Yesterday I realized that I have been reading the same book on my iPad for the past five weeks. David Grossman’s To the End of the Land is a book I would have ordinarily completed in five days, not five weeks. I haven’t urgently consumed any books since I began reading them on my iPad.

It’s not an electronic thing. I wasn’t sluggish with my Kindle reader. When I had it, I moved through books with pace.

This is an iPad thing, too much of a good thing, where I am distracted by an experience that is immediate, rich, and seductively pretty.

The curse of choice

Here is how it works for me. I return from the gym and decide to read my book. I open up the iPad, but a few minutes later I tap the email icon. After that, I devote twenty minutes to Words with Friends, a Scrabblesque experience in the cloud. I return to the Grossman book, but find myself wondering what’s happening in Libya and at Padres Spring Training. Off to Twitter and the New York Times.

It’s been thirty minutes and my internal clock is hungering for email. Once there, I see that a friend has pointed me to a short video about a hapless young Brit who wants to be a pilot. His unlikely career ladder starts in fast food sales, supported by on the job coaching, all fueled by his pilot dream. I send the video with a comment to one of my clients, who points me to the next video in the aspiring pilot’s saga. He has earned a promotion.

Back to Grossman’s book. Ten minutes into my reading, I realize I don’t know how the market is performing today. While on the Fidelity site, I am reminded that there might be benefits to converting to a Roth IRA. Two minutes on that topic and my eyes have glazed over.

Back to the Grossman book and, with Pandora in the background, I enjoy it for nearly twenty minutes before I remember that my eight opponents on Words with Friends might be waiting for me to make my moves. Now it feels like it is time to check email again. But wait, there’s that app that will allow me to look more closely at what Annette Bening was wearing at the Academy Awards. The visuals are so vivid that I can almost feel the fabric on the dress.

Oh, and has Qaddafi fallen yet? Better check. Twitter again. Does NPR have anything relevant? What about Newser, with its scary tag line: READ LESS, KNOW MORE.

We need great design more than ever

Obviously, I like my iPad. But is it good for me? Will it be good for students in schools, salespeople in companies, and analysts in government?

It has encouraged me to be more like a hummingbird than a woodpecker, as it fuels every inclination I have towards impatience and skimming. The Allison with a history for digging into books and topics is distracted daily by fleeting matters. With the iPad in my life, I am more engaged in consumption than production.

If I am behaving more like a hummingbird than a woodpecker, what of the elementary school children who are handed iPads and encouraged to feast? I’ve seen articles and postings about at-risk youth, sales people, rural children, inner city boys, engineers, and medical students whose performance will surely improve when the iPad is introduced into their lives. Just this morning, the day after the introduction of the iPad 2, Fast Company touts how the iPad 2 will revolutionize education. Those are their exact words — with promises of benefits from the Detroit schools to dull lecture halls.

Little of this goodness will happen automatically, not without great design and a deft touch. As seen in one day in my life, it’s easy for iPad speed, beauty, reach and options to turn into an attractive nuisance. Choice is good, too many choices is just that, too many choices. How will we leverage these abundant strengths while laying down guard rails?