Distracted from What?

Via Alan Jacobs, I came across an essay by Frank Furedi titled, “Age of Distraction: Why the idea digital devices are destroying our concentration and memory is a myth.”

One would expect that an essay so titled would go on to demonstrate by carefully reasoned arguments and by the deployment of relevant evidence that the claim in question was indeed a myth. One would be disappointed.

“If all the recent reports of memory loss and diminishing attention spans are to be believed,” Furedi notes sardonically, “it is unlikely that you will get to the end of this essay.” Perhaps he was banking on it and hoping you would simply take him at his word.

Furedi opens by acknowledging that every time he meets with educators, he is invariably confronted with the lament that we live in an age of distraction. In paragraph after subsequent paragraph, Furedi references study after study that appear to confirm the educators’ fears. He then references a spate of recent books that raise similar concerns about our use of digital devices. It’s a curious rhetorical strategy. The attentive reader may be forgiven for thinking that maybe the title was an error perpetrated by a careless editor. More likely, of course, we suspect that we are being set up. Furedi will surely show us why all of this evidence and each of these critics should be dismissed.

He does not. Rather, he merely asserts that new technology is “unlikely” to be the cause of our disordered attention:

Whatever one makes of the current claims about the effects of our supposed Age of Distraction, it should be evident that their cause is unlikely to be the workings of new technology. The experience of the past indicates that most of the troubles attributed to the internet and digital technology have served as topics of concern in previous centuries. Contributions on the current challenges facing readers recycle an age-old mantra that there is too much choice, too much information and too much change. It is far more likely that our current predicament is not the availability of powerful and exciting new technologies of communication, but an uncertainty about what to communicate.

Jacobs, who has written a little gem of a book bearing the title The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, rightly skewered Furedi:

Furedi does not offer any evidence for what he belives is the “far more likely” explanation for “our current predicament.” He just says that his view is more likely. He does not explain what he thinks “our current predicament” is. He disbelieves the studies suggesting that human concentration and memory are affected by the use of digital devices, but he does not say why he disbelieves them: he offers no reasons for doubting their conclusions. He notes that rhetorically similar comments have been made about other technologies in the past, but does not inquire whether those earlier comments were right or wrong, nor does he explain how critiques of some past technologies are relevant to the assessment of other technologies today. He has written a good many words here without showing any curosity about the truth, and without providing evidence to support a single one of his claims. Perhaps he was too distracted to do the job properly.

Insofar as there is any kind of argument in Furedi’s essay, it is this: “The truth is, 21st century society may fear distraction and that our attention span is diminishing, but so did our ancestors.” So what? Even if we were to establish that prior concerns were indeed meaningfully analogous, what exactly would this prove?

I’ve commented on this non-argument a time or two because it occurs so frequently in discussions about technology, frequently enough to qualify as a Borg Complex symptom and as the second bit of unsolicited advice I’ve offered to tech writers: “Do not cite apparent historical parallels to contemporary concerns about technology as if they invalidated those concerns. That people before us experienced similar problems does not mean that they magically cease being problems today.”

It is not, to be clear, that the historical parallels are irrelevant or useless. It is only that the precise nature of their relevance is not obvious. Some work needs to be done in order to establish their relevance in the first place, to show that the parallels are not merely apparent. Then, more than a little work needs to be done in order to establish the significance of their relevance. One cannot simply posit the historical parallels and leave it at that as if their significance was plain to see.

Laying all of this to one side, however, Furedi did raise a question that we would do well to consider: “The question that is rarely posed by advocates of the distraction thesis is: what are people distracted from?”

Very often, of course, the answer is the deep reading of challenging texts. That said, Furedi’s question brings to mind an oft-cited observation by Hannah Arendt regarding the promise of automation:

It is a society of laborers which is about to be liberated from the fetters of labor, and this society does no longer know of those other higher and more meaningful activities for the sake of which this freedom would deserve to be won . . . . What we are confronted with is the prospect of a society of laborers without labor, that is, without the only activity left to them.  Surely, nothing could be worse.

If we were suddenly able to achieve the kind of attentiveness the loss or lack of which critics, past and present, have lamented, would we know how to direct it or what to do with it? Upon what objects would we lavish this hard won resource?

We generally value leisure for leisure’s sake, and it is a diminished notion of leisure at that. In another age, as Arendt knew, leisure was not an end but rather the state that allowed the fortunate few to pursue some higher, noble purpose. Not incidentally, that purpose, or better that constellation of purposes might be best understood as varieties of the vita contemplativa–the contemplative life in either its classical, Christian, or Eastern manifestations, which would have been the raison d’être of both leisure and attention.

Here is the question I’m left with at this point: Is our distractedness not only an effect of our technological environment but also a consequence of the absence of a normative telos that might give our attention something at which to aim? Or, to put it another way, is distractedness the natural state of the liberated will that refuses to be captured by goods external to itself? If so, then it appears that distractedness may be understood as the natural state of the aimless soul, free to attend to whatever it will but with no compelling reason to attend for very long to anything in particular.

Follow up here: Attention and the Moral Life.

11 thoughts on “Distracted from What?

  1. Sometimes I’ll find myself with an empty chunk of time and I’ll make an effort to start something. It’s strange though because whatever I end up doing, it feels like I’m sacrificing time from some other worthwhile activity. Both activities being what I deem worthwhile, I’m necessarily excluding time from the other. And this creates a sort of paralysis where I feel unable to really give my focus to any one thing, to dive into deep involvement.

    This is not all the time, but it happens enough to notice. At times I’ll feel like I ought to do something and so I’ll hurry around just to be busy. For whatever reason, there’s a reluctance to slow down and accept non-doing. It feels as if there should be a higher thing to aim for, but it doesn’t seem so apparent as to warrant action. There are certain activities that I have put in place, consciously or unconsciously, to act as a higher aims, but there is still a creeping feeling in the background that it’s just another way to pass the time.

    It could be that bodily awareness(embodiment) is worth aiming for. Awareness of being an animal in relation to environment. Digital technologies do seem to have a tendency to pull one’s attention out of the body. It could be argued that as technology progresses, we outsource more of our innate capacities and end up devaluing the body. And that by returning to this we can hopefully gain something back of what we have lost.

    1. There’s a lot here with which I resonate, and others, too, no doubt. Not sure if you’ve ever read any of Pascal, but he wrote incisively about this restlessness over four hundred years ago. I just wrote a follow up post that alludes to some of his insights that also functions as a bit of a reflection on your observations here. Hope you find it useful.

  2. I recently watched a documentary, of which I unfortunately have forgotten the title, on how multitasking resulted in poorer performance by multitasking students as opposed to their counterparts who didn’t . The documentary began with an interview with a professor at MIT who explained that before students brought their smart-phones to class the majority of students scored 90-100 on a test that he had regiven a class where almost all its students had smart phones with them throughout all his lectures and that on the same tests that previous students unencumbered by those distracting cell phones scored in the 40-50 range. Having been a student myself, I imagine most of them were texting friends rather than listening and that by taking up phones at the door before the lecture so that students would have concentrated on the lecture and probably have scored much the same as the students who had had no other alternative to listening besides daydreaming and passing notes or whispering to other students.

    In a study at a California University on the effect of multitasking on students, I believe performed at either UC Berkley or Standford, the majority of the multitasking students believed that believed they would do better than those who did not and were genuinely surprised when the nonmultitasking students out performed them by a wide margin. Certainly, texting while taking a time-limited test will eat up that time causing either noncompletion of all questions or hurried answers and finding that students who had only the test to focus on would understandably perform better by quite frankly making better use of their time and energy. What surprised me most was the reaction of the multitasking students who had genuinely thought they would perform better because of their multitasking which was certainly so misguided. If they had been thinking clearly, they would have understood exactly why they performed so much more poorly.

    Is the brain suffering a rewiring that will damage mankind’s ability to concentrate and absorb the meaning of spoken and written words, I am not sure. However, Hannah Ardent’s statement,” It is a society of laborers which is about to be liberated from the fetters of labor, and this society does no longer know of those other higher and more meaningful activities for the sake of which this freedom would deserve to be won . . . . What we are confronted with is the prospect of a society of laborers without labor, that is, without the only activity left to them. Surely, nothing could be worse,” is ridiculous. Their higher meaning as we see in these days of high unemployment is and will be on how to feed, clothe and house their families.

    To answer your question, if so many are distracted today, it is because hungry people concentrate on survival of themselves and their families and a life of contemplation with a look toward a meaningful “telos” is and has for the most part been left to the wealthy, who could fill their bellies and then go off to read Aristotle and to discover their telos which, seem to have found that great meaning they discover is to screw the poor for their own financial gain and to pat themselves on the back when they succeed.

    Concentration as I see it, if it isn’t the distraction of technology, is left to those as has always been, to those who are physically comfortable if not rich and who can find the time to daydream, write and think high flung thoughts with a telos in mind or discovered in their own thoughts, and those in their readings and writings of others.

    1. When I first read Ardent’s statement I assumed the use of a universal basic income, but taken without that assumption I can see what you mean. There are a lot of people not doing so well, and it’s not fun to admit if you are one of the physically comfortable with the resources available to think about these things.

  3. Anecdotally, it’s the tremendous availability of information that I wrongly convince myself is necessary to my enjoyment of life that has made me a distracted oaf. To the extend that technology enables that volume, I guess it may be the cause, but the cause is fundamentally due to my not being consciously aware enough of how to properly spend my time for the highest enjoyment of life.

  4. I am interested in how the insights of Heidegger may be applied to bring further synthesis of the points made above. If it is true that distractedness is partly a symptom of our “lack of a normative telos” (and I think you are absolutely right), but also the case that we experience this as an inability to concentrate on things that we do still deem to be worthy objects of our attention, could it be that the “enframing” of digital technology has perversely and paradoxically conditioned us to pay attention only to that which distracts us and to regard an information source as that which forces us to be inattentive. To put it another way, the digital technology inculcates an epistemology of information through inattentiveness and subconsciously persuades us to regard knowledge, by definiton, as that which presents itself demandingly to us.

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