Is modern technology creating a culture of distraction?

Are all the modern devices and digital conveniences we have at our disposal — from the web and social media to smartphones and tablets — making us more distracted and less able to concentrate? And is this harming our ability to think and be creative, and therefore by extension harming society as a whole? It’s a question that rears its head from time to time. One of the latest expressions of this fear comes from Joe Kraus, a serial entrepreneur who is now a partner with Google Ventures and gave a presentation recently about his concerns, offering an alternative concept he calls “Slow Tech.” But is this really something that we need to be afraid of?
In his presentation, Kraus argues that the incessant demands of cellphones and social media, not to mention email and other forms of distraction, are making it difficult for us to connect with other people — including our families — and also endangering our ability to think about anything other than the next jolt of stimulation from the devices we have all around us, which he compares to the constant stimulus of a slot machine at a casino. As he describes it:

We are creating and encouraging a culture of distraction where we are increasingly disconnected from the people and events around us, and increasingly unable to engage in long-form thinking. People now feel anxious when their brains are unstimulated.
We are losing some very important things by doing this. We threaten the key ingredients behind creativity and insight by filling up all our ‘gap’ time with stimulation. And we inhibit real human connection when we prioritize our phones over the people right in front of us.

Is multi-tasking just a myth?

Kraus says he has an “unhealthy relationship” with his phone and is constantly pulling it out to check things, and that if he lets it, that behaviour “fills up those gaps in my day — some gaps of boredom, some of solitude.” The effect of all of this, he argues, is that we are increasingly distracted, and less able to pay attention to anything for a reasonable length of time, and this distraction is a “worsening condition.” We may think that we are getting things accomplished or multi-tasking, he says, but brain studies show that multi-tasking is a myth, and in reality we are just trying to do too many things at once and overloading our brain’s ability to concentrate.
The Google Ventures partner and former co-founder of also quotes sociologist Dr. Sherry Turkle, to the effect that: “We are lonely but fearful of intimacy. Digital connections offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. We expect more from technology and less from each other.”
This explains the constant desire for virtual contact, Kraus says — and that contact gets in the way of real relationships.

Kraus is far from the only one to raise the warning flag about any of this: Turkle has written about how the internet doesn’t help form real relationships, but fosters a kind of fake intimacy. Nicholas Carr argues in his book The Shallows that the internet and social media are making us less intelligent — and less interesting — and are actually changing our brains in negative ways. Others have also written about how they are trying to minimize the distractions their phones provide in the way of notifications, and there are a host of apps to help you concentrate when you are using your computer.
I would be the first to agree that time without a phone or tablet is a valuable thing, and that it’s good to take long walks (or baths, the place where Archimedes famously discovered the law of hydrostatics) and think big thoughts. And I also wrestle — as Kraus does — with the desire to look at the phone during meals and other times when I am with my family. But is this really a social disaster waiting to happen? And is it changing us and our brains for the worse? I have my doubts about that, just as I have my doubts about Nick Carr’s argument that the internet is making us dumber and less interesting, or that Facebook or any other social network is making us lonely.

Distraction of all kinds can be good as well as bad

Is technology changing, and society along with it? Of course it is — but that doesn’t mean we are becoming worse in some way, or necessarily losing anything crucial. In fact, we are just as likely to be gaining as losing. When Carr made his argument about the distractions of the internet, I had just finished reading a piece that Paul Kedrosky wrote for The Edge collection, in which he argued that one of the things he liked best about the internet and social media was the way in which it bombarded him with random data and content — the way that molecules are bombarded with other particles during quantum research — and that this produced all sorts of wonderful combinations of ideas:

The democratization of connections, collisions and therefore thinking is historically unprecedented. We are the first generation to have the information equivalent of the Large Hadron Collider for ideas. And if that doesn’t change the way you think, nothing will.

Not everyone can consume (or make sense of) quite as many diverse information sources as Kedrosky can, but his point is a good one: the random information flow that we are bathed in when we are online or using social media and devices like smartphones can just as easily be a source of inspiration and creativity as a killer of those things. Why is looking out the window or going for a walk more conducive to reflection than browsing through a friend’s Tumblr stream? I am not against walks or daydreaming — but there are plenty of ways to daydream and think big thoughts, and the shower or the hiking trail is not the only place that happens.
Is there a need for moderation when it comes to phones or the internet or social media? Of course there is, and social norms are developing around those things, just as they developed around the horseless carriage and the telephone and plenty of other modern inventions. One of the devices that has historically drawn the most criticism from scholars and theologians for its corrupting effect on humanity seems to have worked out pretty well — it’s called the book. If we can figure that out, I’m sure we can figure out how to handle cellphones and status updates.