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zen+computerDoes access to the Internet and computers make us increasingly distracted and stupid, or does such access provide a kind of “mental force multiplier” that greatly increases our creativity and productivity?

This question is being debated among IST faculty in recent e-mail exchanges, in recent books such as The Distraction Addiction: Getting the Information You Need and the Communication You Want, Without Enraging Your Family, Annoying Your Colleagues, or Destroying Your Soul, by A. Soonjung-Kim Pang, and in blogs such as that by Tim Wu of the New Yorker Magazine (“How Today’s Computers Weaken Our Brain” Sept. 9, 2013).

Given the explosion of e-mail, automated “information feeds,” text messages, tweets, and alerts from social media, not to mention increasing advertisements which pop up for nearly every activity, it is tempting to argue that Internet access, mobile computing and communications devices, and constant online activities are distracting and may result in a kind of universally induced computer attention deficit disorder.

The issue is certainly not new. More than 45 years ago when I was in graduate school, my advisor, Dr. Satoshi Matsushima, was a pioneer in applying computer processing to applications related to modeling the atmospheres of stars. Despite his love of computers, he required his graduate students to plot data by hand, eschewing automated plotting programs. He argued that we would fail to actually think about the data and model results, if they were automatically plotted, rather than thinking about where each data point was placed on a graph.

Similarly, Clifford Stoll, the astrophysicist who caught German spies prowling through computers over the Internet in 1988 (described in the book, Cuckoo’s Egg) reflected on productivity issues in his book, Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway (1995). An early enthusiast of computers and an internet pioneer, Stoll recounts his work with Chinese professor Chen Dao Han on interactions between comets and the solar wind in the early 1980s. Stoll had traveled to China, bringing a new HP-85 computer along. To perform some data analysis, Stoll fired up his computer and developed an algorithm for performing analysis of time sequence data. Stoll was proud of his effort, thinking that he had saved lots of time in the analysis. He was chagrined when Professor Han gently pointed out that the real challenge in the data analysis involved taking into account the accuracy of different observers and ambiguities in historical records that spanned multiple dynasties, rather than the computation performed by Stoll’s program.

Some modern research is simply not feasible without large-scale computing, access to the Internet and increasingly sophisticated tools. Tools such as Mathematica and MATLAB  provide numerous computational algorithms for nearly every type of function ranging from solution of differential equations to solutions of optimization problems, signal and image processing, pattern recognition, and many more.

Researchers no longer need to program their own numerical methods for analyzing data or computing models. Commercial statistical packages such as SAS, IBM, SPSS Statistics, and Minitab, as well as numerous open-source packages, make it relatively easy for a researcher to apply sophisticated statistical analysis methods to their data and to display the results in a wide variety of plots.

High performance computing allows development and execution of very complex models involving thousands of variables and huge data sets. Search engines such as CiteSeerX (developed by IST professor Lee Giles) and more than 100 others listed by the site Teachthought  support focused searches related to academic and research data, references, archives, and other resources. Finally, tools are available online to conduct surveys and analyze surveys and obtain data by observing the interactions of people on the web.

By contrast, a number of tools are emerging to help improve productivity and creativity by limiting access to the web and by simplifying computer interfaces. So-called “Zenware” tools include applications such as DarkRoom and WriteRoom that present a word processing user with a simplified or stripped-down interface to encourage a writer to focus on the composition of a document. Writeroom, for example, provides the user with a black background screen with green letters as you type, reminiscent of the interface for some of the original computer terminals. No other distracting icons, menus, or control displays are shown.

Another tool called Freedom allows you to block access to the Internet for up to eight hours. Log onto Freedom and it asks you how many minutes of freedom would you like. Enter a number, hit return and you’re offline. In order to get back online before your input number of minutes, you have to restart your computer. This self-imposed absence from the internet keeps you from checking your e-mail, looking at Facebook, responding to tweets, checking for the latest updates on news, or other distractions while you focus on the task at hand. A related concept is the idea of a digital Sabbath, in which practitioners argue for one day a week to be unplugged from technology.

Finally, there are tools to help you meditate and even to monitor your level of stress. The iPhone app GPS for the Soul uses the iPhone camera to allow you to measure your level of stress and provides feedback to help control your state. If you see me putting my finger on my iPhone camera lens during the next faculty meeting, you’ll know what I’m doing!

The author of Distraction Addiction cites examples of Zen monks who use computers and access the Internet.  He concludes that computers and other technology aids can be used either as productivity enhancements or can lead to distractions, and I agree. The distraction addiction is in your own mind, rather than in the computer. If you allow it, distractions can come from anywhere, including computers, television, radio, downloaded music, or even the distraction of looking out the window. Computers are benign – although I should note that when writing this blog, my computer crashed twice, until I reassured it that I would not use the Freedom App!

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