The 5 questions to ask about online distraction

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New technology, in the form of mobile phones, email, texting, the Web, and, more specifically, Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, and other social media, enables us to be in a constant state of distraction (what we euphemistically like to call multitasking). Our ability to immerse ourselves in a single activity is becoming a lost art.

..[M]y concern is that we will lose our ability to absorb ourselves and find delight in the minutiae of life: the subtlety of the written language found in a book, the smell of lilacs while out for a walk, the sight of a hummingbird extracting nectar from a flower, the intellectual and emotional enjoyment of a stimulating conversation. And without these “simple pleasures” perhaps what will be most lost is the depth of happiness that can only come from unmediated, complete, and sublime engagement in life.

That’s the heart of Jim Taylor’s blog post today, Be Focused, Be Happy. In the past 6 months I’ve seen a number of people advance this kind of argument about the potentially deleterious impact of the Internet, but Jim’s post has to be one of the best-written, clearest and most compelling. And for that very reason, it helped me crystallize my concern about this growing genre of “The Internet is eating our happiness” arguments.

Here are the 5 questions that any argument about the distracting impact of the Internet has to answer:

1. What is the evidence showing that the Internet is the primary cause of distraction and disconnection?

I would agree that we are a presence-starved culture. But what makes us think that the Internet is the prime culprit? Shopping, booze, drugs (both legal and illegal), TV, work…there are dozens of ways that people numb out or multitask. I can’t argue that there is an element of self-soothing distraction to some of our online behavior, but it strikes me that the distraction of using social media has the virtue of involving some kind of human connection or creative expression. This brings me to my second question:

2. What is the basis for the claim that online activities are the distraction, and offline activities are the “real” focus?

Arguments about multitasking typically imply that our Twittering is distracting us from our offline meetings, or blogging is distracting us from our face-to-face relationships. That kind of argument is based on the implicit superiority, or at least superior “realness”, of our offline lives.

Yet our offline lives are full of artificiality: moments when we fail to speak honestly. Personas we adopt to avoid awkwardness or vulnerability. Meetings we don’t want to be at, jobs or relationships we don’t want to be in. In contrast, many people embrace their lives online (often under a pseudonym) because it allows them to be more genuine than they know how to be offline.

For those of us who are sometimes at our most genuine online, it seems preposterous to see the Internet as a distraction. On the contrary, our times online may include some of our moments of greatest presence: of full-throttle, fully immersed, fully awake commitment to being ourselves. Just the kind of moment that can bring us real happiness.

3. What’s the alternative?

Of course, not every moment online is that kind of fully present moment. As with our offline lives, life online is full of empty, thoughtless, numbed-out times: I say this as a woman who has lost a really appalling amount of time this month to Angry Birds.

So I’ll give this to Jim and all the other folks who are worried about the social and mental health impacts of our increasingly wired lifestyles: the way that many of us use the net, much of the time, is indeed cause for concern. But what’s the alternative?

The implication of Jim’s post — along with the New York Times’ Your Brain on Computers series, or Nick Carr’s The Shallows — is that we’ve got to switch off. Maybe not completely, but more than we do now.

To buy that argument is to give into despair. Because if you look at our history as a species, and especially over the past two hundred years, you’ve got to admit that our track record with the off switch is not exactly stellar. Where there is a new technology, there are people using it. I’m hard-pressed to think of a single example of a technology (broadly defined) that has been widely adopted and then widely rejected on the grounds of its social/mental health impact.

Which is to say that our daily, hourly use of the Internet is not going anywhere. So rather than wringing our hands over its deleterious impact, we need to think about how to use it constructively. To notice all the ways and moments it’s actually helping us be more present and more happy.

My desire to see the Internet in positive terms, if only because I think it’s irrevocably part of our lives, leads me to ask myself a question on a weekly if not a daily basis:

4. Am I just trying to justify my life online?

The inner (and outer) voice of any addict is full of claims about why the addictive behavior is not, actually, a problem. So just as I interrogate any Internet skeptic with the three questions above, I regularly ask myself whether they might, in fact, be right about the Internet. Maybe it is just a big addiction, distraction, pathology.

And then I have one of those moments: the moment where I write something for my blog that has me deeply, fully immersed in the writing process in a way I would never experience if I didn’t have an immediate channel for self-publication. The moment when I make a human connection and talk frankly about something very personal with someone else who shares the same challenge…even though we’ve never met offline, and perhaps don’t know each other’s names. The moment when I discover some miracle of creativity and joy online because someone else has found a unique and delightful form of self-expression.

Those are the moments that let me know that my faith in our ability to make constructive, meaningful use of the Internet isn’t just the voice of denial. And they’re the moments that inspire one last question — or perhaps it’s a challenge — to everyone who worries about the deleterious effects of the Internet:

5. How could you create your own experience of presence and happiness online?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

1 Comment on this site

  1. Meredith Kelly Oke

    Thank you for this thoughtful piece. My experience has shown me that, like alcohol or shopping, the internet becomes whatever I make it. If I’m going to mindlessly fill the void any vehicle will do. However, unlike alcohol or shopping, I can also use the internet as a tool to engage my need for self-expression, relatedness and professional growth. As a stay at home mom transitioning back to work the ‘distractions’ of social media have been my lifeline to the ‘real’ world.

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