Reading Onscreen and Understanding Everyday Digital Distraction

Thank you very much everyone for attending yesterday’s talk. As promised here is some helpful information that I wanted to share.

Of course distractions are very much a part of life and can be perfectly fine and enjoyable in the right circumstances — but here are some tips on how to cope with digital distractions when they might feel a little too intrusive for our liking.

1. When in doubt, print it out.

Some studies have shown that reading in print can help us focus and concentrate better; I always feel like I think better on paper than on a screen. From The Guardian: “Why reading and writing on paper can be better for your brain” 

2. Out of sight, out of mind. 

Do we really need to keep our devices always so nearby? There is some evidence that even the mere presence of our devices can remind us of potential distractions, even before they happen. From Harvard Medical School: ” Keeping your smartphone nearby may not be so smart.”

3. Try a digital break every now and then.  

Have you recently been on a vacation away from the internet and social media, and if so, how did it feel? There can be an intensely liberating feeling from just not being beholden to our digital distractions from time to time. From Alex Soojung-Kim Pang: “Rules for a Successful Digital Sabbath

4. Some apps to help you focus more: 

Freedom: One of the apps that I use all of the time when writing and working — works on your computer, phone, tablet all at the same time (helps to minimize cheating).

A useful, free browser add-on that helps you limit time on websites of your choosing for however many minutes or hours per day/week you set it to.

RescueTime: Another helpful program that lets you take a real daily distraction audit. You can install it on your Internet browser or computer, and RescueTime will keep track of how much time you spend on a website, what percentage of your time on the computer is spent being “productive” or “unproductive” and other useful information (disclaimer: “productive” and “unproductive” can be subjective terms!).

Moment: This is a newer app that can tell you how many times you check your phone a day, how many minutes or hours you spend on what apps. Useful but also make sure that checking your number of distractions doesn’t in itself become a distraction.


5. Mindfulness could be a longer term solution for our digital distractions. 

For a longer term solution, I favor a little bit more mindfulness in our daily habits and thinking. Here is an interesting study from the University of California, Santa Barbara on how two weeks of mindfulness training might improve attention spans and memory. From The Atlantic: “Study – Meditation Improves Memory, Attention.”

Cambridge Science Festival 2018: Reading onscreen and understanding everyday digital distraction

I’ll be speaking about reading and digital distraction on March 24th at the 2018 Cambridge Science Festival. Come join if you can!

Eventbrite - Reading Onscreen and Understanding Everyday Digital Distraction

What is your experience reading on screens like? How often do you find yourself distracted by email, text, social media, and app notifications competing for your attention? I’ll be talking about some research on our attention spans and digital distractions as well as some interactive elements for what should hopefully be an interesting talk!

For more information check out the event list at:

The event is kindly being hosted at the Anglia Ruskin Cambridge campus.

everyday digital distraction

What can we learn from LEGO?

What can we learn from LEGO? I got to be on the Part-Time Genius podcast with Will Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur, and we talked about LEGO, philosophy, and other things. They also quizzed me on unusual scholarships that don’t sound like a real thing, but sometimes are. It was fun!

For a little more about LEGO and Philosophy, check out my recent post on the book here.

Mangesh and Will are the creators of my all-time favorite trivia source, Mental Floss, and the Part-Time Genius podcast is their latest creation, comprising an eclectic mix of questions and zany topics. You can check out their podcast on Twitter and Facebook and iTunes.

You can listen to the podcast episode here!

Just for fun, here’s their Authors@Google talk on Mental Floss in Mountain View, California from back when we were all a little bit younger:

LEGO and Philosophy

My new book chapter in LEGO and Philosophy is out! It’s the latest book in the Blackwell Philosophy and Popular Culture series.

This was a very fun one to work on. The LEGO and Philosophy book covers a number of thought-provoking topics — from LEGO and creativity, questions of gender and race in LEGO minifigures, Heidegger, metaphysics, and many others.

You can check out the book’s full table of contents on the Wiley website here.

In my chapter, “Building Blocks of Thought: LEGO and the Philosophy of Play” I discuss a number of ideas through LEGO, as well as some thoughts on LEGO itself.

LEGO, with its ethos of building and rebuilding, in many ways can be a helpful analogy for how philosophical thinking can lead us toward new connections between our thoughts and ideas. In that way, LEGO and philosophy invite us to question the nature of play — as well as what philosophy means to us in an everyday context. In the chapter I include a reminder that play and seriousness in philosophy needn’t be mutually exclusive. In fact, it can be more helpful to think of philosophy as “serious play.”

In other LEGO news, after a long search, the University of Cambridge has finally found its LEGO Professor! (via BBC: “Lego professor: Cambridge University hires ‘professor of play‘). You can even follow Professor Ramchandani on Twitter for his updates.

And here’s a good article in Philosophy Now, about the approach of using popular culture and philosophy: “Pop Culture ‘and Philosophy’ Books” by John Shelton Lawrence.

Senator Bernie Sanders at the Cambridge Union Society

Senator Bernie Sanders visited the Cambridge Union Society at Cambridge University this past week. Here’s a link to his full talk:

(I wish they could fix the white balance on the video — but the talk itself is quite worth watching).

Sanders covered a range of topics, including the recent news about the Paris Climate Agreement, healthcare in the U.S. compared to the U.K., oligarchy as one of the most serious threats to American democracy, and the parallels between the current state of American and British politics. He and his wife Jane were also made honorary members of the Cambridge Union.

bernie sanders Cambridge union
Senator Bernie Sanders at the Cambridge Union. For the full album from the Union, click on the image.

And I was quoted in this CNN article, written by @judithvonberg:

bernie sanders Cambridge university

Briefly noted: The Internet’s Favorite Book

Here’s a fun one, from Priceonomics: “What is the Internet’s Favorite Book?” Where does one even start with such a question? Perhaps the main caveat from the catchy title is to mention that this is one crowdsourced list specifically on rather than the whole Internet — short answer is that The Hunger Games books outpaces classics such as War and Peace by a large margin.

complete Calvin and Hobbes coverThe reason why I find this kind of thing interesting is that it surveys a large and diverse group of readers (albeit all users of the same online community), but this in itself gives perhaps insight into what might be the most collectively popular book right now. With an estimated 20 million users, GoodReads is as good a place to look as any that I can think of. This did get me thinking about what the internal calculus that goes into making a book your favorite book. Come to think of it, what if there were a Rotten Tomatoes-like aggregator of book reviews from curated sources? Wouldn’t that be neat?

Anyways, here’s where Priceonomics really delves into their exploration of the favorite books on GoodReads:

Rather than collect the rating for every single book, we chose to collect data on the ten most popular books by each of the 9,000 authors who appear on Goodreads’ Best Books Ever list – a list which is independent of user ratings and voted on by particularly active members. We ended up with a dataset of over 23,000 notable books.” 

The results? Calvin and Hobbes was way up there among favorite books, along with some more and less surprising findings: “the books people are most exuberant about include Calvin and Hobbes, manga and South American poetry. And if you want to read a classic blessed by both the critics and the Internet, you should pick up a novel by Robert Graves or Vladimir Nabokov—and avoid James Joyce like the plague.”

list of internet's favorite books
Click on the image for more details

There’s a lot of interesting tidbits on the Priceonomics site, including Favorite Authors, Most Liked Classic Books, and The Worst Books of All Time. My favorite question, which is definitely worth further exploration, is their comparison of book popularity vs. user rating: how much does popularity correlate to positive reviews?

I wonder in general how such rankings will in turn influence other future book discovery and lead to further favorite book rankings. What might such a list look like in five years, or ten years? Plus, I have always had a fascination with book lists because they are fun to debate (and sometimes, even lists of book lists — see Book Riot’s “The 10 Best Top 100 Book Lists“).

For a totally different approach to the question, here’s a 2012 list via The Guardian: “The top 100 bestselling books of all time“* (spoiler: The Da Vinci Code was #1, followed by basically all of the Harry Potter books).

*edit: UK sales

Will Lit Hub’s Book Marks Become the “Rotten Tomatoes” for Book Reviews?

book marks rotten tomatoes for books

I just recently learned about Lit Hub’s Book Marks, and personally think a successful book review aggregator is long overdue. From Salon, “Rotten Tomatoes, but for books: Old-school book critics get boost from new Book Marks site“:

“Book Marks collects reviews from The New York Times, The New Republic, and other (mostly) old guard publications … Whatever the flaws of old-school book reviewing for newspaper and magazines, critics are typically kept honest. A print book reviewer might be boring, but it’s hard for her to get very far if she is dishonest or corrupt.”

The Salon piece linked above does a good job of weighing the pros and cons of how the Book Marks approach might risk drawing the ire of media traditionalists on the one side as well as the more online book community populists on the either side. However, I do like what I see from Book Marks so far.

When you go to the LitHub Book Marks site, the Most Talked About Books category is a good place to start, and clicking a book brings you something like this:

book marks review

I like the simple interface and clean design (and prefer it over what you find at One thing I noticed is that you tend to see the same sources for book reviews again and again — they are good sources after all, but variety can also be a good thing. The Similar Books feature at the bottom of the page has a lot of potential for improvement.

book marks discovery

Book Marks is exactly the kind of site that would benefit from robust book discovery features. From the books that I’ve browsed so far, the recommendations are good, but can be better. The serendipity of book discovery is a secret sauce that I personally think nobody outside of Amazon has done especially well with.

People will debate the merits of this kind of aggregation approach to book reviews, and that debate is a healthy thing. Via Flavorwire (“Now There’s a Rotten Tomatoes for Books, and It’s Called Book Marks“) quoting the Lit Hub folks: “We understand it is difficult to summarize the nuance and complexity of a review into a letter grade … But we believe that Book Marks will lead more readers to reviews, and amplify critics’ voices.”

Now, we’ve definitely heard about this kind of thing before. Whether this site reaches that critical mass of users it needs to survive in the long run will remain to be seen, but so far I love the concept and hope this continues to be a thing. More options for book reviews online is something we should all want in the longterm. Certainly Amazon reviews have become a major point of entry for how we discover books — but that has become a topic of great controversy in recent years (for more on that topic, and perhaps take some of this with a mineral lick-sized grain of salt, but this was somewhat eyebrow-raising, via “I Get Paid to Write Fake Reviews For Amazon“).

Surveys: Kids (and adults) still prefer printed books over e-books


Scholastic survey: kids prefer print books
Click image for the full Scholastic survey.
At one point, it seemed almost inevitable that e-books were going to replace printed books. But, inevitability is a funny thing. What can seem so obvious while change is rapidly happening can seem so far-fetched in hindsight. The past calendar year or so has seen an intriguing turn of events where the rapid ascent of e-books first plateaued, and then gave way to a renewed popular preference of printed books.

What happened, exactly? Maybe it’s digital fatigue. Maybe it’s the book publishers’ fault, or the technology that hasn’t reached its fullest potential — or more than likely a combination of factors. Even the biggest publishers have been asking the same question (see, for example “Penguin Boss Admits Their Focus on e-books was an Error” via The Good e-Reader) and this is a topic we’ll delve into further in the near future.

Recently from Good E-Reader (“Kids love print, will they embrace eBooks later in life?“) the question was posed: “Are kids more likely to embrace e-books later in life, if they are reading print during their formative years?” We don’t know, we are mostly just guessing at this point but hopefully we can at least make more well-informed guesses.

About two-thirds of the students asked from two wide-ranging polls indicated that they prefer print to digital books. But is current preference a reliable predictor of future preference? Possibly not(check out Dan Gilbert’s excellent book, Stumbling Upon Happiness for more on the topic). Some organizations such as the UK-based National Literacy Trust have, based on their own extensive research on reading habits, recommended a sensible middle ground of a “mixed reading diet” of print and digital books.

pew research: print over ebooksMy opinion is that we are very unlikely to stop preferring print anytime soon. Print will continue to do what it does best. The more open question comes from the e-book side of things. The price of digital versions relative to their print counterparts continues to be a sticking point for many readers. Perhaps the technology of e-reading devices changes to get over the objections of why we prefer print over e-books. Perhaps navigation improves, the tactile experience somehow more closely approximates the printed book experience — or maybe not.

The recent Pew Research Center findings (see: Book Reading 2016): “Nearly four-in-ten Americans read print books exclusively; just 6% are digital-only book readers,” was surprising even to me how much it skewed in favor of print books. If you visit their report, yes, it might look like a lot of numbers and graphs — but the overall picture is that the question of reading trends continues to be a very open question that is far from resolved.

How we can read more books (hint: spend less time on social media)

how many books have you readMost of us probably wish we could read more books. Or maybe not and I’m simply projecting my own desires on an implied blog reader audience. Either way, we know definitively that reading books is time well spent (for one example, The Atlantic: “More Scientific Evidence That Reading is Good For You“).

A recent article title caught my attention, via Quartz: “In the time you spend on social media each year, you could read 200 books.” It alludes to, amongst other things, Warren Buffet’s well-known reading habits of 500 pages a day. That being said, quality still counts for more than quantity — if we’re going to read more books, we should darn well enjoy them. We have to want to read more books that we think are worth reading, not just because some guy on the internet says you ‘should.’ With all of our competing distractions, reading more books is difficult — but far from impossible.

Some of the Quartz article tends to oversimplify, but the truth is that reading more books is a matter of personal choice (“We have all the time we need. The scary part—the part we all ignore—is that we are too addicted, too weak, and too distracted to do what we all know is important“).

What caught my attention is that they even did a math breakdown:

“First, let’s look at two quick statistics:

  • Simpsons read man The average American reads 200–400 words per minute (Since you’re on Medium, I’m going to assume you read 400 wpm like me)
  • Typical non-fiction books have ~50,000 words

Now, all we need are some quick calculations…

  • 200 books * 50,000 words/book = 10 million words
  • 10 million words/400 wpm = 25,000 minutes
  • 25,000 minutes/60 = 417 hours

That’s all there is to it. To read 200 books, simply spend 417 hours a year reading.”

The short answer is that with the average 608 hours we spend on social media per year, we could easily be reading more books. But knowing and doing tend to be widely different things. I do enjoy articles like this as reminders that perhaps we can tweak our daily habits to get more meaningful enjoyment out of our waking hours.

read lots of books

If you want a quick way to jumpstart your new reading habit, I recommend Zen Habits: “The Delightfully Short Guide to Reading More Books.”

Also worth a look is this one from the Harvard Business Review, “8 Ways to Read (a Lot) More Books This Year” — some of the tips are more obvious (read somewhere away from distractions like TV; use a commitment device; read physical books) than others (be ok with quitting boring books; use the 10,000 steps rule).

And lastly, if you want to feel more insecure about your own reading habits, check out this one from the Los Angeles Times book blog: “How to read 462 books in a year

On The Distracted Life

distracted while readingDistraction is a funny thing, we know it well and encounter it regularly in our daily life, but the more we think about it, the more slippery it becomes as a concept. There’s a good essay from The New Yorker which waxes philosophical on the distracted life: “A New Theory of Distraction.”

For one thing, we often define distraction in relation to attention:

“The modern world valorizes few things more than attention. It demands that we pay attention at school and at work; it punishes parents for being inattentive; it urges us to be mindful about money, food, and fitness; it celebrates people who command others’ attention.”

In the online world where there is more of everything than we can possibly focus on all at once, attention is the currency of the digital era. Distraction can be a liberation from boredom, or a way of upending a power dynamic by ‘wasting time’ on something that we freely choose to do rather than what we ‘should’ be doing. If we are so inclined, the question of distraction is also existential:

“Life often seems to be ‘about’ paying attention—and the general trend seems to be toward an ever more attentive way of life. Behind the crisis of distraction, in short, there is what amounts to a crisis of attention: the more valuable and in demand attention becomes, the more problematic even innocuous distractions seem to be … Getting distracted, from this perspective, is like falling asleep. It’s like hitting pause on selfhood.”

I wouldn’t go that far, and perhaps distraction has beneficial effects. Some research suggests that a little bit of mind wandering can be good for our creative brains, after all. The excellent recent book by Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen (The Distracted Mind, MIT Press 2016) probes deeper into what happens in our brains while we are living the distracted life; especially interesting are the distinctions they draw between internal distractions and external interruptions.

new phone distraction

At times it really does seem like distraction is an unavoidable part of our digital lives. History can be informative in this regard — Jonathan Crary’s book focuses on the role of modernity and our changing relation to attention and distraction: Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle and Modern Culture.

louis ck cell phonesThe New Yorker article linked above also mentions the semi-infamous Louis C.K. rant (for more on that: Business Insider, “Louis C.K. rants about ‘toxic’ cell phones distracting people from feeling sadness“): “You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something, that’s what the phones are taking away — the ability to just sit there.”

Personally, I think Louis C.K. is on to something with that. Cultivating the ability to be with boredom can be a good thing.

For more on that the topic, you’ll definitely want to check out this thoughtful piece from Brainpickings: “In Defense of Boredom: 200 Years of Ideas on the Virtues of Not-Doing from Some of Humanity’s Greatest Minds

Also, I had seven browser tabs open while writing this (but only checked email once, honest).