Tyler Shores will be speaking about how digital distraction affects our reading at this year's Hay Festival as part of the Cambridge Series.

We have let technology into our lives, we are in a relationship with technology and we need to rethink the boundaries for a more healthy balance.

Tyler Shores

While you’re reading this, are you breaking off to check your social media or perhaps Whatsapping or texting a friend? The temptation to have several tabs open in your browser and to focus for only short bursts of time is high in today’s fast-moving world, but what does it do to our ability to really take in information or to enjoy getting lost in a good book?

Tyler Shores is a researcher in the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge who will be speaking about digital distraction as part of the Cambridge Series at this year’s Hay Festival.

Like many who are interested in the social impact of the digital revolution, he has first hand experience at a technology company. At the Google headquarters in Mountain View, California he was part of Authors@Google, a leading online lecture series, and has also worked as a director of digital textbooks, as well as working at a fully online school with Stanford University. He was also a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley where he created and taught a course on The Simpsons and Philosophy.

For his talk at Hay he will cover whether distractions have increased in  the digital age and whether this is always necessarily a bad thing.  “We have a tendency to pathologise our attention spans,” he says. “There is a difference between bad distractions and good ones.” He cites, for example, staying in touch with friends or colleagues as opposed to news alerts engineered to appear precisely when you are most likely to check your phone or device. He adds that it is difficult to generalise about what a normal amount of distraction might be since it depends on the circumstances and individual needs, for instance, it might be normal for a journalist to check their phone hundreds of times in a day.

In his talk, Shores will also explore how online publications both shape and are shaped by our online attention spans. On design, he says the infinite scroll design used on sites such as Instagram or Twitter, can be addictive and pernicious in forming our habits without our always realising it. “It’s very easy to move from meaningful engagement to losing 20 or 30 minutes of time scrolling down. There are no clear boundaries of beginning and end, as with a book,” he says.

He adds that tech companies are very good at making their apps and devices addictive. “They have an excellent understanding of how the human brain works. After all, a number of their employees have PhDs in Psychology,” he says.

They are also adapting to the idea that our attention spans are getting shorter.

Technology is being used to address shorter attention, for instance, telling people how long it might take to read an article (such as medium.com), putting bullet points at the top so you can get the main points quickly (such as The Telegraph) and putting the important information in the areas of the page where people are most likely to first look (such as the top left-hand corner of websites, for most users) .

Conversely, apps have also been developed to help users counter the temptations of digital distraction and so increase their ability to focus. The idea draws from neuroscience - research showing the brain’s ability for neuroplasticity and therefore how our behaviours are to some degree mouldable.

Shores cites, for instance, Forest - a timer app which encourages users to work in 25-minute intervals and not using their mobile phones, with the added real world incentive to earn credits and plant real trees around the world. Other apps block sources of distraction in the form of specific websites or all online access, such as the Freedom app.

He is also keen to set concerns about the potentially deleterious effect of online reading  in a  more historical context.  He says many of the issues raised about how the digital revolution is shaping how we read are not necessarily unique to the present moment, for example, the first reactions to paperback novels were fairly critical. “People worried that illustrations were ruining people’s attention spans in the old days. Cliff-hanger endings were looked down upon as an unliterary means of manipulating people’s attention,” says Shores.

His research focuses on different forms of reading. He asks people about their different experiences of reading in print and on digital devices. He says the sensory experience of reading ranks high with people who prefer reading in print - for instance, the touch and smell of a book, the feeling that they are making physical progress through the book and the ability to mark pages or annotate in the margins. “People like the idea of the book as a physical artefact. Sometimes they talk of print nostalgia - but can it be nostalgia for something that never truly left?” says Shores.

He is also interested in how online media literacy is taught in schools and in the wider issue of how apps are changing the dynamics of friendships and the way we communicate. He is optimistic that young people can be taught ways around the disadvantages presented by the move to digital. “It’s like we have rushed into a relationship, but we need to set some boundaries.  That is where we are now. We have let technology into our lives, we are in a relationship with technology and we need to rethink the boundaries for a more healthy balance,” he says.

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