Opinion: Learning in the age of Distraction

The exponential increase in distractions is preventing us from thinking deeply. This is a big challenge for corporate learning.
Paul Lewis
May 10, 2017

Abbie Hoffmann, the 1960’s counter-culture activist, once boasted that he could make unsympathetic news about his ‘Chicago Eight’ trial disappear from the front pages. The next day, he arrived at court doing handstands. The media loved it, he stole the headlines, the distraction worked.

Like Hoffmann, political and corporate leaders have always understood the power – and danger – of distraction.  Industrial scale fake news from Russia and China is less about getting readers to believe the falsehoods than to divert attention from the real story.

The tobacco industry, in funding Nobel-prize winning scientific research on genetics, viruses, immunology and air pollution, was not making their case for cigarettes, but diverting attention from the debate altogether.

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World suggested that we will be controlled through our distractions. As Claire Masson, FT|IE Corporate Learning Alliance’s head of learning impact observes: ‘We were warned that Orwell’s Big Brother would be watching us; but we’ve ended up watching Big Brother. The result may be the same.’

Today, it is easier than ever to be distracted—companies encourage it, and we are willing participants. The ubiquity of social media and the ease of an internet search allows advertisers to intrude on our online conversations and digital relationships. Recognising the diversionary overload (including the hyperlinks in this article), start-ups have now produced ‘read-it-later’ apps that help us organise our future distractions (assuming that we ever get round to them).

‘We were warned that Orwell’s big brother would be watching us; we ended up watching Big Brother. The result may be the same.’

The exponential increase in distractions may even be changing how our brains function. In a 2008 article, ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid? Nicholas Carr asks whether the Internet is ‘chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation.’ It’s becoming harder just to read a book, he notes. And it is surely no co-incidence that the US President rose through reality TV, crushing or circumventing the political establishment with a few 140-character tweets.

A time and a place to think

Senior decision makers are no less susceptible to distraction than are the customers they sell to. One recently promoted board member, when asked to explain what his new role involved, responded: ‘to work less and think more.’ This was no idle comment. He recalls an offsite training day designed to provide corporate leaders with the time and space to think deeply. It ended in chaos after a smartphone ban prompted a walkout, with one participant harrumphing: ‘I don’t have time for this.’

We don’t just need the time to think, we need a place too. Richard Branson reportedly walks around his private lake when he needs to reflect deeply. For those unlucky enough not to own one, it’s hard to find sanctuary. Open plan offices are full of annoying telephone chatter. Homes have noisy children. Cafés suffer the hell of other people’s conversation, not to mention roadside drilling and passing police sirens. Large parks are no good if it rains.

Could the solution lie in yet more technology? For example, virtual reality (VR) is often touted as an effective learning tool. But its value lies not in creating a believable practice world, but rather in eliminating real-world distractions. John Fecci, commercial director at elearning studios, reckons that users can learn a speech three times faster with VR because it commands their undivided attention. Will we come to rely on VR and other such technologies when we can no longer muster the power to think for ourselves?

Paul Lewis

Editorial Director at Headspring