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Leadership

Duke's Cathy Davidson Is Fixing The Future Of Distraction

Cathy Davidson thinks the time has come to reassess our approach ... to everything.

Davidson is a professor at Duke University, a dyslexic, and a geek: The combination has made her a savvy, realistic, and observant critic of today’s technoculture. | Photograph by Adam Golfer

SOMEONE HAS PROBABLY sent you a link to this YouTube video: A basketball team dressed in white is playing another dressed in black. You're asked to count the number of passes the white team makes in 30 seconds. The correct answer is 15, but that's not the point. According to the psychologists who created the video as an experiment on "inattentional blindness," about 50% of viewers are trying so hard to count the passes that they fail to notice the gorilla who strolls on-screen and beats his chest.

Cathy Davidson spotted the gorilla but only because, as a dyslexic, she gave up immediately on trying to count the tosses. That shock of seeing what others missed became the germ of her remarkable new book, Now You See It, which offers a fresh and reassuring perspective on how to manage anxieties about the bewildering pace of technological change: "Distraction is your friend," she says.

Davidson is a Duke University English professor, part of a tribe that's not known for embracing the future. But she is a cofounder of HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory), an international network of academics inspired by new technology, which administers the annual Digital Media and Learning competition with the MacArthur Foundation. Davidson believes that true conceptual innovation is needed to reinvent our homes, schools, and workplaces for the demands of the digital age. She calls her approach "technopragmatism," or "technorealism."

"It's idiotic to think that technology is going to solve every problem," she tells me over a salad and iced coffee at Payard French Bakery in New York's Greenwich Village. On the other hand, "it's nostalgia of the most superficial, mindless kind to think a generation is being ruined by technology and we can never go back to something wonderful—as if the neoliberal global capitalism of the TV era were the apex of human endeavor."

It's a bracing perspective: Jettison the old criteria and stop comparing the future only with the past. Fifteen years into the commercialization of the Internet, with people coming of age who don't remember anything different, Davidson argues that we're at the perfect moment to begin reimagining our institutions and developing practices to deal with the onslaught of information, the reality of constant connectedness, and the challenges of global collaboration. We need to scrap the legacies of industrialism, everything from clock punching and rigid rules to SATs and HR departments. Instead, start celebrating "collaboration by difference"—every team needs some people to count the passes and others to spot the gorilla. Manage your relationship with technology by scheduling offline "planned interruptions." And be mindful of which conversations need to take place in person or over the phone versus on email or text.

"Institutions like work and school didn't spring naturally out of the ground. They were invented for the industrial era and honed over 120 years," Davidson says. "Individuals and certain companies have started to develop new practices, but conceptually we haven't even made a shift to say, 'Whoa, this is so new. We need to pay attention and adjust supportively.'"

Which returns us (where was I?) to distraction. "Going all the way back to Socrates, attention is the problem people most become aware of when a new technology arises. There's no such thing as lack of distraction — we've always been filtering. But new technology puts stress on our old, automatic ways of paying attention.

Davidson isn't the first to point out that modern-day anxieties about texting tots have analogues in earlier centuries. But her work is the most powerful yet to insist that we can and should manage the impact of these changes in our lives. To suggest how, she draws on a dramatic moment in her own life: "Here we were on Capri, one of the most beautiful places in the world, with my friend Diego, an art collector who discovered Basquiat. He and [Davidson's partner] Ken are bobbing in the water below me, they're waving, and I decide to go down the ladder and the next thing I know, my whole life has changed. I fell this far" — she indicates about 10 inches — "from one rung to the next rung, and in the process, my arm got caught twice. There was a doctor behind me who said it was like wringing a chicken neck." In the book, Davidson tells the story of her extensive arm rehab, which includes a fascinating insight from her physical therapist, who found that her patients who sustained injuries toward the end of a decade in their lives — at 29, 39, even 69 — tended to recover more quickly and completely than those who had just passed that milestone, who felt too old. Davidson, then in her early fifties, was determined to be an exception. "What was very interesting was how little relationship there was in rehab between physical damage and healing. Much more important was attitude — not some goofy optimistic thing, but almost some kind of stubbornness about possibility," she says.

That very stubbornness is what Davidson models. Even as she works with her students to help rewrite the rules, she's not going to let people of her own generation off the hook for turning their backs on the new reality. "When I hear from those 40-year-old, 50- year-old Luddites, I'm thinking, What else is wrong in your life that you have to make such a wall? If you're that worried about distraction, something else is going on."

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A version of this article appeared in the July/August 2011 issue of Fast Company magazine.

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