HOT TAKE: That “Distraction Sickness” Article is Garbage
This article is making the rounds in my Facebook circles right now. It’s a self-serving, loathsome piece of writing that enraged me to write a critique. The main problem is that this piece comes from a narrow, individualistic point of view, a self-serving narrative that, while holds valid points of sadness from the author’s personal life, such emotions are twisted to serve an anti-technology red herring. He relies on a binary of “old methods are better, new methods are worse” that ignores the vast wonders of communication today. Dismantling this piece chronologically will be best to untangle the mess of straw men, inaccurate perceptions, and more.
While, the author describes his demanding former job as a professional blogger, and its demand on his health, the incendiary language truly begins for me as he sarcastically insults the langauge of the internet. The author scoffs that we call articles and videos “content”, even though that’s an appropriate descriptive word. He dismisses the audience out of hand, claiming that we are all mindless minnows following the clickbait. The message is clear: you are like me, drowning in a sea of media that must endanger us all. This is an insulting thing to say to an audience (“wake up, sheeple!”), a gambit that pays off if people relate to his woes. I do not, and prefer to address this article’s toxicity with a clear, critical eye.
When searching for a place where people aren’t distracted by technology, the author sarcastically comments that “perhaps the only “safe space” that still exists is the shower.” This comment highlights the sheltered point of view, co-opting the langauge of survivors and activists for his own self-serving gratification. Tell that venomous line to survivors of sexual assault, I’m sure they’d find it a hoot.
The author then goes to describe the growing pervasiveness of communication technologies bringing the world together as a tragedy of the human mind. There are numerous errors at play here, but I’d like to focus on the fact that phones are no longer phones, but small computers that people work and play with. Furthermore, cell phones are a necessity now in the job market. Not having a phone is like a death knell for anyone looking for employment, particularly those that have precarious work such as part-time or temporary positions that require immense flexibility. Adding to the pervasive use of smart phones is the fact that, according to a 2015 Pew Research Centre report, “19% of Americans rely to some degree on a smartphone for accessing online services and information and for staying connected to the world around them — either because they lack broadband at home, or because they have few options for online access other than their cell phone.” Smart phones can be the only digital connection working class people have to online resources. As one Australian study put it:
Ironically, in a society where access to a range of goods, services and societal benefits is achieved by using these [digital] technologies, those with restricted digital access because of their existing socio-economic disadvantage are further disadvantaged by virtue of being excluded from the various benefits of access.
For much of the world, and particularly the working class, cell phones are not only a key tool for communication, but they are a lifeline to access numerous critical resources. While this article argues cell phones just facilitate an addiction to distraction, the reality is most cell phone is used to connect with others, gain information about the world, work on projects, and more.
It’s time to tackle the author’s assumptions about distracting digital media. While digital media is designed to keep people clicking, the assumption act is all vaporous surely insults the good work artists, activists, journalists, and more contribute and archive on the web. People engaging with media isn’t new. People read books and newspapers on the trains, cars, and subways for decades. They listen(ed) to the radio in their cars or at home.The author claims that “We have gone from looking up and around to constantly looking down,” but we’ve always looked down at books or magazines as we travel, relax, and more. If anything, an actual, concrete concern is the neck and eye strains emerging from the kinds of postures used with cell phones, something certainly to work on in the future.
As the author talks more about meditation, he acts like mediation is a lost art, something unsullied by the tentacles of technology But meditation? There’s an app for that. He also claims that texts, emojis, and other forms of digital communication are less emotional, less real that a phone call. While there are emotional nuances in faces that are lost in text, emojis and texts are fun and have utility. Lord knows my sister and I relate ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, and using the expression is an enjoyable and generative experience.
One paragraph is worthy quoting if only to completely dissect it:
Think of how rarely you now use the phone to speak to someone. A text is far easier, quicker, less burdensome. A phone call could take longer; it could force you to encounter that person’s idiosyncrasies or digressions or unexpected emotional needs. Remember when you left voice-mail messages — or actually listened to one? Emojis now suffice. Or take the difference between trying to seduce someone at a bar and flipping through Tinder profiles to find a better match. One is deeply inefficient and requires spending (possibly wasting) considerable time; the other turns dozens and dozens of humans into clothes on an endlessly extending rack.
Texts are more efficient in that they communicate information without seriously disrupting someone, such as if they are in class or at work. The author claims that people don’t use phones to make calls now, but that is simply not the case. Phones are still a central way of communication both at work and at home, and as mentioned before, they are considered an essential for those searching on the job market.
Throughout this article the author defends older, admittedly “inefficient” methods of communication over more efficient technology tools because of claims of emotionless connections. It’s actually kind of gross that the author indicates a preference for bar seductions, as if the preferred tactics of the pick up artist are better than the safe distance of communication technologies.
The author then laments that we don’t make things by hand anymore, presenting a binary of “old was better, new is worse” that just isn’t true. Artists at least would disagree than we don’t make things with our hands, rather, we still use tools to make art and commodities. The author argues we don’t have the skills of artisans anymore, presenting a nostalgic view of the world when craftsmanship (I’m using this gendered phrase intentionally) was prevalent. The author argues that humankind’s self worth was tethered to that outdated mode of production, when the reality is people contribute so much to this world in different ways that he completely disregards. He laments we’ve lost skill building, when people scramble to higher education to gain numerous skills to try and grasp some form of work to survive. He argues we are no longer proud of our work, as modern life’s efficiently removes the soul of work:
Yes, online and automated life is more efficient, it makes more economic sense, it ends monotony and “wasted” time in the achievement of practical goals. But it denies us the deep satisfaction and pride of workmanship that comes with accomplishing daily tasks well, a denial perhaps felt most acutely by those for whom such tasks are also a livelihood — and an identity.
Indeed, the modest mastery of our practical lives is what fulfilled us for tens of thousands of years — until technology and capitalism decided it was entirely dispensable. If we are to figure out why despair has spread so rapidly in so many left-behind communities, the atrophying of the practical vocations of the past — and the meaning they gave to people’s lives — seems as useful a place to explore as economic indices.
The author demonstrates a palpable orthodoxy, asserting the archaic forms of identity tethered to labour as superior to contemporary forms of identity tethered to individuals as human beings. This is a harmful reduction that the author makes, that our identities are solely tethered to our jobs, as if our sense of self-worthy is solely tethered to the physical work we do, or that everyone has the desire and capabilities of physical handicrafts. It’s as if I had a job as a woodcutter, I’d gain self satisfaction in being “Jacqueline the woodcutter”, rather than “Jacqueline”. This idea that people were happier with less advanced technology because they’d work with outdated (though certainly useful) skills is merely an symptom of orthodox thinking, rejecting the changes in society that erode the old hegemonic institutions of Christianity in lieu of recognizing the actually effects of these changes in of themselves.
The fact is that the working class struggle with manual labour every day in their low paying, exploitative jobs. Do you think their struggles are somehow noble because they cut their hands with the daily toil of their lives? But the article comes from a man of privilege, who prefers to discuss his own lack of spiritual fulfillment in terms of a plague of technology upon society.
The author then brings up an example of someone from Maine remarking that:
No one is where they are. They’re talking to someone miles away. I miss them.
Again, I would emphasize that the people this individual misses are engaging with someone, and through the tools of technology, they are able to connect with them in ways they couldn’t before. The author then brings up the comedian Louie C.K., who often speaks against the pervasiveness of digital technologies. What C.K. is essentially proposes is that boredom is a necessity, and erasing boredom through the communicative tools is not preferably since we instead feel alienated. It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation, where no matter what, humans are destined it seems to be alienated. And indeed, they are alienated by the jaws of capitalism. But dismissing those who seek to fill the copious void of alienation in their lives with brief interactions of text and pictures just seem selfish.
If anything, C.K., and but extension, the author, promote an idea of self perpetuating, isolated misery. As the author explains a moment when C.K. desired to share the sudden emotions he just experienced, sad emotions from a Springsteen song, he decided against the natural inclination to share these emotions, and instead weep alone. The author describes his own experiences of facing childhood trauma while wondering the woods. In what universe is self induced alienation preferable to reaching out to loved ones to share such an outburst of emotion? It’s just another example of white men languishing in their own self pity. Sufjan Stevens does it all the time.
There’s a reason why white boys listen to gansta rap. As people with privileges in life, listening to the oppressed gives them a sense of soul, a glimpse into the lives of intensity and emotions outside the suburbs of white bread.
While the author describes the decline of the hegemony of Western Christianity, what the author actually alludes to is the history of white supremacy and colonialism. He describes American as the “crowning achievement” of civilization. Sure, the rape and pillage of Native American lands by white settle-colonialists, constructing a vampiric nation state that then rapes and pillages other nations for its own gain is the peak of civilization. In the end, the author argues that Christianity’s hegemony position was taken down by smart phone technology all along. While the author is accurate in the increase of noise of modern life from the engines of city life (Walter Benjamin brilliantly analyzed these changes to city life long ago), he never addresses why these changes have occurred, failing to take a proper historical analysis to the creators and crafters of digital technology. He fails to recognize that, for instance, people keep swiping because apps are designed to maximum use value from users. Websites and apps are designed to have people use them for as long as possible in order to generate a profit. It doesn’t indicate a weakening of human individuality, but rather the variable insidiousness of technological design, designs created to survive in a capitalism market of information and attention.
And here comes the author’s final point: that Christianity is the answer to the noise of everyday life. That Christianity is the only religion, or tradition in general, that holds the key to salient reflection is laughable. I would like to point out that the author achieved some form of enlightenment from mediation, an act of silent reflection originating from Hindu and Buddhist traditions.
The author quotes Thoreau of course, in elevating reclusiveness from communicative technologies as some higher calling. While the standard myth about Thoreau is that he lived through his own means in solitude in some cabin in the woods, the reality is he lived quite close to his family, and would eat with them weekly. The icon of solitary living was, in fact, quite social.
The author begins to wrap up his argument with various examples, claiming without any sort of scientific evidence that the increase in use of weed amount young people due to growing anxieties created by digital technologies. This is inaccurate, as weed is not a form of self-medication from smart phones, but rather, from capitalism. Young people today live in a tremendously precarious environment. People decry the lack of independence or maturity as more young people move in with their relatives, when in reality people live with family or friends just to survive. The grinding gears of neoliberalism offset the growing income inequality as the responsibilities of the poor. In short, as a friend of mine once identified, weed is so prevalent amount the youth because it’s how they cope with the intense stress of living in precarity.
The author also claims that Christianity is the answer to the digital distractions of everyday life, as if contemplation is only the realm of the holy. He also posits that such distractions are also the biggest thing threatening the church, but that’s also false, as what’s actually threatening churches is the declining birth rate and the rise in secular consciousness.
The author then alludes, in another indication of his immense, disgusting privilege, the decay of modern cities like Detroit:
If we are to figure out why despair has spread so rapidly in so many left-behind communities, the atrophying of the practical vocations of the past — and the meaning they gave to people’s lives — seems as useful a place to explore as economic indices.
Former hubs of industry like Detroit aren’t hurting because the working classes there no longer have meaningful interactions through they labour, but rather they are dying because of globalizing forces sucking the industry into other countries where corporations can exploit precarious workers for immense profit. If there is something to lament with the rise of digital technologies, it would be the recognition of the adverse exploitation enabled by globalization. But, while the article pays lip service to “economic indices”, he fails to engage in any kind of proper economic analysis to actually buoy his poor argument.
While the article ends with more holier-than-thou langauge, it’s worth noting some notable absences from his article, and some arguments of my own. Notably absent are video messaging services like Skype, FaceTime, and other means of face to face communication that enable people from around the world to get together and connect. Personally, I have chatted with friends and family in other countries, while another friend of mine practices her Japanese by skyping someone in Japan while she lives in Australia.
As the author writes using examples from his own experience, I will note some of mine as well. The article has this technological deterministic approach to technology, that smartphones enslave us to the point of distraction, when really we are in control of what apps we have, what notifications we have on, etc. I curtail my Facebook feed with extensions like social fixer, and I tailor the notifications of certain apps on my phone to my own preference. I enjoy the privileges my smart phone. It allows me to get a lot of work done, connect with friends, and allows me to access information instantaneously to create a greater flexibility in my own life.
Also, having to turn off your cell phone to be productive totally makes sense. If I’m writing a paper, I’ll shut down email notifications and other distractions to focus on my work. So much of this narrative assumes that people using their cell phones means they are distracted or wasting time, when that is not the case. And even if people are playing a game, why shame that?
I do not believe in automatic technological progress, the idea that any advance in tech is automatically good. Obviously, there are deep problems with current technology in how it is used to invade the privacy of individuals, particularly by the state. While the author argues that as a society we are more distracted than ever, wouldn’t it also be fair to say we are more connected to each other than ever?
A few weeks ago, my friend commented that as she was able to call our mutual friend on a moving bus in Turkey from Canada through the power of apps and wifi, she took a moment to reflect the wonders of technology today. I too am grateful that technology is an ever expanding tool that can be used for good or for ill. This article comes from someone who was in the thick of social media, a former professional blogger who sounds like he’s justifiably jaded from his experiences. But instead of addressing the problems actually represented by cell phones and other aspects of digital media, such as the adverse effects of globalization, capitalism, and the ever eroding invasion of our privacy, instead the author provides a self-satisfied narrative of enlightenment through the red herring of communication technologies.
Or, as one perceptive commentator said: