Published on July 10th, 2019 | by Sunit Nandi


Technology and Distraction: It’s Time to Take a Stand

Decades ago, Albert Einstein said, “The human spirit must prevail over technology.” At the time, technology was not even an iota as ubiquitous as it is today. Yet, Einstein predicted that at some point in our lives, technology might not necessarily mean progress. In fact, he contended that it may lock horns with the essence of humanity. Thus, the question arises: Are we at that point today?

Proponents of technology and everything the term encompasses would argue that it is beneficial, solving and simplifying what were once complex issues. They’re not wrong — technology has definitely helped dramatically advance our world. Technology seems to be everywhere today, permeating every aspect of our lives. This ability to be almost omnipresent has had several impacts on society, and not all of them are good.

One common undesirable side-effect of technology is our newfound penchant for distraction. A Special Report by the Financial Times that tackles work-life balance and digital distractions states, “Our behaviour is changing as a result of an information and communications overload, both at work and in our personal lives. Finding a way to manage the barrage is an important challenge as the information economy develops.” How big of an issue is this “overload,” and what can we do to avoid it?

Image Source: Pixabay

What’s the Big Deal?

One quick scroll through Instagram, sneaking a peek at Facebook at work, responding to WhatsApp messages at a stoplight — it takes just a minute. So what’s the fuss about? Each of these small interactions made possible by technology are a constant source of distraction. And let’s be honest, that one minute can quickly snowball into hours.

Whether at work, school and on the road, distractions as a result of technology can have some serious consequences. For one, distracted driving can result in death. Today, it’s not unusual to see drivers look at their phones at a stoplight. Even worse, instances of texting and driving have become commonplace.

But did you know that every time drivers text, their attention veers away from the road for at least five seconds? In fact, when someone messages others while driving, they are 23 times more likely to be involved in a car accident. They endanger everyone else on the road. Eliminating distractions from driving can help you arrive safe, and while this seems extremely obvious, many people still don’t drive phone-free.

Why do we still ignore the facts and give in to temptation when it comes to technology? Author James Williams, in an article in The Guardian, attributes our behavior to what he calls the “treadmill of incompetence.” In the past, new forms of technology took years to be adopted and adapted to. Times are different now, and new technologies are rapidly integrated and scaled to millions of consumers within a matter of months or even days. According to Williams:

The constant stream of new products this unleashes — along with the ongoing optimisation of features within products already in use — can result in a situation in which users are in a constant state of learning and adaptation to new interaction dynamics, familiar enough with their technologies to operate them, but never so fully in control that they can prevent the technologies from operating on them in unexpected or undesirable ways.

In Williams’ opinion, this is the treadmill of incompetence we are living on.

The Attention Economy

While the attention economy has always existed, with products and developments always vying for more human attention, technology today has taken it to another level. Cal Newport, associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University, in the report on Financial Times, says, “when you combine this business model with powerful handheld devices that are always connected to the internet, algorithms being weaponized to extract as much of our time and attention as possible, and hundreds of billions of dollars of investment, suddenly the societal impacts become worrisome.”

Worrisome it is indeed. The constant distractions as a result of technology at work, school, and in our personal lives make us less productive, more irritable, and less proficient in our cognitive functions. In simpler terms, this means constantly distracting technology can make us slower and dumber humans. According to Newport, the information overload that is at our fingertips stops us from concentrating deeply and, consequently, resting deeply.

Our aversion to “being bored” and quickly reaching for technology when we are in a state of boredom can be very damaging. The need for distraction means that our brains never rest — and it is only in this state that we do our most creative thinking. Workplaces can be optimized to increase productivity, but it’s important to know how much technology to include in that process.

According to Manoush Zomorodi, author of “Bored and Brilliant” and quoted in the Financial Times article above, it is in this default mode that, “We take two seemingly disparate ideas and smash them together to make something new. And we do autobiographical planning. We look back at our life, take note of highs and lows, create personal narratives, and look at our future and decide where we want to go.” The distractions of technology are preventing us from doing exactly this.

It’s All About Control

The distractions we face today can only be combated through self-regulation. We all know that freedom comes with responsibility, and this couldn’t be truer than in the case of technology. We need limits to safeguard ourselves. Unfortunately, technology today yields quick rewards, and as Williams states, “If these rewards arrive faster than the disciplines of prudence can form, then self-control will decline with affluence: the affluent (with everyone else) will become less prudent.”

With appropriate regulation and self-control, however, we can stand to benefit greatly from technology. For instance, consider social media usage in regulated industries like finance. An article by Washington State University states, “Social media usage can benefit financial disclosures in numerous ways. Management is able to manipulate the three-way communication channel through company communications in the form of posts or tweets, individual investor comments communicated to the company, and investor comments communicated to other investors.”

The ability to disseminate information quickly through technological developments can even stand affect stock prices. In this way, rather than being a mere distraction, technology can be used to benefit businesses.

In our personal lives too, technology can help us. Ironically, technology itself is one of the many proposed solutions to digital distractions. Employers around the globe are trying technological solutions to facilitate communication and eliminate distractions. Examples include:

  • Apps like Slack that help reduce email overload and thus reduce distractions.
  • Internet blockers are a viable way to force people to disconnect from certain sites.
  • Apps like Headspace, Be Focussed and Calm — though a result of technology — are extremely useful to reduce stress and recenter one’s mind.

These developments are of much importance in our tech-dependent lifestyles, and are especially critical in the workplace where stress in abundant. A study by Ontrack that involved 150 employees showed that 77% of the respondents felt overburdened by their work, and 89% had to work overtime. To reduce these numbers, it is integral to avoid distractions, increase productivity, and lower stress — all of which can be achieved through a mixture of self-regulation and technological assistance.

Ultimately, self-control is key when it comes to technology. Digital distractions are plentiful and ever-present, but we need to ensure that they don’t overpower us. Otherwise, we risk becoming duller, dumber, distractible individuals who will continue slowly but surely sacrificing facets of our humanity for technology.

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About the Author

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I'm the leader of Techno FAQ. Also an engineering college student with immense interest in science and technology. Other interests include literature, coin collecting, gardening and photography. Always wish to live life like there's no tomorrow.

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