The gist of the book Guns of the South is straightforward yet odd. What if, during the Civil War, the South became equipped with a lot of AK-47s? Long story very short, they would have won. Handily. The author, Harry Turtledove, chose not to focus on time travel or other delectable science fiction tidbits; he spends the time on, “Yay! The South won! So, uh, what are they going to do about that whole slavery thing?”
While I’m certain Civil War enthusiasts would enjoy this book, it is not geared for someone with my particular disability: nerd attention deficiency disorder, or NADD. While I read this book, this innocuous condition reared its head when it became clear that it was an in-depth exploration of the lifestyles and morality during an alternative post–Civil War period … ZzZzZzzZZzz.
Now, Guns is a fine read, but more than once I was flipping ahead through the pages wondering, “OK, how long is this chapter?” When I neared the end of the book and it became clear that some time traveler from the future wasn’t going to appear and, using some whizbang futuristic device, join the North and South together, well, I was disappointed. Sure, I’m happy that President Lee learned his lesson and started abolishing slavery on his own, but … no lasers? Please.
Folks, I’m a nerd. I need rapid-fire content delivered in short, clever, punchy phrases. Give me Coupland, give me Calvin and Hobbes, give me Asimov, give me the Watchmen. I need this type of content because I’m horribly afflicted with NADD.
If you’re still with me, it might mean you also suffer from some type of NADD-related disorder. Let’s find out.
Stop reading this book right now and walk over to your desktop. How many things were you doing when you were last there? Me, I’ve got Slack opened and logged into four different teams, I’m listening to music in Spotify, I’ve got Chrome open with three tabs where I’m watching stocks on E*TRADE, I’m tinkering with WordPress, and I’m looking at weekend movie returns. Not done yet. I’ve got iMessage open, Tweetbot is merrily streaming the latest fortune cookies from friends, and I’ve got two Sublime windows open where I’m capturing random thoughts for later integration into various to-do lists. Oh yeah, I’m rewriting this article as well.
Folks, this isn’t multitasking. This is an advanced case of nerd attention deficiency disorder. I am unable to function at my desktop unless I’ve got at least five tasks going on at the same time. If your count comes close, you’re probably afflicted as well. Most excellent.
A Nerd Diagnosis
My mother first helped diagnose me with NADD. It was the late 1980s and she was bringing me dinner in my bedroom (nerd). I was merrily typing away to my friends in some primitive chat room on my IBM XT (super nerd), listening to music (probably Flock of Seagulls—nerd++), and watching Back to the Future with the sound off (nerrrrrrrrrrd). She commented, “How can you focus on anything with all this stuff going on?” I responded, “Mom, I can’t focus without all this noise.”
The existence and amount of NADD in your life is directly related to how you’ve chosen to deal with the media deluge that has accompanied our insatiable thirst for new technology. You’ve likely gone one of three ways:
- You’ve checked out. You don’t own a TV, and it’s unlikely you’re even reading this chapter.
You enjoy your content in moderation. When I asked you to count the windows on your desktop, you either said, “One, my mail client, to read my incoming e-mail,” or you made yourself a note to check this after reading this chapter. You probably own a day planner, which you can touch from where you are sitting right now.
You surf the content fire hose. Give me tabbed browsing, tabbed instant messaging, music all the time, and TWITTER TWITTER TWITTER. Welcome to NADD.
The presence of NADD in your friends is equally easily detectable. Here’s a simple test: Ask to sit down at their computer and start mucking with stuff on their desktop. Move an icon here, adjust a window there. If your friend calmly watches as you tinker away, they’re probably NADD-free. However, if your friend is anxiously rubbing their forehead and climbing out of their skin when you move that icon 12 pixels to the right, there’s NADD in the house. Back away from the computer.
The Context Switch
You may think the core competency behind NADD is multitasking—and it’s true, NADD sufferers are amazing multitaskers—but it isn’t their fundamental skill. It’s the context switch.
The idea of the context switch is key to understanding NADD, and it’s a simple concept. In order to focus on something, you need to spend time and energy to get your brain in the right mental state. Think about your Sunday morning reading of the New York Times. You’ve got your coffee, your comfortable pajamas, your couch, and you’ve got whatever story it is that you’re reading. All of this is your context.
Now, halfway through your current story, I’m going to rip the paper from your hands and turn on CNN, which happens to be running exactly the same story that you were
What. The hell. Just happened?
You just experienced a context switch. It’s not a horrible one, since you’re luckily experiencing the same story; it’s just in a different medium—TV talking heads with that annoying scrolling news bar at the bottom of the screen.
Still, it’s jarring, right? Forget about why I’m yanking the paper from your hands—I’m talking about the mental shift from reading a story to watching it. It takes time to switch. For you. A healthy NADD sufferer would barely notice the switch. In fact, chances are that they’re already digesting their news via random different media right this second.
What separates a NADD sufferer from everyone else is that the context switch is transparent. The mental muscle that drives the context switch is well developed because it’s spent a lifetime switching between random streams of data, trying to make sense of a colossal amount of noise to hear what is relevant.
Anyone can multitask. NADD sufferers multitask with deft purpose. They’re on a quest of high-speed information acquisition and processing.
I’m making NADD sound like a trait of information-obsessive power freaks, and, well, it is. How else can you deal with a world where media is forced on you at you at every turn? You become very adept at controlling it. There’s more good news.
Folks who are not afflicted with NADD think those who are can’t focus because—look at us—we’re all over the place. Please stop clicking on things—you are giving me a headache. Wrong. Those with NADD have an amazing ability to focus when they choose to. Granted, it’s not our natural state, and yes, it can take us longer than some to get in the Zone, but when we’re there — boy howdy.
The Internet is designed for NADD. Whether it’s the short delicious bursts of information that comprise each of your newsfeeds or the exponentially increasing apps that just want a smidge of your time, the Internet knows about NADD. It knows that any good website or application must be designed not to answer the question “Do you want to learn” but rather “How long do I have your attention?”
NADD can advance your career, if you’re in the right career. Ever worked at a startup? Ever shipped software? What are the last few weeks like? We call it a fire drill because everyone is running around like a crazy person doing random, unexpected shit. NADD is the perfect affliction for managing this situation because it’s an affliction that reduces the cost of the context switch.
If the building you are currently in is burning to the ground, go find the person with NADD on your floor. Not only will they know where the fire escape is, they’ll probably have some helpful tips about how to avoid smoke inhalation, as well as a vast array of likely probabilities regarding survival rates in multistory building fires. How is it that this junior software engineer knows all this? Who knows, maybe he read it on a Wikipedia two years ago. Perhaps a close virtual friend of his in New York is a firefighter. Does it matter? He may save your life, or, more likely, keep you well informed with useless facts before you are burned to a crisp.
I’m making NADD sound like a rosy affliction. There are downsides.
First, it’s a lot of work to figure out your personal regimen of digesting the world, and, sorry, you are going to miss things. This will annoy you, but it will also drive you incessantly to look for the next big thing.
Second, you’re going to sound like a know-it-all. Try not to. Most people don’t actually know that much random trivia, useless info, obscure facts, assorted news, current events, and complex mathematical formulas. These people are happy without it, and simply because you’re brimming with the latest and greatest information doesn’t mean that everyone is going to want to hear about it.
You’re not going to have much patience with those who have not chosen a NADD-like life. Occasionally, you’ll attempt to impart your fractured wisdom, only to throw your hands up four minutes later when it’s clear, “Crap, they just don’t get it.” Chances are, they might’ve gotten it, and you’re just afflicted with a disease where your attention span is that of a second grader.
Whether you’re afflicted with NADD or not, you need to understand one thing. It’s not going away. The generation that invented NADD in the 1980s and 1990s has been replaced by the generation that never knew a world without it, and they’re going to be annoying in their own unique way.