The Distraction Addiction

By Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
Pub. 2013

This book explores techniques to reclaim a sense of control and contemplativeness in an age of constant interruptions from technological devices. Author Pang brings in techniques honed from thousands of years of Buddhist tradition to the technological realm. He first explores what’s wrong with the way most of us use technology, but he offers an antidote: contemplative computing. This is a term the author coined, but it serves to broach a new ideal of human-computer interaction, that of intentionality and emphasis on the mental state of flow.

Overall, I enjoyed the book. It’s reminiscent of Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, but with a much more positive and practical outlook.

Below are a collection of quotes and paraphrases I found useful:

Problems with Modern Devices

Pang likes to emphasize that most of us technology users are using devices unintentionally, and as a result are suffering the consequences – however subtle they may be.

It’s important to be responsive, but a frantic request isn’t the same as a high priority one

Today’s information technologies, I contend, cause us pain not because they are supplanting our normal cognitive abilities, which have always been flexible and mobile, but because they are often poorly designed and thoughtlessly used; they’re like limbs that we can’t bring under control.

The ability to pay attention, to control the content of your consciousness, is critical to a good life. This explains why perpetual distraction is such a big problem. When you’re constantly interrupted by external things – the phone, texts, people with “just one quick question,” clients, children – by self-generated interruptions, or by your own efforts to multitask and juggle several tasks at once, the chronic distractions erode your sense of having control of your life. They don’t just a derail your train of thought. They make you lose yourself. 147

The fierce productivity of the computer carries a price, more time at the keyboard, less time thinking. 2170, Witold Rybczynski

Donald Knuth (a famous computer scientist) on giving up e-mail in the 1990s:

A wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things… my role is to be on the bottom of things, [to do fundamental research that requires] long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration. 3173, Donald Knuth

Why task-switching makes even the most basic tasks difficult:

Try an experiment in which you count the numbers 1-10 as fast as possible, next say out-loud the letters A-J as fast as possible. Finally, alternate between a number and a letter pair, starting from (1, A) and so on. Try for yourself! 462, Rishi

There’s a difference between multi-tasking and switch-tasking. The former involves related activities towards a single goal (positive and beneficial), and the latter involves disparate activities not connected in any way (negative, and mentally costly).

Ideals of Human-Computer Interaction

Below are paraphrases and quotes of Pang’s book, which showcase an ideal way one could interact with computational devices. Read on.


Examples of flow and well-designed human-machine entanglement:

  • Bicycle riding
  • Mathematicians and chalk-boards
  • Pilots and fighter planes
  • Artists and paintbrushes
  • Book reading

With many technologies, practice delivers familiarity and basic competence that later becomes a foundation for deeper skill. 529

Reading is a form of entanglement, the best every day example of an effortless but mind expanding merger with technologies… literary technologies are invisible for the same reason that the lenses of your eyeglasses are invisible: you cease to be aware of them because you see the world through them. 644

Situations in which there are challenges, clear rules, and immediate feedback are likely to support flow… this is one reason the games are so appealing: players can get into flow states quickly. 746

Steps to Contemplative Computing

This is the core message of the book: how to use computers in a contemplative manner. Pang even has an 8-step guide, highly reminiscent of the idea of the Buddhist 8-fold path.

The breath is where mind and body meet, it’s a simple mechanism for modulating one’s state. 849, Moraveji

Meditation is the original neuroscience, the world’s oldest conscious exploitation of neuroplasticity, and it’s a 2,500-year-old answer to the 25-year-old problem of digital distraction. It shows that you can change your extended mind from the inside (through contemplative practices) as well as from the outside (through more careful technology choices) 988

Having experiences worth writing about and thinking enough about them to make the writing worthwhile is more important than saying a lot quickly. Experience now, share later, and give yourself time to make sense of what you’ve done. 10163

Tips for writing e-mails:

  • Is this message really necessary?
  • This person probably gets a lot of mail, will this message be welcome?
  • Would it be better to pick up the phone and avoid back-and-forth exchanges?
  • (For group messages) is it better to reply to every new message or weigh in at the day’s end with a less in-the-moment response?

Eight steps to contemplative computing: 11226

  1. Be human – strive for entanglement with technologies, and recognize how computers shape the way we see ourselves.
  2. Be calm – strive for “restful alertness” with technologies and masterful engagement that fills one’s attention and leaves no room for distraction.
  3. Be mindful – engage in self-observation and self-experimentation when dealing with technologies and building your “extended mind”.
  4. Make conscious choices – make thoughtful, deliberate decisions about what technologies to use and how to use them.
  5. Extend your abilities – aim to use technologies to amplify your natural faculties and senses, and expand your extended mind.
  6. Seek flow – seek out and be completely absorbed in only a single activity at a time
  7. Engage with the world – engage with technologies in a way that ties back to reality, to the world of physical objects and people.
  8. Be restorative – practice restoration of your mind, and take a break from technologies to support this. Spend a day completely away from computers to “recharge” your being.

Further Reading

  • Flow, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Useful Technologies

References   [ + ]

1. 47
2. 170, Witold Rybczynski
3. 173, Donald Knuth
4. 62, Rishi
5. 29
6. 44
7. 46
8. 49, Moraveji
9. 88
10. 163
11. 226

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