Here’s a sentence I never thought I’d write: You know you’re watching something good when it forces you to shelve your laptop. This was certainly the case this past Sunday evening, during the finale of a certain HBO fantasy drama. There are plenty of reasons why Game of Thrones gets such huge ratings, but one is surely the way it demands our full attention with its radical–and some might say overly antagonistic–plot developments. Yeesh.

It’s hard to tell when multitasking became our default mode of consumption, but it was at least a year or two before AMC started promoting their “two-screen experience” of The Walking Dead. They were rightly assuming that the audience would be surfing the net while watching the show. This phenomenon is one of the more commonplace iterations of what people mean when they refer to The Age of Distraction. Idleness has largely become a thing of the past. Waiting rooms, walking commutes, even trips to the bathroom are no longer the periods of non-stimulation they once were.

We worry about what effect this lack of blank mental space is having on our children and their imaginations. Yet most parents I know, myself included, succumb to the siren’s call of technology more than they’d care to admit. This probably has something to do with the fact that today’s parents are expected to be more attentive to our kids than our parents’ generation was to us–thus we crave any release valve we can get. But the guilt mounts. Especially when your son starts drawing pictures of you with your phone in your hand… Hypothetically.

iPhone-Jon-SnowIndeed, distraction is major source of contemporary guilt (and therefore law). As someone who works in the online sphere, I’d be lying if I didn’t say it’s a daily struggle. As we “generate content”, day after day, are we perpetuating the distractability we decry? It’s certainly a liability. I keep coming back to the fact that you can either resent the system (and the people within it) and bitterly opt out, or accept it with eyes open and do what you can from within. Door number two still feels like “the grace option”. Of course, that not only sounds like a bit of a rationalization, it presupposes an inflated anthropology, and if our relationship with technology has taught us anything, it’s that the medium has just as much power if not more than the message and/or messengers. Which is where things like print magazines and weekly church attendance become so invaluable. But still.

Naturally, if we waited until our motivations were pure, or the “right” course of action 100% clear, we’d wait forever. The need to get things right inspires the kind of perfectionism that keeps us in chains, after all. As Ted Peters put it:

Once we realize that we can get out of the business of justifying ourselves, the world suddenly looks different. No longer do we need to defend ourselves from a hostile world by identifying ourselves with what is good or just or true. We can live in the world–we can love the world–as if it is our world, with or without the lines we draw between good and evil. When appropriate, we can even sin boldly.

All this is an overlong introduction to a fabulous piece of writing from one of our favorite columnists, The New Yorker’s Joshua Rothman, “A New Theory of Distraction”. Using Matthew Crawford’s recent book The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction as a jumping off point, he takes care to unpack the various cultural mandates  that have infected the way we think and feel about distraction. I found his ruminations not only enlightening but surprisingly emancipating:

playdateThere are two big theories about why [distraction is] on the rise. The first is material: it holds that our urbanized, high-tech society is designed to distract us… The second big theory is spiritual—it’s that we’re distracted because our souls are troubled. The comedian Louis C.K. may be the most famous contemporary exponent of this way of thinking. A few years ago, on “Late Night” with Conan O’Brien, he argued that people are addicted to their phones because “they don’t want to be alone for a second because it’s so hard.” (David Foster Wallace also saw distraction this way.) The spiritual theory is even older than the material one: in 1887, Nietzsche wrote that “haste is universal because everyone is in flight from himself”; in the seventeenth century, Pascal said that “all men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.”…

Crawford argues that our increased distractibility is the result of technological changes that, in turn, have their roots in our civilization’s spiritual commitments. Ever since the Enlightenment, he writes, Western societies have been obsessed with autonomy, and in the past few hundred years we have put autonomy at the center of our lives, economically, politically, and technologically; often, when we think about what it means to be happy, we think of freedom from our circumstances. Unfortunately, we’ve taken things too far: we’re now addicted to liberation, and we regard any situation—a movie, a conversation, a one-block walk down a city street—as a kind of prison. Distraction is a way of asserting control; it’s autonomy run amok. Technologies of escape, like the smartphone, tap into our habits of secession.

The way we talk about distraction has always been a little self-serving—we say, in the passive voice, that we’re “distracted by” the Internet or our cats, and this makes us seem like the victims of our own decisions. But Crawford shows that this way of talking mischaracterizes the whole phenomenon. It’s not just that we choose our own distractions; it’s that the pleasure we get from being distracted is the pleasure of taking action and being free. There’s a glee that comes from making choices, a contentment that settles after we’ve asserted our autonomy. When you write an essay in Microsoft Word while watching, in another window, an episode of “American Ninja Warrior”—trust me, you can do this—you’re declaring your independence from the drudgery of work. When you’re waiting to cross the street and reach to check your e-mail, you’re pushing back against the indignity of being made to wait. Distraction is appealing precisely because it’s active and rebellious…


We are now cocooned, Crawford argues, within centuries’ worth of technology designed to insure our autonomy—the smartphone just represents the innermost layer… A central irony of modern life, Crawford writes, is that even within our cocoons the “cultural imperative of being autonomous” is as strong as ever. That imperative depends on the “identification of freedom with choice, where choice is understood as a pure flashing forth of the unconditioned will” (a click, a scroll, a tap)… ironic freedom—action that is actually distraction—has become a “style of existence” for the modern person...

More generally, distraction is scary for another, complementary reason: the tremendous value that we’ve come to place on attending. 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… 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.

-1As with our autonomy obsession, this extreme valuing of attention is a legacy of the Enlightenment: the flip side of Descartes’s “I think, therefore I am” is that we are what we think about. The problem with this conception of selfhood is that people don’t spend all their time thinking in an organized, deliberate way. Our minds wander, and life is full of meaningless moments… This kind of distracted time contributes little to the project of coherent selfhood, and can even seem to undermine it. Where are you when you play Temple Run? Who are you when you look at cat GIFs? If you are what you think about, then what are you when your thoughts don’t add up to anything?

A couple of things to note:

  • Moralizing our distractability has increased distraction, not decreased it, surprise surprise. We are often distracting ourselves from demand (or condemnation) in the first place, so naturally the dynamic feeds on itself.
  • Laugh or you’ll cry at the irony involved in distraction being used as a means of asserting our autonomy (which I totally buy). There’s nothing less autonomous than a gaggle of people compulsively checking/starting at their phones. Sigh. Yet again, our desire to be in charge ends up being in charge of us.
  • Re: the underlying cultural mandate about “coherent selfhood”: Conflating our selves with our attentiveness is simply another way of saying You Are What You Do, so You Better Do Right. No downtime allowed. All your time must be accounted for. Focus, focus, focus! Anyone else find themselves reflexively opening another browser window?
  • One wonders how related distraction is to disembodiment, as you’ll notice the primary means of distraction are aggressively non-physical. Fueling, in other words, a denial of death. (For a rather grotesque picture of what this looks like, I watched The Zero Theorem last night, directed by Terry Gilliam. The very mention of death by the “faithful” character is treated as grounds for psychiatric treatment–and deeper immersion in virtual workspace. It is not an uplifting piece of cinema).
  • Rothman closes his article with a plea to go easy on our unfocused selves, which sounds great if perhaps overly optimistic. Couldn’t help but think that that’s where grace might play a role, i.e. if the Law demands that we devote our undivided attention to things above–that we focus resolutely on God and neighbor–the Gospel announces that God is attentive to us, yes, in the midst of our distraction. Or to paraphrase 1 John, real hope is this: not that we attend, but that we have been attended to. Indeed, we have been embraced. Speaking of which, I wonder if the band Embrace has anything new out. Hold on – let me check my phone.