The Allure of Choice

In the modern, digital age we are presented with many different facilities and opportunities to access information and participate in its flow on the internet. With an abundance of hardware  to access this information on, and even more different software platforms to interact with, this dilutes our focus from any one particular task or source of entertainment and instead fractures it across many.

I, for example, am writing this on my desktop computer while my phone charging next to me. There’s a pleasing blue light blinking seductively, telling me that someone, somewhere, has reached out to me. Maybe it’s just to say hi, or maybe it’s a long-lost sibling desperate to make contact. The point is, I will never know until I observe myself and I feel a deep compulsion to quickly shift to that medium. At the expense of physics students telling me I woefully misunderstand; this is a classic Schrodinger’s Smart-Phone-Notification thought experiment.


Soon my pretty…

To observe this effect, I enlisted the help of my girlfriend to act as the subject and I simply observed how often she would switch between devices in the space of a few hours and record her saying why she had, but eventually she just notified me each time she had done so.

The results were expected of someone with her impressive work ethic. In the morning, there was the customary checking of Messenger which I’m sure many do; catching up with conversations that had continued without her over the night. After some time focusing on this one task, the multi-tasking began. She opened her ‘cat game’ and this occupied some of her attention while waiting for responses. This was expanded to additionally monitoring email and Facebook proper notifications.


The subject

After some time she also began work on her tablet by going on PDFs of lecture material, switching attention between this and her phone. At about midday, to avoid distraction she left her phone on a table away from her work desk. This is a worthwhile strategy I suspect, because she engages in periods of just work and then brief breaks ‘checking up’ with her phone. In a moment of weakness this dissolved though and the phone commanded her attention once again. During lunch, while watching TV, the phone presented a constantly accessible and distracting influence, splitting her attention between the two sources of entertainment with the laptop ready to go at a moment’s notice at the work table.


Not us, but you get the idea.

The Q&A abstract from a paper by York University on ‘Laptops as a classroom distraction’ suggests some potentially fruitful ideas which would be interesting to implement. Namely, laptop users sitting in rows behind those using traditional pen and paper to ensure their screens aren’t distracting anyone but themselves. The advisory members suggest a ‘no phones’ rule too, with the assumption they’re much more likely a distraction. I use a pen and paper with my phone as a research tool, so this would impede on my work ability.


Research by Google suggests that the use of multiple screens makes us feel more efficient and adaptable to challenges due to the ability to quickly switch devices. It also found that different activities tend to be delegated to specific devices as a form of ‘sequential screening’ (2012, p.2). This is conducive to my observations and testimony from my subject. What I got in addition to the observations was her reasoning for operating in the manner she did was justified by the use of specific devices for specific purposes.

  • Her phone is used as a communication tool primarily, used to talk to friends and group assignment members where necessary. It also is her main means of entertainment and distraction, so when it’s work time, she leaves it out of her reach and goes to her work desk to concentrate. Phone is the “free time device”.
  • Her tablet functions as a research and work companion. Out of necessity, and the fact that the WiFi receivers within it ‘is garbge anyway’, instant messaging isn’t a staple of her recreational tablet usage (not that she uses tablets recreationally, okay I’ll stop now). The tablet is brought to lectures and used to take notes on the downloaded PDFs, or similarly aiding her project work.
  • The laptop is the device where most of her work is done; programming and document creation mainly. Not used for entertainment, that is left to;
  • The TV. The primary source of entertainment, can be used in conjunction with the above.

These findings are congruent with Google’s; devices serve a particular purpose and can be switched to and from quick rapidly for different purposes with fluctuation levels of attention invested in each at any given time (p.15).

How did you conduct this task and what were your results? Let me know in the comments!


Hoffman, B 2013, ‘Nexus 4 notification LED’, photo, published on 25 March, 2013, viewed 29/9/16, <;

Colevile R, 2016, ‘Gen A’, photo, created 5 March 2016, viewed 29/9/16, <;

Sana F & Weston T & Wiseheart M, 2014, ‘Laptops hinder classroom learning for both users and nearby peers’, York University, updated 13 December, 2014, viewed 29/9/16

IPSOS 2012, ‘The New Multi-Screen World’, Google Inc., created August 2012, viewed 29/9/16, <;






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