The Isolator is a bizarre helmet invented in 1925 that encourages focus and concentration by rendering the wearer deaf, piping them full of oxygen, and limiting their vision to a tiny horizontal slit.
The Isolator has been archly reviewed in art and technology blogs several times since 2010, its re-emergence as a technological curiosity no doubt following in the wake of the recent few years' intense fascination with attention spans and the sort of productivity schemes advocated by sites like 43 Folders and LifeHacker.
The Isolator is an extreme example of a technology to help us focus on the task at hand, 80 years before we tried the Pomodoro method, Getting Things Done, meditation, or noise-canceling headphones.
Of course, the Isolator also looks a good deal dorkier than even a Bluetooth earpiece. Perhaps that, and not its conceptual daftness or the high price of tank-delivered oxygen, is why the Isolator did not become an essential piece of office equipment.
And then of course there's Google Glass, a precise functional inverse of the Isolator. Google has been working on these since 2004. Basically it's a pair of glasses that continuously display the internet in a corner of your vision, and which also allow you to transmit pictures, audio, and video.
For Google, the glasses are a major step toward its dream of what is known as ubiquitous computing — the idea that computers and the Internet will be accessible anywhere and we can ask them to do things without lifting a finger. ... On a more mundane level, rude behavior like checking e-mail during conversations would become much easier to hide.
So much for focusing on the task at hand. But hey, you can let anyone see exactly what you're up to, receive advertising, translate languages, and look at maps, with divided attention, while you're driving.
This week Google announced a Google Plus / Twitter contest offering the opportunity to become "Glass Explorers," that is, to try out a set of Google Glass. The eight thousand winners will have the opportunity to purchase a set for $1500, and must travel at their own expense to New York, Los Angeles, or San Francisco to pick up the device.
The NYT has identified a barrier other than the price to rapid widespread adoption of Google Glass:
"If you look at other wearable pieces of functional technology, there’s a reason they’re not ubiquitous. There’s a reason we all make fun of someone wearing a Bluetooth or a BlackBerry holster," said Daniella Yacobovsky, co-founder of BaubleBar, an online jewelry retailer. "Is it useful? Of course it is. Do I look like a tool? Yeah. I’m not going to wear it."
But don't worry: perhaps from having studied Hugo Gernsback's earlier marketing failure, Google is working with fashion professionals like Diane von Fursternberg to make Glass stylistically palatable to customers who are accustomed to Apple-style product design. Glass appears inevitable; here's hoping, at least, that Glass doesn't mess up our hair as well as our attention spans.
Are you reading this because you're avoiding doing your work?
What work is this lizard avoiding? Is he forfeiting his long-term happiness to the immediate gratification of video gaming? Should he be on Prozac, or Adderall? Perhaps we should let him be content to lick the screen until the real world ceases to exist in his lizard brain.
The contemporary work environment depends on devices which paradoxically provide instant access to productivity-killing diversions. Sometimes it can feel like our will to work is sapped, replaced by minutes and hours of consuming the internet in all its forms. Many recent business books and articles have identified this problem, suggesting reasons deep in the brain's neocortical structures, and offering a variety of advice to the would-be productive person:
"Inhibiting distractions is a core skill for staying focused. To inhibit distractions, you need to be aware of your internal mental processes and catch the wrong impulses before they take hold. It turns out that, like the old saying goes, timing is everything. Once you take an action, an energetic loop commences that makes it harder to stop that action. Many activities have built-in rewards, in the form of increased arousal that holds your attention." — David Rock, Your Brain at Work (2009)
This is why you can't stop looking at Facebook when you should have been in bed a hour ago.
So much of our work takes place in front of a screen, with its connections to all manner of distraction, that some business-school types are now searching for ways to use distracting technology itself to motivate ourselves to do our work, attempting to rely on the very reward systems in our brain that revolve around immediate stimulation and gratification. This notion, called "gamification", depends on the idea that much work is boring:
"Gamification proceeds from the observation that, to non-gamers, a lot of what gamers do looks suspiciously like hard work. … this is fascinating to management gurus, who come from a world in which people must be paid to undertake repetitive tasks. … Can the compulsive power of video games be harnessed to motivate workers?" — The Economist, "More Than Just a Game," November 10th 2012.
Game designer Jane McGonigal has gotten a lot of uncritical attention for her 2011 book Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make us Better and How they Can Change the World. She believes that gamifying can even solve humanitarian problems, and that game designers are "happiness engineers."
For the many of us who struggle with mental focus, gamification has an immediate appeal. Imagine work that completely holds your attention, motivating you to want more of it at the end of each session. Imagine a career where work is the exciting escape from the boredom of not-work.
But is boredom the root problem? Is boredom what keeps you from reaching your goals, or from being more motivated? Is boredom by definition the absence of fulfillment? What is boredom, anyway? Here's an answer from long before the internet. Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, was fascinated by the way time passes in our lives. In his essay "Rotation of Crops" (1843) he says:
"Boredom rests upon the nothing that interlaces existence. Its dizziness is infinite, like that which comes from looking down into a bottomless abyss."
An abyss that we want to fill, as quickly as possible, with anything, anything, anything. We surf the internet thoughtlessly to entertain ourselves, but boredom, and possibly guilt and anxiety over the non-productive use of our time, creep back in. We see the edge of the abyss again and quickly shovel up another helping of media to take the edge off, repeating as necessary.
But are we always bored when our time is "unoccupied"? What would be a helpful alternative? Kierkegaard draws a distinction between boredom and idleness:
"Idleness as such is by no means a root of evil; on the contrary, it is a truly divine life, if one is not bored. ... Boredom is the root of evil; it is that which must be held off. Idleness is not the root of evil; indeed, it may be said that everyone who lacks a sense for it shows that he has not raised himself to the human level. There is an indefatigable activity that shuts a person out of the world of spirit and places him in a class with the animals, which instinctively must always be in motion."
In other words, learning to be properly idle is a way to connect with your spirit, or your sense of self. In this view, idleness is an ultimately productive strategy. Boredom is a frightening anxiety-ridden state that can lead to mindless action and endless clicking.
When was the last time you were happily idle at work (or any other place for that matter)? Here's something to try: when you find yourself twitching in boredom and looking at the internet for no productive purpose, stop. Get up and sit somewhere else, or put away your phone or tablet. Let yourself be idle. Not distracted, idle. Close your eyes and breathe 10 long slow breaths. Try not to feel guilty, you'd be wasting more time than this looking at those kitten movies. Now get back up and go back to work. Rather than being pulled into a whirl of media, you'll feel more connected to yourself and more ready to take on the task you were just avoiding.
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