Attention and the Distraction Addiction

There are two ways to go through life: Mindfully or mindlessly. In the first instance, we pay attention. We see things and notice them in order to appreciate them. We hear things in order to understand them. We seek to know things not superficially but in their wholeness. We live in the present moment and experience the world with wonder, tasting its mysteries with full appreciation.

In the second instance, we are distracted. We see things but do not notice them. We hear things but do not understand them. All the information of our senses is received with the bare minimum of attention. Our whole life is a haze, a fragmented series of a barely conscious sense impressions.

The first describes the mode of the poet who sees fully and feels deeply. The second describes the frequently fragmented attention of modern man, and this is in no small part due to omnipresent technology.

Technology and Attention

I possess a smartphone, and I there are frequently times I am thankful for its benefits. Yet, as often as I am thankful, I am equally disgusted with it. For my phone has a way of drawing me inevitably away from the present moment. A brief consultation for a specific purpose quickly finds me distracted by myriad pieces of information flowing at me incessantly through a brightly colored screen. It is a machine designed for one purpose—to absorb and hold my attention for as long as possible.

Whether or not we realize it, our attention is now a commodity to be bought and sold. We think we are mindlessly relaxing, scrolling through our Instagram or Facebook feed. In reality, advertisers are purchasing our attention and using the years of social data we have given them to know what we want before we know we want it.  And it works. It is nearly irresistible. It is designed to be so.

Fragmentation and Augmentation

It could be argued legitimately that every technology has tradeoffs and that internet enabled phones are no exception. The problem is, digital devices are designed to fragment attention, where other technologies are intended to augment it. An apt example is a book. A book is actually a piece of technology for relaying information. After the advent of the printing press, books became the most widely used system of information exchange.

But reading is an entirely different experience than scrolling on Facebook. Reading focuses your attention and draws you into a deep state of flow—of concentration without effort. Reading causes you to pass through the particular words into the realm of ideas and, in the case of fiction, imagery and emotions. The whole structure of a book, from the font to the layout of words on a page, is designed to aid and augment concentration.

Digital devices, on the other hand, fragment attention. On opening your smartphone, you are presented with a grid providing you with a choice of applications you want to enter. Because there are options, your attention is immediately pulled in different directions. Once you enter an app, you are faced with a stream of information—whether it be a list of emails, social media posts, or notifications of activity.

Each item presents a demand on your attention. It beckons you to become aware of it and engage with it. It stimulates our desires and teaches us to act on impulse. And because there is always something new, our brains are soon trained to expect the reward of fresh stimulus. Using such a device is rather like someone on a strict, gluten free diet walking into a donut shop—resolve does not last long.

Struggle for Awareness

My point is not to denigrate technology. Devices such as smartphones have indeed brought benefits to our lives. I would not own one if there were not benefits to it. And yet, there is a very real sense in which these devices have impoverished us in making us no longer aware of the world around us. More often than not, we move through life in a distracted haze of stimulation and response, neglecting the deeper concentration needed for true contemplation. How many miracles, how many shimmering wonders do we miss because we are lost in a two dimensional screen?

We must resist mindlessness, and not by half measures. I believe we have a very real duty to struggle against distraction. As Christians, we are all called to be poets—not literally perhaps, but in the sense of seeing fully and feeling deeply the mystery of things.

To quote the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, the “world is charged with the grandeur of God,” but without awareness, without attention, we cannot experience this sacramental reality. We cannot receive it as the gift that it is, with joy and wonder and gratitude, if we are not awake enough to notice it. And not merely notice it in a superficial, cursory manner, but truly contemplate it in its richness and beauty.

Our fragmented attention is causing us to miss out on a great deal of joy. Let us then struggle against the world of artificiality that beckons us and seeks to absorb and then shatter our attention. Let us strive for mindfulness and not mindlessness. Let us return to reality and receive the gift of creation with awe and thanksgiving and offer for it a sacrifice of praise.

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23 Responses to “Attention and the Distraction Addiction”

  1. Dismal Farmer Reply

    What you discuss is the result of our fallen nature and a sometimes deafening lack of guidance from the ecclesial Church and other social institutions which traditionally taught and encouraged proper Christian attention in the world yet not of the world. It has absolutely nothing to do at all with technology.

    I opened my smartphone in order to access a feed reader on which I subscribe to the musings of several writers on things Catholic, such as yourself. I did so because I am about to engage in an examination of conscience at the end of the day and I find reading musings about the Catholic conscience helps me to settle down from a hectic day and focus before I begin this particular type of prayer. The smartphone is not some demonic spirit which tempts me to frivolous activity. It is a created thing. It is I who choose whether to follow the Lord’s will for me to be virtuous in my use of this thing, or whether to be imprudent in my use of it.
    Blaming a created thing for one’s own misuse of it is itself a result of succumbing to sinful tendencies.

    • If you read carefully, I did say I own a smart phone and I am not seeking to condemn all technology. Nevertheless, it would be unwise to assume that all things are created equal, and that some technologies are not more addictive than others. Of course we must use them wisely, which was really the point of the article: we must resist the addictive nature of tech and control it rather than allowing it to control us.

  2. Thank you Sam for this article! I am a lady not a gentleman though, I pop in here once in a while for the sake of my boyfriend 🙂 I always knew about the distractions around us but you have given me another perspective too, about the lack of “impulse control” How sad! especially because self control is a fruit of God’s Spirit. I continue to strive to be Mindful and Present. Once a Priest told me that “Grace is found in the *Present Moment”, U can’t enjoy grace in the past, u can’t enjoy grace in the future, grace is found in the present…and There is no grace without God, it challenged me because Our Lady is my model and she is described as “Full of Grace”. aah to be Present and Mindful is a pearl, I don’t want to Miss God :-), and I want too to be like Our Lady.

  3. Everything we need is online and the lack of control when we are online leads us into temptation. Following Anne’s pointers…… if you lack of impulse control you will fall. I have managed to keep my apps and searches down to home decor, gardening, commodity prices, catholic reflections and Mahjong! Once I am done with these at any point then I am done online.

  4. Thank you very much for this article Sam. I especially like how you address the artificiality that modern man tends towards these days in his daily life. I recommend the book Return To Order, by John Horvat II, as I feel like you would enjoy it, as it specifically mentions this spirit of modern man, if you haven’t read it already. Thanks again and God bless!

  5. When I first started using the web I would try to absorb every tidbit of info on a page, much as I do when reading a book. Now my attention is fragmented, and I tend to skim even the most profound articles (such as this) as they fight with accompanying ads and images. Yes, there is much that is good about the way we can access information today, but just like an overcrowded grocery store aisle bombarding one with too many choices, I am left feeling both over and underwhelmed. Give me a real page over virtual, and my sense of calm and balance is restored.

  6. “The problem is, digital devices are designed to fragment attention”

    Remove garbage like Facebook and Instagram and smartphone distraction is a non-issue. The presence of options alone doesn’t cause distraction either; after all, does anyone feel compelled to constantly open the GPS, clock, camera, note taking programs, etc., when they see them? Neither does the digital nature of a device imply an intent to fragment attention as things like digital watches and Kindles prove. And it certainly is not the case as implied that non-digital technologies augment attention. Just look at television, an analog technology for most of its history. Further, while you suggest that books to the exclusion of smartphones are designed to relay information, the truth is that smartphones do as well, almost by definition, as a subset of IT.

    The modern distracted mind stems from a failure of vision and a rejection of agency (among other things). A person working to reach a goal is naturally more focused and more difficult to distract. “If you want something done, give it to a busy person”. But without goals and/or the belief in ones ability to accomplish those goals, base distractions – digital or otherwise – rule. Social media’s rapid stimulus-response feedback loop exacerbates the problem but it is not the cause.

    • Perhaps a lack of clear goals and lack of agency is part of the problem, but I believe you are dismissing the addictive nature of digital devices too readily. One can intend to do one thing on a phone or tablet (like check the weather) and end up doing something entirely different without realizing that it happened. It is a similar effect to walking into a grocery store to buy milk and leaving with several things you did not intend to buy. The sheer volume of choices, as well as their conveniently designed placement, increases your likelihood of distraction and consumption of something you did not intend to consume.

      If you think this is merely a personal problem or lack of virtue, and not rather that these devices are designed to function this way, you should learn more about the tech industry works. All around the world, there are a large number of highly intelligent people working with nearly unlimited resources to ensure you are engaged with your digital devices as much as possible. The habitual nature of technology is no accident. It is designed into the way these devices work (See “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products” as one book that is popular in the tech industry).

      In the famous words of Marshall McLuhan, “the medium is the message.” It would be unwise to view smartphones and similar devices as merely passive conveyors of information. The information they convey is bound up with how these devices work, and they are designed by some of the largest corporations in the world to distract us and addict us to this state of distraction. Of course, the problems we face societally are deep and complex, and technology is merely one reason for our current lack of virtue as a society. Nevertheless, dismissing an examination of it as a “non-issue” is to miss the nature of the technology itself.

  7. John J. Caufield Reply

    I wish I could bring this down to a level a sixth grade boy could appreciate. Limiting his time on Xbox and his phone seem to be punishment and oppression. Its hard to teach when you don’t always practice yourself. My wife and I have to do a better job of being off electronics ourselves. Thanks for the article. Always can use a pep talk on this subject.

  8. Thanks for this article! The perspective I most often hear in Catholic circles is that (advanced, modern) technology is in itself a neutral thing, which can be used for good or for evil. Which is absolutely true, and a necessary corrective to the idolatrous idea that technology is an unstoppable force for good, or, alternatively, a pure evil which must be smashed. But something has always bugged me about this way of putting it, though I haven’t been able to articulate it very well. Thanks for putting it in clear language for me! It seems that while “technology” considered in the abstract is definitely neutral, there are certain technologies that have been explicitly designed to be near occasions of sin.

  9. AS WOULD SAY MARSHALL MCLUHAN the media are extensions of man senses, and each of them beneffits or diminishes the human condition. People buy less books and read them less, surface mail is almost not used, face to face dialog in present time is less used, and we know it will be interrupted bay a cel message even in a midle of an important dinner. Yes ther have bennefits but we must save the other bennefits, giving mor time to 100% attention when needed, as in prayer.

  10. A good piece. The smartphone has become in many ways essential – I am required to have one for my job, for instance – but it presents a challenge to people with addictive tendencies, given that getting an email or a like or a retweet all release a drop of dopamine into the system. I have gone through social media fasts and the most immediate and positive result is the return of my ability to fully enjoy a book.
    I was at Mass this morning and the woman at the other end of the pew was playing a game on her phone – with the sound on – up until the moment the priest processed in. This is someone who has been absorbed into a destructive use of the device.
    Another parishioner was using a missal app on an iPad. It felt like an intrusion, especially given it was a Tridentine Low Mass.
    In any case, thanks for writing this, Sam.

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