Friday, February 19, 2010

The iPad Could Drive Readers to Distraction

The Wall Street Journal

Losing yourself in a good book? Those days could be numbered.

In this age of frantic multitasking and ubiquitous digital distraction, one form of media has remained a refuge: You could always lose yourself in a good book. But if Apple's planned iPad digital tablet succeeds as well as its iPod ancestors, those days may soon be over.

The trouble is that the iPad, due this spring, isn't just a reader with a few minor bells and whistles, like the Amazon Kindle, Sony Reader and Barnes & Noble nook. It's also a full-fledged Web surfer and email device, a stereo, a game player, and a machine for watching movies and TV shows. Since it will run iPhone apps, it's also potentially a telephone, a calculator, a GPS device, an instant-messaging pad, a Facebook portal, a clock, a calendar, a restaurant guide, a contraption for studying Bulgarian, a collection of nude photos, a compass, a carpenter's level and God only knows what else.

When viewed on an iPad, books we now find utterly absorbing—with fast-moving narratives that keep us up half the night turning pages—may soak up our attention a little less effectively. Just imagine trying to focus on some boring textbook in the face of all that frantic yoo-hooing from the iPad's many other groovy functions.

We already face this problem at the office. For many of us, the main tool of our labors—an Internet-connected computer—is also our primary temptation to dither, subverting our attention with email, chat invitations and the siren song of diverting Web sites. Now, with the iPad ready to invade the home, the problem is likely to follow us to our favorite reading chairs.

Distractibility, sad to say, is the human condition, and probably evolved at a time when—hey, is that a tiger?!—it was a survival adaptation. But if we can't do anything about human nature, we can control the situations in which we find ourselves. Wily Odysseus understood this when he ordered his men to bind him to their ship's mast lest he quite literally go overboard as a result of the Sirens' seductive song.

Modern-day computer users can make like Odysseus with programs such as Freedom, a free download for Macs that lets you bar yourself from the Internet until you reboot—not a huge barrier but perhaps just enough of a hurdle, and one that provides an embarrassing time-out in which to contemplate what you're about to do.

There are also programs to limit access to designated sites or to restrict them during a given period, so you can prevent yourself from wasting half your work day surfing celebrity gossip blogs. For example, Self-Control, a free add-on for the Firefox browser, intervenes when you go on a time-wasting jag to a Web site you've declared taboo. "Wrong place at the wrong time," it says. "Get back to work."

These programs are a little like the parental-control software people use to limit kids' activities on the Internet, except the parent controlling you would be . . . you. It's the kind of self-paternalism we engage in all the time by, for instance, not buying ice cream because we know we lack the willpower to abstain once it's in the house.

And for those in need of serious help, there is Covenant Eyes, a subscription service that monitors your Web doings and emails a log to your designated "accountability partner," who could be your pastor or spouse or mom—any one of whom would be sufficient deterrent for most of us. If not, Covenant Eyes also offers customizable Internet filtering—and a mobile version.

In the future more of us are likely to need this sort of thing, because technology is moving toward forcing us to use a single device for practically everything we do, making concentration on any one thing that much harder. Then again, the problem may not be so new. In "Buddenbrooks," that great novel of business, Thomas Mann writes of a weary executive: "Harassed by a thousand details, all of them unimportant, he was too weak-willed to arrive at a reasonable and fruitful arrangement of his time."

And rest assured: Thomas Buddenbrooks, in the 1870s, didn't have an iPad.