In favor of distraction

Arielle Ford was in the air, heading towards Las Vegas while she read my book (and ‘highlighted much of it’ she said in an email – she likes it. She really likes it!). Her husband, sitting next to her, kept poking her in the side while he read a recent New York magazine article by Sam Anderson entitled “The Benefits of Distraction and Overstimulation”. She was amazed at the parallels in my book with his article. It was a funny moment of synchronicity as they soared the Western skies.

socratesNaturally curious, I googled Sam’s article to see what similarities I might find. His article was distinctly hilarious, giving our collective worry about distraction a new spin. Never snarky (I hate snarky), always pithy (I love pithy), his article hits the nail on the head.

Maybe there is some neurological benefit to all this connectivity. (Grossly absent in his argumentation about the younger generation is the fact that, until around age twenty, people in general have higher cognitive abilities than our sagging middle-aged brains, but who am I to be a wet blanket at his party?) Perhaps, his article suggests, we can positively alter our brain’s wiring through technology after all.

My issue with our hyperconnected world is what gets lost in the translation. We text, ping, upload and download with abandon. But how much time do we waste in the process? Is a superhuman brain truly desirable? To what end?

His article is balanced (because he gives my camp ample play), yet critical of too much outcry over technological advances and their damage it might inflict on our tender brains. Technophobes have always dampened the spirits of those who enjoy its benefits. After all, he rightly paraphrases Socrates, the greatest orator who ever lived, as saying the written word was scandalous for its ‘memory-destroying properties’ because, well, it was a recording of wisdom and not the wisdom itself.

In my mind, writing is an organized system lending structure to thought, but it is not the thoughts themselves. Without drifting too far into epistimology, I would note that our pleasure systems have altered dramatically. We have moved from a visual society to an oral society to a visual one again. Before we could speak, we painted pictures on cave walls. Then came speech and the value of oration. We later developed a vastly distributed writing system with more visual stimuli (Greek statues, tablets and monuments come to mind). Auditory pleasures remained through music and a common delivery system called radio. Then, taking a leap through the centuries came the prominence of the visual medium again through television and now YouTube.

Each generation deals with its own level of distraction. Whatever triggers it is rather immaterial – what is important is how we manage the distractions as they come. I favor mindful living over filling the mind with senseless chatter.

What’s your take?


  1. HyperActiveX

    May 30, 2009 at 2:11 pm

    Two quick comments:
    1. Anyone writing an ode to distraction should keep it short. Sam Anderson’s article runs into … what … 8 pages? Are distracted people expected to read, grasp and understand all that stuff at one go without interruption? Or even multiple reads (never the same)? Only ‘slow’ readers can, methinks.
    2. Without going into far into epistemology, I think that the structure writing gives our thoughts is important, because we build thoughts on structures. Without writing, a thought is ephemeral and wispy. In order to develop a cogent argument, one must be able to write down the premises that become the foundation upon which the larger body of work is built. That said, it is amazing to note that ancient Indian texts – the Vedas, for instance, were recited orally and transmitted from teacher to pupil.

    1. powerofslow

      May 30, 2009 at 3:26 pm

      Well put. Sam’s article is long, and I found it easy to keep focused, but only because it was so well-written. I like your thoughts on the wispy nature of thoughts. Thanks for sharing your ideas!

  2. HyperActiveX

    May 31, 2009 at 5:30 am

    You are very welcome. And thanks for the kind words.

    You bring up a very relevant point about staying focused because of the quality of the writing. My 2 cents: in this attention span-challenged age, the purpose of good writing is to keep the reader engaged in spite of distractions. In the past, good writing was an end in itself, in an expressionistic kind of way.

  3. Suzanne

    June 2, 2009 at 6:25 pm

    I hear you on this one! I find it necessary to be hyperconnected for clients, and some days I wonder if I got anything done at all with all this “communciating.”

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