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Is modern technology creating a culture of distraction?

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Are all the modern devices and digital conveniences we have at our disposal — from the web and social media to smartphones and tablets — making us more distracted and less able to concentrate? And is this harming our ability to think and be creative, and therefore by extension harming society as a whole? It’s a question that rears its head from time to time. One of the latest expressions of this fear comes from Joe Kraus, a serial entrepreneur who is now a partner with Google Ventures and gave a presentation recently about his concerns, offering an alternative concept he calls “Slow Tech.” But is this really something that we need to be afraid of?

In his presentation, Kraus argues that the incessant demands of cellphones and social media, not to mention email and other forms of distraction, are making it difficult for us to connect with other people — including our families — and also endangering our ability to think about anything other than the next jolt of stimulation from the devices we have all around us, which he compares to the constant stimulus of a slot machine at a casino. As he describes it:

We are creating and encouraging a culture of distraction where we are increasingly disconnected from the people and events around us, and increasingly unable to engage in long-form thinking. People now feel anxious when their brains are unstimulated.

We are losing some very important things by doing this. We threaten the key ingredients behind creativity and insight by filling up all our ‘gap’ time with stimulation. And we inhibit real human connection when we prioritize our phones over the people right in front of us.

Is multi-tasking just a myth?

Kraus says he has an “unhealthy relationship” with his phone and is constantly pulling it out to check things, and that if he lets it, that behaviour “fills up those gaps in my day — some gaps of boredom, some of solitude.” The effect of all of this, he argues, is that we are increasingly distracted, and less able to pay attention to anything for a reasonable length of time, and this distraction is a “worsening condition.” We may think that we are getting things accomplished or multi-tasking, he says, but brain studies show that multi-tasking is a myth, and in reality we are just trying to do too many things at once and overloading our brain’s ability to concentrate.

The Google Ventures partner and former co-founder of also quotes sociologist Dr. Sherry Turkle, to the effect that: “We are lonely but fearful of intimacy. Digital connections offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. We expect more from technology and less from each other.”
This explains the constant desire for virtual contact, Kraus says — and that contact gets in the way of real relationships.

Kraus is far from the only one to raise the warning flag about any of this: Turkle has written about how the internet doesn’t help form real relationships, but fosters a kind of fake intimacy. Nicholas Carr argues in his book The Shallows that the internet and social media are making us less intelligent — and less interesting — and are actually changing our brains in negative ways. Others have also written about how they are trying to minimize the distractions their phones provide in the way of notifications, and there are a host of apps to help you concentrate when you are using your computer.

I would be the first to agree that time without a phone or tablet is a valuable thing, and that it’s good to take long walks (or baths, the place where Archimedes famously discovered the law of hydrostatics) and think big thoughts. And I also wrestle — as Kraus does — with the desire to look at the phone during meals and other times when I am with my family. But is this really a social disaster waiting to happen? And is it changing us and our brains for the worse? I have my doubts about that, just as I have my doubts about Nick Carr’s argument that the internet is making us dumber and less interesting, or that Facebook or any other social network is making us lonely.

Distraction of all kinds can be good as well as bad

Is technology changing, and society along with it? Of course it is — but that doesn’t mean we are becoming worse in some way, or necessarily losing anything crucial. In fact, we are just as likely to be gaining as losing. When Carr made his argument about the distractions of the internet, I had just finished reading a piece that Paul Kedrosky wrote for The Edge collection, in which he argued that one of the things he liked best about the internet and social media was the way in which it bombarded him with random data and content — the way that molecules are bombarded with other particles during quantum research — and that this produced all sorts of wonderful combinations of ideas:

The democratization of connections, collisions and therefore thinking is historically unprecedented. We are the first generation to have the information equivalent of the Large Hadron Collider for ideas. And if that doesn’t change the way you think, nothing will.

Not everyone can consume (or make sense of) quite as many diverse information sources as Kedrosky can, but his point is a good one: the random information flow that we are bathed in when we are online or using social media and devices like smartphones can just as easily be a source of inspiration and creativity as a killer of those things. Why is looking out the window or going for a walk more conducive to reflection than browsing through a friend’s Tumblr stream? I am not against walks or daydreaming — but there are plenty of ways to daydream and think big thoughts, and the shower or the hiking trail is not the only place that happens.

Is there a need for moderation when it comes to phones or the internet or social media? Of course there is, and social norms are developing around those things, just as they developed around the horseless carriage and the telephone and plenty of other modern inventions. 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 — it’s called the book. If we can figure that out, I’m sure we can figure out how to handle cellphones and status updates.

24 Responses to “Is modern technology creating a culture of distraction?”

  1. Was at a John Fogerty concert last night and looked around. More people on their phones than watching intently. It was a new song no one cared about, but still distracted.

  2. Mark Bebout

    One is not automatically a Luddite simply because they are making observations about how technology is negatively changing human behavior. To call others’ names and dismiss objective reality is just a cowards way of killing a conversation that we need to be having.

    Americans have always been particularly susceptible of asking the wrong questions about technology. The question is really not simply how can a technology help me, but we need to be asking what is technology doing to us? This is a far more important question.

    If you are interested in one-mans take on our unquestioning love affair with technology, I highly recommend Neil Postmans “Technopoly”. Written over 20 years ago and it feels like it was written yesterday.

  3. Robin Gordon

    wow is this true! it is so scary what cell phones etc are doing to society. Wonder what effect it is having on marriages and frienshios in general

  4. lramesh

    A timely article. I feel that my phone is vibrating, even when it is not. I check my e-mails very often, just to see something new. While technology has been making things for us on one hand (including saving time), it is also distracting us and make us waste time on useless things.

  5. It does make a lot of sense to me that technology could become a distracting issue. In many cases it has become an addiction and we all know what addictions cause. I believe technology has helped in tremendous ways

  6. You’re right. We’ll figure out how to deal with the technology, which is advancing faster than we can change our behaviors. There will always be some percentage of the population that will become addicted to the latest technology craze. Expect that to happen. The rest of us will adjust and prosper.

  7. There’s a very clear generation gap when it comes to technology. Older people have already built the neuron connections to make it possible to live without this ‘technology stuff.’ Thomas Jefferson said that every generation needs a new revolution. This is ours. I can handle having a full conversation, take a few photos, and text 3 or 4 people at once before I start to hit my limit. Now this comes down to survival of the fittest in my mind. At risk of sounding cocky here, it will be people that can take advantage of all of the technology around us and still maintain the essential personal connections that the human mind requires who will be the future leaders. I almost go into a trance and allow my subconscious to take over when I have seemingly 100 things going on. I love it. I still have plenty of time while driving or laying in bed to think. And I still keep a pen and paper on my nightstand for when those nagging ideas pop up. And like Greg said, for those who can’t handle it, turn it off once in a while. Yes technology has it pros and cons. But what else are we going to do, stop innovating? Neh. Bring on the information overload.

  8. Haim At Iqtell

    It sounds pretty straight forward to me, the more tabs you’ve got open on your browser the less time you spend on a single window. Dividing your attention on several channels is never overly productive.

    If you’d like to find out more about focusing in a non-linear world you’re welcomed to check IQTELL’s productivity app and our Productivity blog.

    • But the concept of being ‘productive’ is different than it was before. At one point in history being productive was to go outside and tend your crops so that you can eat. Should we go back to that? The world is getting smaller, but the amount of ‘stuff’ going on is staying the same, or actually expanding. We all have to absorb information in a different way now I believe. People in general resist change, for reasons that blow my mind. We are afraid that we will go down a path that is harmful, and sometimes we do. But in very broad terms, humans have done alright so far.

  9. I’d simply call it “differently focused”. Distractibility has always been with us; we just have more of it now. We are simply learning to tune out and turn in with more around us.

  10. Greg Satell

    Funny enough, I just posted on this same thing. I don’t think that it’s just a Joe Kraus issue, it’s become quite fashionable lately to warn of the dangers of technology.

    I think what’s being missed is that technology is a choice. If it’s distracting you, turn it off! If you don’t like something, you don’t have to use it.

    The fact is that technology creates change and it’s natural, even advisable, that people worry whether it’s all for the good. However, it
    has made our lives better in very real, very quantifiable ways.

    If you want to check out the post you can find it here:

    – Greg

  11. refer to turkle’s quote above, and you’ll notice something conspicuously missing: substantiatiion.

    these claims, and similar ones she has made in outfits like the new york times, paint a manichean picture of the modern, digital landscape, which she dissects with mantra-like repetition. she leans on an argument along the lines of: Real Life Good, Augmented Life Bad.

    what her recent book, “alone together,” presents, is a serious of claims much like the ones in your article — they make for great sound bites, but lack reference or rigor. her book is like this in long form: pages of unannotated text scroll by without the indiscretion of a single footnote. at the end, one is left with the perception of having experienced a lengthy screed whose authority lies seemingly more in the extent of turkle’s fame and distinction, rather than in even the most sketal framework of scholarly empiricism.

    turkle is setting an unfortunate tone that is skewing and distorting the way the public thinks about technology. for further reading, check out mike masnick’s essay, which critiques turkle’s thesis that technology makes us lonely:

  12. Dave-in-Canada

    McLuhan was first to recognize the changing of our brains from contact with ever more sophisticated technologies. He suggested that when we put more of ourselves outside our bodies the lesser we become as a human/ person. The more of a person’s interests exist in some virtual space the less of a real life experience they will have. How hard is it for anyone to understand this?

    Our reliance on limbic resonance to regulate our social behavior dictates a need for balance between contact with real people (to resonate with) and contact over time and distance (communications devices). The displacement of human contact by machine interactions may be our biggest current challenge but it is not insurmountable if we just attend (pay attention to) it.

    Mindfulness is still a valuable unit of humanity.

    • McLuhan was by no means the first!

      With regard to technology in the modern era you’ll find all kinds of stuff about that around the time cinema and photography became big. The Frankfurt school are especially worth a look in -I think it was Walter Benjamin who properly theorised ‘distraction’ as used here. The essay is ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ or something to that effect.

  13. Joe Kraus is simply getting to be an older man and as with most people, the older they become the last adaptable they also become (though Joe would never admit this). If you were to rewind to the year 1997 when Kraus was at Excite, I doubt he would have felt the same way even though relatively speaking a lot of people who were older than him at that time were “mind boggled” about the Internet and would freak out about it (but Joe’s younger brain at that time didn’t freak out). Sorry Joe, you’re getting old.

    • Steady Eddie. You need to think before you dismiss a challenging idea that upsets the fanboy view of technological change. I fear innovation will become more and more incremental simply because people are losing their ability to stop, think and digest what an idea means. They graze and hop and believe their own publicity instead. Volume + distraction = thoughtless action => commoditization.

      • Brandon

        Where is your evidence that “people are losing their ability to stop, think and digest what an idea means.” I suspect this is based on your own narrow views (narrow in the sense that everyone’s view is narrow, not specifically yours). The same things were said during the rise of the Mtv generation. It’s mostly unfounded, and is probably just more noticeable due to the increased information sharing that is being attacked.