A life less distracted

07mWfPxmsllCOuIebTM2z5z-1.fit_scale.size_1028x578.v1569489489Distractions have always been a part of life and humans have generally found ways to cope with them. But the number of distractions that we encounter each day has grown at a frightening rate over the last decade.

It was only 30 years ago this month that the first website made its debut on the World Wide Web,[1] and the explosive growth in communication technology has created an incubator churning out ever-increasing ways to become distracted.

Mobile devices are often identified as one the greatest distraction devices of our time. The impact of mobile devices extends far beyond FOMO and Phubbing [2], each of which in its own right is leaving a lasting mark on society and how we communicate. The problem extends beyond the annoyance of being Phubbed and the peculiar, but willing, disconnection of the Phubber from human interaction. Prioritizing interaction with a device over interaction with a human is the definition of not living in the moment. Years from now, you might remember a conversation you had with a person, but is there any chance you’ll remember that important text message that had to be answered in real-time?

Memory is a funny thing.

pone.0194878.g004The inability to recall the details of an event is an annoyance that everyone will experience at one time or another. But it may be more than an annoyance. There is evidence that using a smartphone as your constant companion, or even having it nearby, could negatively affect cognitive capacity. Researchers at the University of Chicago published a study [3] [4] that measured cognitive capacity among three groups. One group left their smartphone in another room, one group kept their smartphone in their pocket, and the third group kept their smartphone on their desk when taking the test. The differences were statistically significant – the highest scores on the test were by those whose phones were in another room followed by those who kept their phones in their pocket. The poorest scores were by the group that had clear line of sight to their phone. Similar results have been seen by other researchers – smartphones are not only distractions, but they are also distractions with cognitive consequences.

It’s sobering to think that there may be a cumulative impact on cognition with decades of smartphone-induced distraction. What are the consequences for those whose smartphone has been their constant companion for decades? We don’t know the answer to that question, but it is probably safe to say seeing a positive effect is unlikely.

Complex Adaptive Systems and technology

flock-of-birdsThe previous points relate to smartphone impacts on individuals, but far-reaching impacts on society are possible. Human society can easily be thought of as a complex adaptive system where uncoordinated or loosely coordinated actions of individuals leads to a collective action, an action that may have structure and function, but no identified leadership. This concept is elegantly articulated in a recent paper [5] [6] where the authors offer the following statement.

“There is no reason to suppose natural selection will have endowed us with dynamics that are intrinsically conducive to human wellbeing or sustainability. The same is true of communication technology, which has largely been developed to solve the needs of individuals or single organizations. Such technology, combined with human population growth, has created a global social network that is larger, denser, and able to transmit higher-fidelity information at greater speed. With the rise of the digital age, this social network is increasingly coupled to algorithms that create unprecedented feedback effects.”

For an example of this concept in action, one need look no further than the COVID-19 pandemic and the rampant, destructive misinformation that circulated through social media. There is little doubt that misinformation cost many, many lives. And where did it originate? Trump may have been a catalyst for much of the misinformation, but fundamentally, it was the independent action of individuals that that could take a spark of misinformation and fan it into a wildfire.

And the solution is…

Well, there is no solution. At least I don’t see how we can put the genie back in the bottle. It would be great if people could put their smartphone usage in perspective or realize that social media isn’t really social. Individuals will have to come to that realization all on their own. There is no amount of information or logical arguments that will convince people to reconsider their relationship with their smartphone or their use of social media. It’s an emotional connection between device and person that is resistant to such arguments. The epiphany will be different for everyone.

Colin Fletcher’s epiphany

Distractions have been around forever – technology has just accelerated them. I think one of the best examples of suddenly seeing a technology as a distraction comes from an experience that Colin Fletcher had in the Grand Canyon. Fletcher was an avid hiker and somewhat of a cult hero among backpackers of his time. This passage from his 1968 book, The Complete Walker [7] resonated with me so clearly that my approach to photography changed almost immediately.

“In order to photograph a scene that for interest and balance demanded a figure in the foreground, I had mounted my camera on its lightweight collapsible tripod for a delayed-action self-portrait shot. But as I moved into position a gust of wind sent camera and tripod crashing over. And afterward the shutter refused to function. I had brought only this camera down into the Canyon, and at first I simmered with frustration. But within an hour I discovered a new fact of life. I recognized, quite clearly, that photography is not really compatible with contemplation.  Its details are too insistent. They are always buzzing around your mind and clouding the fine focus of appreciation. You rarely detect this interference at the time and cannot do much about it even if you do. But the morning of the Serpentine reconnaissance, after the camera had broken, I found myself freed from an impediment that I had not known existed, I had escaped the tyranny of film. Now, when I came to something interesting, I no longer stopped, briefly to photograph and forget; I stood and stared, fixing truer images on the emulsion of memory.” p 120

Today, our cameras take many forms, but the lesson Fletcher learned from his broken camera is as relevant today [8] as it was in 1968.


[1] “A Look Back At The Very First Website Ever Launched, 30 Years Later” https://www.npr.org/2021/08/06/1025554426/a-look-back-at-the-very-first-website-ever-launched-30-years-later

[2] “Fear of missing out and problematic social media use as mediators between emotional support from social media and phubbing behavior”

[3] “Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity”

[4] “Having Your Smartphone Nearby Takes a Toll on Your Thinking”

[5] “Stewardship of global collective behavior”

[6] “Why some biologists and ecologists think social media is a risk to humanity”

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Complete_Walker

[8] “To Remember The Moment, Try Taking Fewer Photos” August 8, 2021


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