Women Talk: The Age of Distraction

Are we on the way to become multi-tasking androids? Some of us might be already.

Are we on the way to become multi-tasking androids? Some of us might be already.

Recently I had dinner with a good friend of mine whom I hadn't seen for a long time. There were just the two of us in the restaurant, yet it seemed there were at least five of us: my friend, his i-phone, his Blackberry, my smartphone, and me. Our duo could replace an entire newsroom: calls, emails and text messages arrived non-stop. While having to answer to some, we still kind of managed to keep track of our conversation. As the evening progressed, we also had an update on the traffic and snow conditions in Moscow, on the breaking news and on the weather forecast for the next few days. Neither of us seemed too bothered by the constant distraction — we both were happy we managed to meet in person instead of the usual emailing or skyping.

I've got another friend, a talented TV reporter whose soundbite aptitude sometimes freaks me out to the extent that I begin to suspect aliens once inserted a multi-tasking microchip in his brain while he was asleep. When he's watching a movie, often in a foreign language, two of his laptops are usually on, multiple windows open. My friend is perfectly able of following the movie, answering emails, chatting online, tweeting, researching the movie cast on imdb.com, updating his Facebook status and keeping an eye on the newsfeed that's usually running on another computer all pretty much at the same time. He seems to manage to stay on top of all of this.

But does he really? Or is my friend, a typical representative of what some experts have labeled the Distraction Generation, simply chronically unable to concentrate?

In the new book, iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind, Gary Small, a top U.S. neuroscientist, warns that thanks to the 24/7 presence of digital gadgets in our lives, our perception and thinking habits are indeed changing dramatically. While multi-purpose Internet browsing may boost creativity, train memory, sharpen information processing and quick decision-making skills, it affects our critical thinking, radically shortens our attention span and also makes us socially shallow-sighted in real life. Gradually, without noticing much, we might become less opinionated and less capable of profound judgment as we tend to read the news not from the newspapers to which we used to subscribe a few years ago but from web-filtered sources. Studies also suggest that the more time we spend talking to a computer screen, the less alert we become communicating in person. According to a Stanford University study, for every hour online, the time when we go out and actually meet people drops by almost 30 minutes. And when we do interact face to face, we might fail to catch and read subtle gestures or micro-expressions, just like some super-intelligent androids who are good at speaking impersonal language and are always information-hungry, but are superficially minded... Finally, Oxford University neuroscientists insist that social networks' inflicted addiction of attention-seeking and instant gratification "infantilizes the brain into the state of small children."

Some of this sounds very familiar to me. Even though women are naturally born multi-taskers (making soup, chatting on the phone with a girlfriend, putting some make up on and searching for that cool video on Youtube all at once? Easy!), the more indispensable the computer and other hi-tech devices become in my life, the less I am able to focus. I fear I might have actually lost the ability to read thoughtfully — I can't really recall the last time I sat down at home with a good book. I manage to do this only when I travel: the plane with no cell phone in reach is an ideal environment for getting lost in a book without distraction. I know I am not alone either. Yekaterina Ignatova, a practicing psychotherapist who's currently working on a book, confessed to me when she's writing, she'd open her email, Facebook and other social networks she belongs to every 15 minutes or so. "Before Facebook, I'd make frequent visits to the fridge or have a cigarette," she said. "It's mere procrastination which we are all prone to sometimes. But when Facebook becomes a substitute for real relationships or a means to run away from oneself, that's an alarming symptom."

Curiously, there are studies showing that some emoticons such as smiley faces and other virtual expressions of love and care stimulate the same areas of the brain that a tete-a-tete emotional contact does. I use these a lot, I have to admit, when I converse online, but I would never trade a sweetest skype chat for a real date. Actually, I still remember the time when guys used to call my home to ask me out: there was no other way to get hold of a girl back then. It was a long time ago, I still lived with my parents, so the boys had to introduce themselves and say when they'd call back.

Call me old-fashioned, but I am a bit nostalgic for those times.

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Russia has always been referred to as feminine and Russian women have been one of the most popular stereotypes of this nation, both positive and negative. But is this an all-male fantasy? Here is a hip, modern, professional and increasingly globalized Russian woman looking at the trends around her, both about her gender and the society at large. She talks and lets other women talk.

Svetlana Kolchik, 33, is deputy editor-in-chief of the Russian edition of Marie Claire magazine. She holds degrees from the Moscow State University Journalism Department and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She has worked for Argumenty i Fakty weekly in Moscow and USA Today in Washington, D.C., and contributed to RussiaProfile.org, Russian editions of Vogue, Forbes and other publications.

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