Distraction is a funny thing, we know it well and encounter it regularly in our daily life, but the more we think about it, the more slippery it becomes as a concept. There’s a good essay from The New Yorker which waxes philosophical on the distracted life: “A New Theory of Distraction.”
For one thing, we often define distraction in relation to attention:
“The modern world valorizes few things more than attention. It demands that we pay attention at school and at work; it punishes parents for being inattentive; it urges us to be mindful about money, food, and fitness; it celebrates people who command others’ attention.”
In the online world where there is more of everything than we can possibly focus on all at once, attention is the currency of the digital era. Distraction can be a liberation from boredom, or a way of upending a power dynamic by ‘wasting time’ on something that we freely choose to do rather than what we ‘should’ be doing. If we are so inclined, the question of distraction is also existential:
“Life often seems to be ‘about’ paying attention—and the general trend seems to be toward an ever more attentive way of life. Behind the crisis of distraction, in short, there is what amounts to a crisis of attention: the more valuable and in demand attention becomes, the more problematic even innocuous distractions seem to be … Getting distracted, from this perspective, is like falling asleep. It’s like hitting pause on selfhood.”
I wouldn’t go that far, and perhaps distraction has beneficial effects. Some research suggests that a little bit of mind wandering can be good for our creative brains, after all. The excellent recent book by Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen (The Distracted Mind, MIT Press 2016) probes deeper into what happens in our brains while we are living the distracted life; especially interesting are the distinctions they draw between internal distractions and external interruptions.
At times it really does seem like distraction is an unavoidable part of our digital lives. History can be informative in this regard — Jonathan Crary’s book focuses on the role of modernity and our changing relation to attention and distraction: Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle and Modern Culture.
The New Yorker article linked above also mentions the semi-infamous Louis C.K. rant (for more on that: Business Insider, “Louis C.K. rants about ‘toxic’ cell phones distracting people from feeling sadness“): “You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something, that’s what the phones are taking away — the ability to just sit there.”
Personally, I think Louis C.K. is on to something with that. Cultivating the ability to be with boredom can be a good thing.
For more on that the topic, you’ll definitely want to check out this thoughtful piece from Brainpickings: “In Defense of Boredom: 200 Years of Ideas on the Virtues of Not-Doing from Some of Humanity’s Greatest Minds“
Also, I had seven browser tabs open while writing this (but only checked email once, honest).