I had a few minor attacks of phantom mobile phone vibrations, aka “ringxiety,” which research suggests afflicts at least 70 percent of us. By far the biggest obstacle to my experiment was the fact that the Web and e-mail are simultaneously sources of distraction and a vital tool: It is no use blocking the Internet to work when you need the Internet for work.
Still, the overall result was more calmness and a clear sense that I had gained purchase on my own mind: I was using it more than it was using me. I could jump online to look something up and then — this is the crucial bit — jump off again. For example, after a few 90-minute stretches of Weblessness I found myself not itching to get back online, but bored by the prospect. I started engaging in highly atypical behaviors, such as going for a walk, instead.
All this talk of the Internet as a black hole of distraction and compulsion provokes spluttering scorn from certain technology evangelists, who like to note that similar complaints have accompanied almost every new medium in history. Erasmus worried that the printing press would damage scholarship. Socrates, in Plato’s Phaedrus, argued that the invention of writing meant people would “cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful.”
It seems likely we will get over Internet distraction soon enough.
“One of the devices that has historically drawn the most criticism from scholars and theologians for its corrupting effect on humanity seems to have worked out pretty well,” the commentator Mathew Ingram wrote at the technology site GigaOM. “It is called the book. If we can figure that out, I’m sure we can figure out how to handle cellphones and status updates.”
According to the advocates of conscious computing, though, none of this quite gets at the point. We can all agree that Facebook and smartphones are not the first ever examples of “cognitive entanglement,” Pang’s term for the way we use technology as extensions of our own minds.
Writing things in a notebook is entanglement; so is using a library or a fixed telephone line or sending a postcard or a smoke signal.
“Entanglement is nothing new or revolutionary,” Pang wrote. “It’s what makes us human.”
The problem is not that we have suddenly started depending on technology, but that the technology we are depending on is poorly designed, too often focused on making money for its creators at its users’ expense.
Undoubtedly, we will one day figure out how to handle cellphones and status updates without the accompanying distraction and compulsion. However, that does not mean the distraction and compulsion are not a problem right now — or that it might not be wise to find ways of adapting more rapidly.
After all, distraction — as the Australian philosopher Damon Young says in his book of that name — is not just a minor irritant. It is a serious philosophical problem: What you focus on, hour by hour, day after day, ends up comprising your whole life.
“To be diverted isn’t simply to have too many stimuli but to be confused about what to attend to and why,” Young writes. “Distraction is the very opposite of emancipation: failing to see what is worthwhile in life, and lacking the wherewithal to seek it.”