Alex Soojung-Kim Pang's Blog

July 21, 2015

The Guardian's Oliver Burkeman notes that a recent Symantec report estimates that less than half of email sent is now spam-- hooray!-- but sees a downside:

As ���classic��� spam has declined, it���s become clear that the internet in general ��� indeed, life in general ��� has become an awful lot spammier. Partly, this is simply because spammers have found ways to spam that don���t involve email, using texts, Twitter, Gchat and so on. But there���s a deeper point here, too....

If spamming is about abusing the resource of other people���s attention, the ethos of spam is everywhere: in clickbait headlines that promise far more than they deliver; in tweets that exploit the ���curiosity gap��� by tantalizingly omitting key information; in the daily email I now receive... from a clothing store where I once bought one shirt.

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Published on July 21, 2015 09:38 • 4 views

July 13, 2015

One of the most effective things I���ve done to get my phone to defend rather than attack my attention is to turn off as many notifications and alerts as possible. I started this a couple years ago, and now consider it essential. I have a super-quiet ringtone for people who aren���t on my ���call in case of zombie apocalypse��� list; the people who really matter in my life, in contrast, get the opening bars of Derek and the Domino���s ���Layla.��� The virtue of this practice is that I can more easily ignore calls from people who I might or might not want to talk to, or might or might not have the bandwidth for. (This article provides an overview of why this is good. For those of you who have iPhones and want to try this for yourself,��here���s how you set up whitelists, and here���s how you create custom ringtones.)

A new study from Florida State provides confirmation that I���m on the right track. In an experiment, they had about 150 undergraduates take a test measuring their attention levels. In the test, students had to watch a screen and press a button every time a new number appeared, unless the number was 3. Measuring their response speeds, and whether they mistakenly press 3, give you a measure the attention level of the participant. You can see an example of the screen below:

Here���s the abstract:

It is well documented that interacting with a mobile phone is associated with poorer performance on concurrently performed tasks because limited attentional resources must be shared between tasks. However, mobile phones generate auditory or tactile notifications to alert users of incoming calls and messages. Although these notifications are generally short in duration, they can prompt task-irrelevant thoughts, or mind wandering, which has been shown to damage task performance. We found that cellular phone notifications alone significantly disrupted performance on an attention-demanding task, even when participants did not directly interact with a mobile device during the task. The magnitude of observed distraction effects was comparable in magnitude to those seen when users actively used a mobile phone, either for voice calls or text messaging.��

In other words, just knowing you got a call or text can be almost as distracting as talking on the phone. Or as��The Atlantic��explains,

The researchers found that performance on the assessment suffered if the student received any kind of audible notification. That is, every kind of phone distraction was equally destructive to their performance: An irruptive ping distracted people just as much as a shrill, sustained ring tone. It didn���t matter, too, if a student ignored the text or didn���t answer the phone: As long as they got a notification, and knew they got it, their test performance suffered.

���Our results suggest that mobile phones can disrupt attention performance even if one does not interact with the device,��� write the study���s authors. ���As mobile phones become integrated into more and more tasks, it may become increasingly difficult for people to set their phones aside and concentrate fully on the task at hand, whatever it may be.���

You can add this to the discovery that distraction in the classroom is contagious��as another reason to encourage students to go device-free, and to encourage people to leave their phones in the office during meetings.

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Published on July 13, 2015 10:46 • 2 views

July 8, 2015

The Distraction Addiction has been translated into Italian. The cover looks familiar:

Dipendenza Digitale��has a new preface, a conversation with me and journalist Dario Villa. (Very Galilean.)��It was fun working with Dario on the preface: these kinds of opportunities to think in new ways about familiar subjects is always welcome.

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Published on July 08, 2015 09:01 • 8 views

June 7, 2015

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that Westmont College, a Christian liberal arts college in Southern California, is going to try to measure the impact of international education on students by scanning their brains:

Last fall researchers at Westmont started a study that uses headsets to test electrical activity in the brains of 30 freshmen. The students will be scanned again in two years, after they have had a chance to study abroad, and they will be scanned once more after they graduate. The tests can be used to measure empathy and nine categories of "executive functions," which include areas like memory, reasoning, and problem solving, said Gayle D. Beebe, Westmont���s president���.

The theory, Mr. Beebe said, is that students who spend 15 weeks abroad in a highly structured, fully immersive program end up with a greater intellectual capacity and an increased ability to work with people from different cultures than do their peers who stay on the campus. That���s an important matter at Westmont, where Mr. Beebe said about 70 percent of students study abroad.

The college has big plans for its study. This fall Westmont���s psychology and neuroscience professors will scan another group of 30 students and continue monitoring the initial group, with the hope of securing funds to scan an entire class of about 325 students. Mr. Beebe said the tests would let campus officials build a "databank" to help them "shape some of the experiences and teachings" in Westmont���s curriculum.

It���s an interesting idea, but scientists the Chronicle talked to are skeptical, mainly because EEG is a poor tool for measuring what they want to measure, and it���s not clear that you can sort out the effects of foreign study from other factors, anyway. Neurologist Robert Burton, whose work I quite admire, is quoted as saying,��"I was trying to think of something more ridiculous, but I couldn���t."

Nonetheless, the idea of using brain imaging or other tools in education is bound to become more popular. Some of the programs might even tell you something that other kinds of tests, or the biographies of students, don���t. Stranger things have happened

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Published on June 07, 2015 21:32 • 7 views

May 26, 2015

In The Distraction Addiction I made the argument that our cognitive abilities and facility for using technology��� in particular, our possibly unique ability for becoming mentally absorbed in technology-focused tasks��� is not new.

Acheulean hand axe and iPhone

In fact, I argue, it���s very old; it defines what it means to be human; the struggle to make and master technologies has sharpened our cognitive abilities; and it���s a capacity that we should embrace and extend, not avoid.

After writing that chapter, I tend to take notice of news about research in physical anthropology and human evolution, like this��interesting new study that may help explain when Alzheimer���s appeared in humans, and why.

More brains

According to a team led by researchers at the��Shanghai Institutes for Biological Sciences, it coevolved with increasing human intelligence.

50,000 to 200,000 years ago, natural selection drove changes in six genes involved in brain development. This may have helped to increase the connectivity of neurons, making modern humans smarter as they evolved from their hominin ancestors. But that new intellectual capacity was not without cost: the same genes are implicated in Alzheimer's disease.

Kun Tang, a population geneticist at the Shanghai Institutes for Biological Sciences in China who led the research, speculates that the memory disorder developed as ageing brains struggled with new metabolic demands imposed by increasing intelligence. Humans are the only species known to develop Alzheimer's; the disease is absent even in closely related primate species such as chimpanzees.

As the article abstract explains, the study

developed a new coalescent-based method that collectively assigned human genome regions to modes of neutrality or to positive, negative, or balancing selection. Most importantly, the selection times were estimated for all positive selection signals, which ranged over the last half million years, penetrating the emergence of anatomically modern human (AMH). These selection time estimates were further supported by analyses of the genome sequences from three ancient AMHs and the Neanderthals. A series of brain function-related genes were found to carry signals of ancient selective sweeps, which may have defined the evolution of cognitive abilities either before Neanderthal divergence or during the emergence of AMH. Particularly, signals of brain evolution in AMH are strongly related to Alzheimer's disease pathways.

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Published on May 26, 2015 21:40 • 3 views

May 18, 2015

In The Distraction Addiction I talk about the concept of ���nomophobia,��� the fear of being without your cellphone (���No��� ���Mobile phone��� ���Phobia���) coined by British researchers in 2008. Recently, New York Magazine���s Melissa Dahl reported��on a new Iowa State survey for measuring levels of nomophobia, a 20-question questionaire that asks questions like "I would feel uncomfortable without constant access to information through my smartphone��� and "I would be annoyed if I could not look information up on my smartphone when I wanted to do so."

The source article, ���Exploring the dimensions of nomophobia: Development and validation of a self-reported questionnaire," is forthcoming in the journal��Computers in Human Behavior. Here���s the abstract:

Nomophobia is considered a modern age phobia introduced to our lives as a byproduct of the interaction between people and mobile information and communication technologies, especially smartphones. This study sought to contribute to the nomophobia research literature by identifying and describing the dimensions of nomophobia and developing a questionnaire to measure nomophobia. Consequently, this study adopted a two-phase, exploratory sequential mixed methods design. The first phase was a qualitative exploration of nomophobia through semi-structured interviews conducted with nine undergraduate students at a large Midwestern university in the U.S. As a result of the first phase, four dimensions of nomophobia were identified: not being able to communicate, losing connectedness, not being able to access information and giving up convenience. The qualitative findings from this initial exploration were then developed into a 20-item nomophobia questionnaire (NMP-Q). In the second phase, the NMP-Q was validated with a sample of 301 undergraduate students. Exploratory factor analysis revealed a four-factor structure for the NMP-Q, corresponding to the dimensions of nomophobia. The NMP-Q was shown to produce valid and reliable scores; and thus, can be used to assess the severity of nomophobia.

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Published on May 18, 2015 21:28 • 9 views

April 27, 2015

The Wall Street Journal has an article about how to keep your Apple Watch from distracting you. Some of the recommendations are similar to the ones I made in my mindful iPhone posts: use the VIP feature to make whitelists, turn off most notifications, delete useless or interruption-generating apps. Though ultimately, Joanna Stern says,

As angry as I’ve wanted to be at the Apple Watch for interrupting my life, it’s on me to limit its distractions. As technology becomes an extension of our bodies, we need to find our own controls; we need to resist burying ourselves in the digital world and stay present in the real one.

And no, I’m not getting an Apple Watch. Not only do I have an older, pre-Bluetooth 4.0 phone, but I’ve thrown my lot in with a Seiko dive watch (with Nato strap, natch).

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Published on April 27, 2015 21:40 • 5 views

…the Brody WorkLounge, a product that brings some of that cozy business class working space to your office.

I’m not being sarcastic about the comparison to good airplane seating: I do some of my best writing on airplanes, and while it would be an exaggeration to say that I look forward to long trips because the flights give me a chance to get serious thinking done, it is a factor. Steelcase designer Markus McKenna tells Slate that he didn’t directly copy business class seating, but they look similar because “airline seating and Brody solve for some similar constraints: density, privacy, and comfort.”

It’s also interesting that while they note that office workers are "interrupted or distracted every 11 minutes and it takes over 23 minutes to get back on task,” the system has little holders that keep the screens of your mobile devices visible at all times. So you can avoid your colleagues, but still get notifications about retweets.

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Published on April 27, 2015 10:13 • 4 views

April 13, 2015

…it is. But so is flying and texting, which has become a worry for the NTSB, and is implicated in a helicopter crash, according to Quartz:

The survivor of a helicopter crash in Florida says his flight instructor was using his iPhone before the aircraft crashed into the ground, killing the instructor.

Safety regulators in the US and Europe worry that pilots are increasingly distracted by electronic devices. If the allegation in Florida proves true, it would be the latest evidence that phones and flying don’t mix well.

This is not the first time digital distraction may have been responsible for an accident. In May 2014 in Colorado, a single-engine Cessna crashed soon after takeoff, killing the pilot and his passenger. The National Traffic Safety Board recovered a GoPro camera and cell phone that showed that the pilot and passenger were taking selfies during takeoff; the camera flash disoriented the pilot, who stalled the plane. The NTSB concluded:

The GoPro recordings revealed that the pilot and various passengers were taking self-photographs with their cell phones and, during the night flight, using the camera’s flash function during the takeoff roll, initial climb, and flight in the traffic pattern. … Based on the evidence of cell phone use during low-altitude maneuvering, including the flight immediately before the accident flight, it is likely that cell phone use during the accident flight distracted the pilot and contributed to the development of spatial disorientation and subsequent loss of control.

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Published on April 13, 2015 11:09 • 7 views

April 11, 2015

A couple days ago I was interviewed on ABC Sunshine Coast's morning show about technology and distraction. You can now listen to the interview on Soundcloud:

For a short interview it covers a fair amount of ground. The interviewer asked good questions.

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Published on April 11, 2015 22:58 • 6 views