Shucking Oysters: The Hum of Distraction

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People just don’t seem so — how can I put it politely — savvy in their brain anymore. Three minute attention spans. Coles Notes interactions. No real conversations. And by conversation, I mean a verbal exchange, with an occasional question inserted in between. Nobody seems to be interested in learning about each another. Asking how you are doesn’t count. And besides, no one even listens when you respond. You could share that you are suffering from irritable bowel syndrome and nary a blink of the eye. We’ve lost that loving feeling. Do we blame the pandemic for literally obliterating our social skills? Or do we blame it on social media and “smart” phone addiction? 

I see so many of you on the ferry fixated on the glow, oblivious to your surroundings and thoughts. In your cars, in the lounge, all with your eyes glued to the screen, fingers, flicking, flicking, flicking. Swiping and scrolling in search of a connection or some illumination. It’s kind of fascinating and disturbing at the same time. 

But, does that thingie actually make you smarter? Sure, you can look up some factoid right away and impress others. “Did you know that mice always pee in the same place and rats have no control of their bladder and pee everywhere?” Is this a sign of intelligence? Able to distill bon mots in seconds? The world of digital technology is great at answering life’s small questions, like where can I find sweet potato starch noodles, yet it is distracting us from living our realities. 

We spend on average three to four hours a day looking at our phones and as much as eleven hours a day in front of all our screens. UofT Philosophy professor, Mark Kingwell, wrote that the interface is now our entire environment. “It is the air, the air of instant gratification that we breathe everyday.” The irony of this online “connection” Kingwell notes, is that it “continues to breed alienation and polarization, false notions of popularity … where loneliness begets loneliness in a shadow-play of promised connection.” 

It’s not about information and knowledge. We want wisdom. There’s a difference. We stumble through our messy lives, hoping to pick up scraps of wisdom here and there. Unfortunately, Eric Weiner warned, “we mistake the urgent for the important, the verbose for the thoughtful, the popular for the good.” We are “misliving.” Technology is dulling the wisdom of our intellect. We need to observe the world with our own senses. Like Hercule Poirot, we need to use our little grey cells more.

Many join Facebook to stay in touch with their friends but are unable to maintain an uninterrupted conversation with a friend sitting across from them. Cal Newport wrote in Digital Minimalism that “smart phones have reshaped people’s experience of the world by providing an always-present connection to a humming matrix of chatter and distraction.” The Like button, “bright dings of psuedo-pleasure,” is akin to gambling every time you post something on social media, “a metaphorical pull of the slot machine handle.” There you are, constantly checking to see how many Likes you have after you posted a picture of your Christmas turkey dinner. We are addicted to social approval.

When it comes to technology, more is better. More connections, more information, more options. The IPod gave us the ability to be continuously distracted from our own mind. The smart phone has creepy ways to disrupt any remaining sliver of solitude we have. The quick look at the slightest hint of boredom. Surreptitiously glancing at any number of apps or websites to give you that immediate and satisfying fix. This is not what we were designed for; “humans are not wired to be constantly wired.” 

The transformation of the cell phone from an occasionally useful tool to something we can never be without is not a good thing. The peer pressure of missing out on something is huge. Parents worry that their kids won’t be able to reach them in an emergency. People need directions and recommendations for the best Korean restaurant in Campbell River. Even executives will constantly check their phones for messages after business hours. 

Newport writes that “what’s remarkable about these concerns is how recently we started really caring about them.” Those of us born before the mid-80s have fond memories of life without a cell phone. And yes, all the concerns mentioned still existed in theory, we just didn’t worry about them as much. As Newport wrote loftily, cell phones are “useful, but it’s hyperbolic to believe its ubiquitous presence is vital.” 

Apparently, we humans are naturally wired to activities that require less energy. Texting your sister instead of calling her on a phone; liking a picture of a friend’s new baby instead of popping by for a visit. Social media is taking people away from real world socializing. We are missing the quality of the richer interactions. Compulsively flicking and swiping merely “emits a patina of socialness.”

Sherry Turkle wrote in Reclaiming Conversation that “face-to-face conversation is the most human — and humanizing — thing we do.” We learn to listen and to learn the meaning of empathy. Social media, emailing, texting, instant messaging do not count as conversation. Cell phones have become “woven into a fraught sense of obligation in friendship” where you have to be on-call “tethered to your phone, ready to be attentive, online.” Tapping a Like button is not friendship; it’s a hollow parody.

I’m not saying to get rid of those thingies, or stay offline, or throw the lot into a landfill. It’s not about technology, it’s about quality of life. Social media is addictive because it gives us something which the real world doesn’t: instant gratification and approval. I’m saying, enjoy the real world while you can.