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Digital Distraction Syndrome

Digital Distraction Syndrome

    When I was a kid I couldn’t concentrate on homework while music was playing. The music was a distraction.

    Today I often need to put on headphones and play loud music in order to concentrate on work.

    What changed? Was it me?

    Here’s another data point, still in anecdotal territory, obviously. My stepson fought like a wounded badger for the right to play music while doing homework. He insisted it helped him concentrate, as it does for me as an adult. But his mom and I argued that music was a distraction to learning.

    We might have been wrong.

    My hypothesis, subject to your sage review, is that the baseline stimulation of normal life has become a higher distraction than loud music blaring in both ears. Music once created a distraction in a quiet world. Now music creates a bit of a buffer from the baseline circus of your normal existence. And in this context I do not mean the noise of the outside world so much as the mental distraction of simply knowing you might have a message if only you looked. Stuff like that.

    Music is somewhat predictable, especially for familiar songs, and it soon blends into the background of your mind, creating (in my experience) a sort of force field that keeps away the outside world. It is a defense against the distractions the world has inserted in your mind.

    It goes without saying that our digital devices are both awesome in function and distracting in nature. No one wants to return to pre-digital days. But we do need to be conscious of the entire impact of our new tech, not just the shiny bits.

    At the risk of being an alarmist, I’m going to go on record as saying Digital Distraction Syndrome (my name for it) is among the biggest health threats in the industrial world. The distractions of the digital age increase our stress, and stress makes us sick and crazy.

    90% of the adults I know are on drugs because of what they think is the normal stress of life. Here I am counting the doctor-prescribed meds, the binge-drinking on weekends, the medical marijuana, porn, tobacco, wine before dinner, or even the exercise addiction that gooses the body to release feel-good chemistry. 

    How’d we get here?

    Our largest and most important tech companies are literally in the business of distracting you with their advertisements and their apps. They design their products to maximize distraction, not efficiency, because your distraction is their profit. Distractions make you less effective, which makes you more stressed, which kicks the hell out of your general health. Then you die.

    In other words, our most important technology companies are killing you. 

    For money. 

    Like the tobacco companies. 

    Is that comparison too extreme? According to the CDC, smoking will cause one person out of 13 in my country to die prematurely. Stress will probably get one-third of us, but we will label those deaths with whatever symptoms the doctor saw last, such as cardiovascular disease.

    Our digital distractions are not the sole cause of our stress. But my best guess is that it accounts for about half of it in this day and age.

    The tech companies’ defense (one assumes) is that no one is forcing you to do anything, and the risks and benefits are fully disclosed. That’s the tobacco defense as well. If you want to smoke, that is up to you and your free will. Likewise, no one needs all of these digital distractions to survive. You can go without your smartphone if you want. Obviously you would be living like a savage who can’t figure out how to get a ride home or pay for food, but you could do it. With your free will and stuff.

    Don’t get me wrong. I think Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, and the other tech giants are huge assets to humankind. (Okay, not the last three.) I admire most of them on many levels. I love their products most of the time. I can’t imagine living without them.

    And that’s the point. They own me. Choice is an illusion unless I want to go full-caveman.

    If we could reboot civilization from the beginning and engineer a perfect economy, I doubt we would agree to give away our brain cycles to every company that asks. Here’s how that meeting would go:

    Primitive Guy 1: “Let’s build a vibrant economy that depends on distracting people from the things they want to do every minute of every day.”

    Primitive Guy 2: “Excuse me while I push this spear through your stupid head.”

    That plan would have never gotten off the ground. A civilization can only get to the point we are at right now by evolving over time. A few ads on roadside billboards probably reduced the boredom of driving. No one got hurt.

    Today the tech companies blast your neurons with so many stimulants – all of them science-tested for maximum impact – that all of us are operating on sensory overload and inching toward insanity.

    My best guess on the eventual death toll from Digital Distraction Syndrome is in the low tens-of-millions. For comparison, the second World War only killed 60 million. I think we’ll pass that mark with ease.

    Am I wrong?


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