Is modern technology creating a culture of distraction?

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

Are all the modern devices and digital conveniences we have at our disposal – from the web and social media to smart phones 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.”

Many people have what Kraus would describe as an “unhealthy relationship” with their mobile phone in that they are pulling it out (the phone, not anything else you might think of) to check things or to make sure that they haven't missed an important call or SMS.

Others are even worse, as far as I am concerned, where in the home the mother will text her offspring and the other way around while they are in the same house, just, maybe, in different rooms. For G-d's sake get an intercom if you wish but talk to each other.

This seems to be something that we are losing, however, especially the younger generation and one can even see kids sitting on a park bench and instead of talking to each other they are sending each other (they are sitting next to each other) text messages.

Is multi-tasking just a myth?

The effect of all of this 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 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.

Sociologist Dr. Sherry Turkle said that we are lonely but fearful of intimacy and that 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 and that contact gets in the way of real relationships, at least so according to Kraus. Here is where, to some extent, I have to disagree with him for I have found some good friends through the likes of Facebook and other forums that went before though often fake ones but after a while you find out who are real friends and who are not.

Turkle also wrote 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. However, I am not sure on either of this but we must not just deal with things in a virtual world but have real interpersonal relationships again. Talking to people, face to face, if possible, or at least on the phone.

I would be the first to agree that time without a phone or computer is a valuable thing, and that it’s good to take long walks and think big thoughts and most of my best ideas for articles come when I am out and about (away from the computer) though not the cell phone.

Personally I don't have problems with the mobile telephonic device in my pocket as I am not someone who has to be on the thing all the time. Phone calls are, in the main, done from home, as far as I am concerned, and that mostly via Skype, and that to landlines in the same way as Skype to Skype, and, yes, I do rely very much on such technology as it makes my life easier and cheaper, as far as telephone calls are concerned. You see, I don't talk much (joke) and my calls to Germany or the USA can be in the region of one to five hours.

As to the new media 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.

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.

We need to find a balance to life and the use of technology therein and I think everyone must find it for themselves.

Modern technology has much to offer to us, such as citizen journalism and such like, but we must know how to discern the bad from the good and teach our children well. But teach them to discern and not what to think.

© 2012