Andrew Sullivan on Distraction Sickness

On this week’s episode of the Track Changes podcast, co-host Rich Ziade mentioned a recent piece in New York magazine by Andrew Sullivan, former successful, professional blogger. The title of the piece is “I Used to Be A Human Being” and centers around Sullivan’s increasing disquiet with the hyper-connected world we live in, and living the online life. As one who has often felt the draw of that online life, and the thrill of seeing the attention that something I say online accrues, I read the piece with interest, and it was a worthwhile read.

Early in the post, Sullivan writes,

We absorb this “content” (as writing or video or photography is now called) no longer primarily by buying a magazine or paper, by bookmarking our favorite website, or by actively choosing to read or watch. We are instead guided to these info-nuggets by myriad little interruptions on social media, all cascading at us with individually tailored relevance and accuracy. Do not flatter yourself in thinking that you have much control over which temptations you click on. Silicon Valley’s technologists and their ever-perfecting algorithms have discovered the form of bait that will have you jumping like a witless minnow. No information technology ever had this depth of knowledge of its consumers — or greater capacity to tweak their synapses to keep them engaged.

In my case, at least, there is truth to this. I’ve been victim to the relentless pull of click-bait from time-to-time, curious by slugs like “20 Celebrities You Didn’t Know Died Before 40,” and similar ilk. None of this is more obvious than in a close election year, when the cacophony of online voices vying for audience is almost deafening. Trying to penetrate is like trying to identify a single voice in the roar of a stadium crowd. No wonder tactics have evolved to grab eyeballs.

Sullivan then goes on to the more practical matter of how this engagement affects us, or him, at any rate, and again, I recognized myself in some of what he wrote.

A small but detailed 2015 study of young adults found that participants were using their phones five hours a day, at 85 separate times. Most of these interactions were for less than 30 seconds, but they add up.

I am far from the days when I could be considered a young adult, but I can related to the person Sullivan describes. Silence of any kind compels me to check my phone. Elevator silences, standing among a car full of vertical writers, draws my phone from my pocket the way the moon draws the tides. I crave quiet moments, I find myself envious of people like Henry David Thoreau. And still, the relentless gravity well of the Internet draws at me. Part of the reason, is the social animal in all of us. As Sullivan writes,

The interruptions often feel pleasant, of course, because they are usually the work of your friends. Distractions arrive in your brain connected to people you know (or think you know), which is the genius of social, peer-to-peer media.

But there is a darker side to this, one that I’ve been hesitant to admit to myself:

We were hooked on information as eagerly as sugar. And give us access to gossip the way modernity has given us access to sugar and we have an uncontrollable impulse to binge. A regular teen Snapchat user, as the Atlantic recently noted, can have exchanged anywhere between 10,000 and even as many as 400,000 snaps with friends. As the snaps accumulate, they generate publicly displayed scores that bestow the allure of popularity and social status. (Bolded text is mine)

How many more followers will this tweet garner? How many likes will I get? How many people have seen this post today? What, not enough? Do I need to write something more to surpass the thousand, two thousand, ten thousand, one hundred thousand views I had yesterday?

This is an ugly side to social media (not the only ugly side) and one that I’ve been reluctant to admit that I am guilty of participating in. Another dark side to this life on the Internet is the life you are missing all around you:

But of course, as I had discovered in my blogging years, the family that is eating together while simultaneously on their phones is not actually together. They are, in Turkle’s formulation, “alone together.” You are where your attention is. If you’re watching a football game with your son while also texting a friend, you’re not fully with your child — and he knows it.

I have been equally guilty of this. I’ve sat in my home office, while my kids have asked me questions, or asked for help, and I’ve put them off with, give me five minutes to finish this post. Give me a few minutes to wrap things up online. Then, when we’re out doing things together, I find my mind wandering to, “Hey wouldn’t this make an interesting post?” and “I should take a picture of this and put it on Instagram.”

This distinction between online life and real life was a clear wake up call to Sullivan. And while I don’t think things are quite as extreme in my case (or perhaps, I am just unwilling to admit it), I found myself reading this piece, nodding, and saying, yeah, yeah, that’s it. That’s it exactly. As Roland of Gillead might say, “You understand me very well.”

Don’t expect an overnight change. And don’t get me wrong. There are things about social media that I love. Blogging, especially, is a creative outlet that I wish I had even as a kid. No matter how often I hear that the blog is dead, I still come here and write because I love the medium. But, small changes here and there… are they even possible?

Since graduating from college way back in 1994, I feel like I’ve changed from someone who was perfectly okay with down time to someone who feels the need to be doing something at every waking moment of the day. Even doing nothing, I feel like I should be listening to an audiobook. I find it almost impossible to sit in silence and do nothing. Or, as Sullivan writes:

Yes, online and automated life is more efficient, it makes more economic sense, it ends monotony and “wasted” time in the achievement of practical goals. But it denies us the deep satisfaction and pride of workmanship that comes with accomplishing daily tasks well, a denial perhaps felt most acutely by those for whom such tasks are also a livelihood — and an identity.

In any event, Sullivan’s piece is worth reading and pondering. His might be an extreme case, given his voracious appetite to produce content, but it does stand as a cautionary tale that we can all learn from. I find myself wondering:

  • Can I manage to walk to the grocery store without take my phone with me?
  • Can I stroll around Burke Lake with my family without feeling the need to snap photos of the fall foliage and immediately post them to Instagram?
  • Do these experiences need to be shared in realtime with the rest of the world as if I am on some kind of stage?

And perhaps, most importantly: Where is the right balance? One of Kelly’s favorite expressions is “everything in moderation.” What does moderation look like in an infinite galaxy of ever-changing content?

3 thoughts on “Andrew Sullivan on Distraction Sickness

  1. I also read this article and it really hit home. The bit about people in the same space being on their phones and not actually being together sadly characterises so many social contexts. It has also prompted me to make a point of not doing it when I am with my family (at least, not so much). Our kids have started doing something similar when they can play with devices on weekends and it’s more than a little disturbing.

    You also mentioned how conflicted you feel when you are out with your kids and feel the urge to take a photo or note an idea for a post (or even when you ask your kids to give you a few minutes to finish something). I have that experience all the time. My compromise is to take the photo and share it later and note the idea on my phone and revisit it later (my memory isn’t what it once was so if I don’t make a note of the idea, it is usually lost to me). If I tell my kids I’ll be finished some task in 5 minutes, I make sure that I am done in 5 minutes, regardless.

    My overriding thought is to be mindful of what I am doing and the time I take away from what could be shared moments. The one area I am a bit more lax is when it comes to photos. I have a tendency to stop frequently to take photos and my family has come to accept that, albeit reluctantly. It’s is a little less disruptive if I have my DSLR with me because I can’t post to Instagram with that. 🙂

  2. We are heading off on our annual holiday vacation in a little over a week, and I have promised myself to try to be more mindful, as you have suggested. I’ve made (and broken) this promise before, so we’ll see how things go when the rubber hits the road.

    We got a DSLR a few years ago and don’t use it as much as I thought we would. But this is a great reason to use it more. There is no temptation to post right away!

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