18 July 2012

We’re creating a culture of distraction

Joe Kraus, a Silicon Valley dude on a very high level, angel investor, serial entrepreneur, decries our culture of distraction. (You can read a transcript of his talk here).

The entire speech is worthwhile, but particularly the point he makes at the end:

Imagine the world 10 years from now. My third grader will be graduating high school. What does that world look like? I’d guess that it’s going to be more fast paced than ever. That people are going to be even more distracted, even more unable to pay attention to things for any length of time. Even less able to tolerate boredom. Even less able to pay attention to one another.
Now imagine your own child in stark contrast to that culture of distraction. Technically literate, but also balanced. A calmer presence. Not distracted. Not constantly seeking out mindless stimulation. An ability to make real human connection by not signaling that there might be something better on his smartphone to look at. An ability to pay attention to a problem for a long time.
I believe that the biggest gift we can impart on our kids is the ability to be mindful – to pay attention to the things and to the people that are actually around them. In 10 years, that’s going to feel VERY VERY different than the norm.
Have you noticed that it's no longer only Humanities majors and Luddites that are worried about the mental and emotional world we've made for ourselves? Lately, the techies and the engineers are warning us, too. The New York Times a few months back ran this article about how Silicon Valley honchos are educating their children.

No computers allowed. An elite that's closest to the tools and structure of the media environment who, when it comes to their own children, ensure that their kids aren't overexposed to its toxic effects.

For me, the realization that I needed to address my need to suck on the big electronic tit has been building for a long time. My attention span is shredded. I tend to fall into a new state, that of boredom and restlessness quite easily. It takes real effort to read actual books with 19th century sentences. Work that I don't remember having to devote before when I seemed to simply read.

I've lost a lot. I notice it most painfully when my attention drifts away from people I care about.

I'm not alone. People, mostly over 25, fret about this or joke about it a lot. They worry about their twitchiness, about the nagging impulse to Check On Something. A few practice media Sabbaths, a whole day away from electronic media.

Unfortunately, you can't just give it up, in the way you could -- theoretically, at least -- smoking or sugar or alcohol. Unless you're rich or a celebrity, you can't hire a cyber serf to do you online chores and connecting for you. You have to be online. People need to reach you on a cell. And, I like my mobile phone. I love that it can take pictures and 1080p HD video and tell me the weather and so on.

But, as the man said, you pay for what you get. I've paid in hours of time lost to . . . what? I can't tell you. I can hardly tell you what I read online last week. A few things stick with you, but the rest?  So, time lost and attention wasted, two of the more precious elements of life, drained away.

My plan is to follow up on some advice that I keep seeing repeated by some smart people. I'll start with the media Sabbath practice. That seems practical and appealing. I'll keep the computer off in the evenings and devote the time to reading some challenging books instead. If I go online, I'm going to practice staying on task, and I'll use the app Freedom when I'm writing or cutting video or messing around in Photoshop. I'm also going to get back on the mat and start meditating again, even though I feel like a New Age fool for saying so.

I have a feeling that this will be a struggle for the rest of my life, sort of like staying off tobacco, but it's time. It's past time.


  1. Returned yesterday from a four day vacation. Respite from the internet was a highlight. Back home it's very easy to get re-absorbed into the screen.

    Paul Graham has written that he avoids owning an iPhone in order to prevent the internet from following him. Those concerns resonate. When I must work, I seek sanctuary from the web: often visiting establishments with no wi-fi. Even minus a smartphone, I spend far too much time online, multiple windows open, disengaged and not really focusing on any single task.

    I suspect we'll see more and more business advertising no wi-fi as a means to attract clientele trying to come in from the web.

    1. Yes -- we've come full circle on wi-fi. Once it was a draw, now it's a nuisance. Maybe we'll have digital cones of silence soon as well. I'd be happy to rent one.