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Distracted July 3, 2008

Posted by Andre Vellino in Collaborative filtering, Digital library, Information retrieval, Recommender service.

I heard journalist Maggie Jackson this morning speaking on the radio about her new book. Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age.

Despite our wondrous technologies and scientific advances, we are nurturing a culture of diffusion, fragmentation, and detachment. In this new world, something crucial is missing–attention. Attention is the key to recapturing our ability to reconnect, reflect, and relax; the secret to coping with a mobile, multitasking, virtual world that isn’t going to slow down or get simpler. Attention can keep us grounded and focused–not diffused and fragmented.

The Wall Street Journal review of the book relates that:

In the end, Ms. Jackson makes her way to a Buddhist monastery, where people are learning to practice samatha – that is, to exercise voluntary control over their attention. Mountain retreats may not be for everyone, but the spirit of such an effort makes obvious sense in an era of information glut and tech-driven interruptions. Of course, if samatha – or something like it – turns out to be a good idea, it will be blogged about, praised in group emails, discussed online and debated in instant messages. Work will just have to wait.

So the answer to information overload may be to practice Buddhist meditation.

Alternatively, you could go for the “technology fix”.  On the same radio show they interviewed Jon Herlocker, one of the founders of Smart Desktop, an outgrowth of his research on TaskTracer. Jon comes from the world of Collaborative Filtering – he founded the music recommender Music Strands (now MyStrands) and has also worked on recommending documents in a digital library.

Which do you think is more likely to work?


1. Daniel Lemire - July 3, 2008

I was not aware that Jon had moved out of collaborative filtering, and into pretty applied stuff. Good. Good.

I like daring applied research.

2. Peter Turney - July 7, 2008

The name “TaskTracer” caught my attention, but it wasn’t what I expected. I thought it would be a tool that would tell you how much time you spent doing various activities on your computer, such as web surfing, emailing, writing reports, making presentations, writing programs, debugging programs, and so on. That would be useful to help people be more productive. If I was told, “You spent 7 hours today reading and writing email and 1 hour writing and debugging code,” then I would not be able to fool myself about how productive I was. (Of course, that’s not the kind of tool you want to get into the hands of a manager.)

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