Distracted No More: Going Back to Basics

Commentator Paul Ford has a solution for avoiding the endless distractions a computer provides. He is an editor for Harper's magazine and author of the novel Gary Benchley, Rock Star.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

It's happened to everyone who spends enough time in front of a computer. You sit down planning to write one e-mail or look up one recipe, and 45 minutes later, you are surfing the Internet and you've barely touched the one thing that you set out to do. Well, commentator Paul Ford has a very simple solution for this problem.

PAUL FORD:

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 any windows and without the need of a mouse. It never crashes. I also bought a little device called an AlphaSmart Neo, which is mostly sold to schools. The Neo is just a keyboard that stores text as you type it, and it doesn't do anything else. It doesn't send e-mail or let me play games.

Using the AlphaSmart and WordPerfect, I've started to enjoy computing again. There's no Wikipedia, no e-mail, no constantly changing the MP3s I'm listening to, no downloading going on.

I figure there are two different kinds of distractions: the wide kind and the narrow kind. Here's a narrow distraction. Let's say you're thinking hard about a concept, like kittens. Kittens are young cats. They have paws. They're sometimes friendly. And your stepmother, you remember--she didn't let you have a kitten. Now why was that? Was she allergic, or did she really just hate you? Now that's something worth thinking about, especially if you're trying to write a short story or talk to your therapist. And you arrived at that concept through the means of narrow distraction, good distraction.

But the Internet brings wide distractions in great quantities. You think about kittens, and all of a sudden, your e-mail pops up with a new message, but it's spam. And now you're thinking about Viagra and about how horrible the world is, filled with rapacious, greedy spammers. You're not able to think about kittens anymore, so you check out the news to find out the latest on China's manned space program. Click, click again. You've been broadly distracted. You might as well play some solitaire and go to bed.

I'm smarter, probably, with my computer on, but not a lot deeper. I worry that my knowledge of the world is growing shallower, in fact, because for every idea, there's a dozen articles and Wikipedia entries to read that allow me to avoid thinking for myself. And it's not like any of that wonderful stuff is going away; I've just started putting it aside for a few hours a day so that I can think without the world humming in my ear. I sit in front of my blue screen with its gray text or stretch in bed with my little portable keyboard, and my working setup is so bland, it's actually inspiring.

SIEGEL: Paul Ford is an editor at Harper's Magazine, and he's the author of the novel "Gary Benchley, Rock Star."

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