Friday, March 10, 2006

on kittens and distractions

It's Friday quote-of-the-week time. Paul Ford - a geek, a columnist, a blogger - sort of, and always very readable - did a piece last fall on distractions which I've been saving. It has so many quotable bits that it's hard to select just one. So here are a bunch:
Friday, October 14, 2005
By Paul Ford


I'm getting so much spam. Hundreds of messages a day trying to seduce me by appealing to my darkest lusts and my greed. So I've gone back to basics. I stopped using my fancy word processor and installed WordPerfect for DOS, which was last updated about a decade ago, and which lets me type in gray letters on a blue screen without using any windows and without the need of a mouse. It never crashes. ... There is no Wikipedia, no email, no constantly changing the MP3s I'm listening to, no downloading going on. The spam still piles up but I'm not aware of it, because my email program is shut down until I want to send a message.

Being the geek that I am I have looked closely at the blog posts and articles about Web 2.0 and I understand what's going on, the new paradigms. I enjoy seeing all of the creativity going into these new dynamic To-do lists and calendars and forums. ... It's not because I'm nostalgic for the old days of Web 1.0. They came and went and it was fun to be part of something so exciting as the early blossoming of the Internet, when everything seemed possible and young people could become rich just by willing it. But more and more I want my computer to do less and less. ... I grew up with computers, started hacking away when I was twelve. I always thought that the Internet would make me more productive, more aware of the world around me but instead I'm using technology that was laughable in 1995 and getting much more done.

I figure there are two different kinds of distractions: the wide kind and the narrow kind. The Internet is the widest possible distraction because it lets you wander so far afield that getting work done if you are, like me, the distractable sort of person -- getting work done is almost impossible. ... [W]hen wide distractions are available I avoid the narrow distractions, and those are the useful distractions. Let's say you're thinking hard about a concept--say, kittens. Kittens are young cats. They have paws and they are sometimes friendly. Your stepmother, you remember, didn't let you have a kitten. Why was that? Was she allergic, or did she really just hate you? Now, that's something worth thinking about. A concept worth exploring. That's a narrow distraction, a good distraction.

But with a wide distraction you think about kittens and all of a sudden your email pops up and you're thinking about Viagra, and about how horrible the world is and how it's filled with rapacious greedy spammers. You're not able to think about kittens any more so you check out the news to find out that China has a manned space program. Click. And that peak oil is a real problem and we might be living in an age where electricity becomes prohibitively expensive. Click. And that Apple just released a new iPod again, and everyone is all aflutter. There's really no way to bring all of that back to kittens. You've been broadly distracted. You might as well play some solitaire and go to bed.

Distraction is necessary. Minds need to wander to get anything done. But the Internet is sort of the mental equivalent of the snack aisle at a convenience store, filled with satisfying fatty chips and tasty cream-filled cakes. God knows I've spent enough time with both the Internet and cream-filled cakes to see the similarities. And I now know that what I want, mentally, is a well-cooked meal. A book gives me that, a well-written, carefully-edited book. ... This is not to condemn blogs. They are often great. But there are so many of them, and I will be dead for a long, long time. ...

It is a wonder of the world, the Web. [F]or every idea there are a dozen articles and Wikipedia entries to read that allow me to avoid thinking for myself. And it's not like any of that is going away, nor will I be staying away from it. Just putting it aside for a few hours a day so that I can think without the world humming in my ear, sitting in front of my blue screen with gray text, or stretched in bed with my little portable keyboard, a working setup so bland it's actually inspiring.

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