010 8:25 PM
Hello Chris,

I find that the internet connected PC expands the limits of my attention and allows me to refocus upon concepts, processes and products relating in more flexible ways to the subjects I may have originally gone to the web to explore, or to others in which I have (or come to find that I have) interest. Often, this happens because I come across something which is tangential or perhaps even unrelated to the specific initiator of my web activity, but which is useful in in relation to something else in which I am interested or which simply piques my curiosity enough to lead me on to something else of which I was previously unaware and which is useful in relation to another task or for another person. In a way, it sometimes reminds me of an episode or column of James Burke's Connections, in which an assortment of interesting but apparently disparate vignettes give rise to a powerful, evolved process or invention which I wouldn't have suspected at the outset. So, more often than I might expect, what seems early on might be a time consuming distraction can serendipitously yield real value to me or someone else. The freedictionary.com entry for serendipity speaks to this character of the web:

"We are indebted to the English author Horace Walpole for the word serendipity, which he coined in one of the 3,000 or more letters on which his literary reputation primarily rests. In a letter of January 28, 1754, Walpole says that 'this discovery, indeed, is almost of that kind which I call Serendipity, a very expressive word.' Walpole formed the word on an old name for Sri Lanka, Serendip. He explained that this name was part of the title of 'a silly fairy tale, called The Three Princes of Serendip: as their highnesses traveled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of....'

Much more satisfying than the often annoying flux of wretched texts which, sometimes of late, pour unbidden from my cell phone.

Tio

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