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Notes on 'The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World' (scattered-thoughts.net)
97 points by luu on Apr 26, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 18 comments



Ever increasing distraction and "real-time" communication and collaboration are reaching a point of diminishing returns and actually decreasing our productivity.

The book Deep Work, by Cal Newport is a start on identifying the problem and a possible solution (i.e. isolate yourself for stretches of time to accomplish Deep Work).

Unfortunately, we live in a world where collaboration is necessary. So, what's the solution?

One possibility is to come up with a collaboration solution that is built from the ground up to be asynchronous in nature. (Deep Collaboration as the enabler of Deep Work)

Such a solution would complement our real-time collaboration solutions.


E-mail, wikis, discussion forums, and issue trackers are all collaboration tools built from the ground up to be asynchronous in nature. Are you looking for something else?


Agreed that all of these can be used asynchronously. However, I would refer to these as "incidentally-asynchronous", in the sense that their design goals were not primarily to be asynchronous (and hence support "Deep Work").

The major determinant of asynchronous deep collaboration efficiency is number of "cycles-to-outcome". (where a cycle is roughly a request/response loop).

Email because of its lack of shared state collaboration generates lots of extra cycles because of confusion on shared state (i.e. attachment nightmare).

Conversely, something like online document collaboration supports shared state collaboration, but is really poor at "what happened". For all but the smallest of documents this leads to compounding "implicit document rot" on every iteration. Alternatively, it leads to ever increasing time to "catchup" once again vastly expanding cycles-to-outcome.

Neither is good with accountability (something that issue trackers are good with). Lack of accountability is another driver of increasing cycles-to-outcome.

A deep collaboration solution that enables Deep Work could be designed from first principles based on minimizing cycles-to-outcome.


Each of these tools has two parts:

- the constraints of the tool itself - the culture of the organization that uses the tool

One organization could use emails and issue trackers completely asynchronously with scheduled twice daily checkins.

Yet another could use them for near instantaneous communication.

As always, the technology is usually something that simply exposes the underlying human behaviors.


Deep Work is great! I agree that after reading it the collaboration part is very difficult. Unfortunately the best solution that I've been able to come up with is to work on projects that can be accomplished by myself alone. It's obviously not ideal and dramatically limits the types of fun projects of otherwise take on.


"Unfortunately, we live in a world where collaboration is necessary. So, what's the solution?" - There are specific examples of Deep Work collaboration in his book. Deep Work =/= No collaboration.


Which is one reason why email is still such a key collaboration tool.


I found the noted acceleration in time to 50 million users to be very interesting:

   radio       38y
   telephone   20y
   tv          13y
   cellphone   12y
   internet     4y
   ipod         3y
   myspace      2.5y
   facebook     2y
   youtube      1y
   angry birds 35d


I wonder what they'd look like if you changed the target to a percentage of global population. Moving target, so it'd be harder to figure out, but say time to 5% or similar. It'd surely make the numbers less dramatic.


From 38 years to Angry Birds is 2.6 orders of magnitude. Population has increased by a lot less than that since radio. It's close to 400, so a radio population of one billion would have to be 400+ billion today to scale linearly. You are correct that it would be somewhat less dramatic, but it would still be impressively dramatic.

I'm just doing some Fermi estimates here to give a sense of what sort of change we'd get in reaction to your idea in the spirit of fun, not anger, because I enjoy this sort of thing. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fermi_problem


As pointed out in the notes the Angry Birds entry is a bit of a non sequitur since that's more like measuring how fast a given new TV show's viewership increased after TVs were already extremely common, and it's not exactly a world-changing technology like most of the other things on the list. It's not comparable to the other things, and was probably included for effect rather than its belonging on the list by shared criteria with the other items.

I expect the others would look far less dramatic as a percentage—I'd guess the 12-year cell phone number and the 38-year radio number especially would move far closer together if percentages rather than an absolute count were used. TV/cell phone might well reverse, since they're already so close. The table sets off some serious "lying with numbers" warning bells.


Internet wasn't 4 years to 50 million. It had a long history before that. And if they just mean the web, it didn't have images at first, so why not time it off of Gopher or earlier protocols? That entry just looks massaged to fit a pattern.

It would be like taking TV and baselining it's growth off of when second NTSC standard took effect.


Counting the years before it was available to the general public seems unfair.


Myspace, facebook, youtube, and angry birds numbers are disingenuous.

If television hit 100 million viewers, but only had one channel... And I create a second television channel, I'd hit 50 million viewers overnight.

Yet, I did not create anything quantifiably different.

People uploaded and shared videos before Youtube was a thing, and used social networks (forums) before Facebook or Myspace were a thing. People played mobile games before Angry Birds. The problem was that the other solutions weren't as good.


Really? Because I find it to be cherry-picked junk science. The examples seem selected in favor of the numeric pattern they best serve.

1. tv, radio: passive adoption, buy them and turn them on. the end user consumes cheaply and effortlessly, with minimal barriers to adoption.

2. telephone, cellphone: one habituates and bootstraps the other. this technology's adoption rate is the only meaningful pair of members on the list, due to the premise of the network effect of peering with fellow users. cellphones are a redundancy, with really only service provider adoption and promotion factoring into the rate of expansion. users are throttled by carrier capacity and tower coverage, not unlike copper plant expansion with land lines.

3. ipod: most egregious example of cherry-picking. flouts predecessor technologies. what about mini-disc players? what about the diamond rio MP3 players? compact discs, audio cassetes, 8 tracks all affect the demand curve of the ipod, and yet such statistics are selectively ignored. why? because they aren't useful accomplices to the desired narrative.

4. internet: facilitates several other members on the list, for which adoption becomes implicit, based on habituation to the internet. piggy-backed on existing infrastructure, adoption is partly behavioral, in that once the transmission protocols are established, adoption is very nearly reduced to buying a device, plugging into phone or tv infrastructure, and typing instead of talking. one could reduce consumer participation down to the level of TTY advances, since much of the rest is virtual and software oriented.

5. facebook, myspace, youtube: nigh-indistinguishable examples. very nearly non-examples.

  web sites:internet::tv shows:television. 
why not include tv viewing habits with tech adoption statistics? how do "I Love Lucy", "Leave It To Beaver" and "The Honeymooners" factor in with tech adoption. Are national television networks classified as individual articles of technology? ABC, CBS and NBC are empires that each command their own pool of proprietary technologies, clustered around a delivery apparatus and network of affiliates. Should the expansion of an empire be redefined to fit in with the adoption of a new discovery?

6. angry birds: a non-event, with regard to tech adoption. what about nintendo, and why not other specific examples of video games? did we chart the adoption of "Altered Beast" or "Doom" or "Mike Tyson's Punch Out"? some of those likely matched "Angry Birds" in a single christmas season. Content does not represent new technology by default. Angry Birds is not a novel technology for it's platform. It is a media template that has existed since before QBASIC GORILLAS.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gorillas_(video_game)

In this respect, Angry Birds represents technology that had ALREADY BEEN ADOPTED DECADES EARLIER BY MILLIONS. It does not belong on the list any more than Cousin Larry and Balki Bartokomous belong on the list due to the rapid adoption rate of the "technology" known as "Perfect Strangers" in 1986.

That list is a joke, and threatens the credibility of the entire article.


Many of these subjects are discussed in the popular Learning How To Learn online course [https://www.coursera.org/learn/learning-how-to-learn]. I finally signed up for it and I'm grateful. Sure, we all know how to learn, otherwise we wouldn't be here. This course provides practical techniques for learning more information, better, and with greater durability. Plus science!


A cursory search for the briefly-mentioned Tools of the Mind program does not make it seem "promising". However, social science and education research is terrible and lots of organizations conducting research and pushing meta-study-backed recommendations have an agenda ($$$). Anyone in the field willing to offer some insight?


That's the kind of stuff that UX should focus on, not some hog wash handwavy fuzzy pop science.




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