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(Matt French/The Globe and Mail)
(Matt French/The Globe and Mail)

Digital overload: How we are seduced by distraction Add to ...

The familiar worries about distracted attention and aimless busyness accompany every new form of communication, from the printing press to the telephone to the Internet. And always, points out Mark Jackson, a historian at Oxford University and author of The Age of Stress, the ensuing anxiety is the domain of intellectuals and the affluent middle class (even though it is poverty, not wealth, that creates the most destructive levels of stress).

Stress has become, says Dr. Jackson with some disdain, the modern-day version of gout, a diagnosis that served as evidence the 19th-century patient was prosperous enough – and his diet rich enough – to get him sick in the first place. The word “stress” didn’t enter into the vernacular until the 1950s – introduced, incidentally, by a Montreal-based researcher named Hans Selye – but stress as a status symbol has a lengthy precedent.

In fact, the pre-Facebook research of Dr. Selye, famous for articulating the early thinking of stress as a health risk, contains some compelling hints at a modern-day solution.

Stress, argued Dr. Selye, who died in 1982, “is not what happens to you, but how you react to it.” Later on, he came to see the speed of modern civilization, the political trauma of the Cold War and new technology as high-risk stressors. But even he pooh-poohed the notion that we were more stressed than generations prior.

In an interview in 1977, Dr. Selye weighed in on this question himself: “I doubt whether modern man experiences more distress than his ancestors. It’s not that people suffer more stress today. It’s just that they think they do.”

In other words, we are more stressed about being stressed.

Swept away

In David Levy’s class on mindfulness and technology at the University of Washington, one of the assignments requires students to videotape themselves while online to track their social media patterns. The results, says Prof. Levy, are revealing. Students watch themselves responding instantly to every distraction. They notice their facial expressions, their hunched shoulders. One student, Dr. Levy recalls, recorded himself posting a message to Facebook that later he had no memory of doing.

“Their biggest takeaway is to open up the possibility of having more choice when we are online,” Dr. Levy says. “So much of what we do is driven by habit. It tends to be semi-conscious or unconscious. Students are beginning to realize how important it is to set their attention – what am I wanting or needing to be doing at this moment?”

It is about being the master of your own digital life, says William Powers. “We are kind of like pinballs knocking around this electronic pinball machine, and not doing it very thoughtfully,” he says. “I can’t just be passive and do what Facebook and Twitter want me to do, which is stay connected 24/7 and look at ads. I have to stop letting the screen lead me around. That’s very different than saying, ‘Throw it out the window.’ ”

It’s comes down to being mindful, he writes in his book, rather than blindly adopting “digital maximalism” as a way of life. “What I am proposing is a new digital philosophy, a way of thinking that takes into account the human need to connect outward, to answer the call of the crowd, as well as the opposite need for time and space apart. The key is to strike a balance between the two impulses.”

Linda Stone suggests that people stop thinking about “time management” and start thinking about how to better manage their attention – to think about where we need or want our focus to be. That answer is individual; only we know when the convenience of sending an e-mail from home becomes a burden.

“What do we want to connect to?” she asks. “When I am on a date, do I want to be texting my friend, or do I want to be on a date? If I am a teenager, and I have just taken a photo at a party, do I want to be in that viral reality, looking to see how many likes I am collecting? We aren’t owning those choices.”

We are, instead, being swept into them, always on, yet never fully paying attention.

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