While watching an episode of Sherlock the other night, my 13-year-old sat on the couch texting from his iPod, repelling enemy incursions on Clash of Clans on an iPad and glancing randomly at the TV. When I suggested he was missing the witty repartee between Watson and Holmes, he shrugged and said: “Mom, I’m paying attention. This is how everyone watches TV now.”
Who was I to judge? My BlackBerry lay on the table beside me, its e-mail alert flashing with false urgency. And I often spiralled into the Internet’s vortex myself, clicking, for instance, on an academic article about technology and distraction and somehow winding up at a viral video about a Brazilian cyclist who is sideswiped by a speeding truck and lands, miraculously, on a mattress. How I got there, I couldn’t say. According to my browser’s Web history, I checked out a science book on Amazon, then hopped to the latest news about the missing Flight 370. Along the way, the headline “You won’t believe what happens to this cyclist” proved irresistible – which was precisely the point. In these information-overloaded days, the game is on, to quote Sherlock, and the prize is our eyeballs.
Software companies and app developers are desperate to grab our attention. Scientists are studying how to capture it. Bosses, worried about lost productivity, are keenly trying to focus it. Even our live-blogging, picture-sharing friends are looking for a piece of it. Never has our gaze been so carefully measured or so highly coveted.
But if our attention is so valuable – a finite resource in a land of perpetual interruption – then why do we give it away so carelessly? There is growing scientific evidence that sprinting through the day in a state of super-charged distraction takes a serious toll on our mental and physical health.
Like the slowly boiling frog, we have failed to notice that the convenience of staying connected has become a stress-inducing burden. Our smartphones whine at us like petulant children, as Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, a Stanford University expert on technology and distraction, puts it. And we just keep saying yes, answering every tweet, e-mail and ring tone, and therefore, often unconsciously, saying no to something else. It’s careless spending: “Your ability to focus on what’s important is absolutely fundamental to the life you want to live,” says Mr. Pang, who explored the subject in his recent book The Distraction Addiction.
Technology was supposed to make life simpler, but Words with Friends is only fun until the “your turn” reminders start to nag. E-mail, according to workplace surveys, is the most reviled of time-wasters. And when we check yet another pointless e-mail while reading bedtime stories to our kids, what did we miss? When a smartphone interrupts dinner with friends mid-sentence, what real connection was lost?
“We have been seduced by distraction,” says psychologist Daniel Goleman, the author of Focus: the Hidden Driver of Excellence. “We are being pulled away from paying attention to the things that enrich our lives.”
It’s so hard to resist the life that the social-media machine has created for us, one in which we are both consumer and producer, sharing generously of our own creative energy and expending our attention in a self-nourishing loop, from which someone else – Google, Facebook, Apple – plucks the profit. We’re digital junkies, exponentially creating our own pit of distraction while despairing that we are so distracted. Almost all the data in the world has been created in the last two or three years – mostly by the lay denizens of the Internet. In a recent media interview, Dave Evans, the chief futurist at Cisco Systems, calculated that there are now 12-billion devices connected to the Internet. “In a decade,” he promised, “there will be 50 billion.”
That’s us, by the way, on the other end, hooked into the matrix. Canada is already a world leader in online consumption; according to a recent online Ipsos poll, those who owned a smartphone – that is, half the country – claimed to spend 86 per cent of their time staring at one screen or another.
No wonder our attention spans are spent by day’s end. There is no place for quiet contemplation. When are we ever able to think of nothing, to daydream in the grocery line, to zone out in the elevator? In our pockets, above our heads, at our desks, there’s always a screen beckoning.