The Politics of Distraction

I think Ross Douthat is exactly right about the need for some kind of positive, strategic response to the smartphone age. “Compulsions are rarely harmless,” he writes, and therein lies the key point: Digital addiction is real, and its long term consequences, though mysterious now, will not be something to receive with gladness. Some may scoff at Douthat’s idea of a “digital temperance movement,” but scoff at your own peril. If hyperconnectivity and omni-distraction are indeed what we think they are, the cultural harvest from a digitally addicted age will stun.

In any event, now is certainly no time to be underestimating the long-term shaping effects of technology. Consider how incredibly prescient Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death seems in a post-election 2016 era. Is there any doubt that the television’s impact on the public square, especially its reliance on trivialization and celebrity, played a key role last year? If you were to close your eyes and imagine a United States without cable news as it exists right now, does it get easier or harder to mentally recreate the last few years of American politics? Postman warned in Amusing that television represented a watershed in mass epistemology. In other words, television changed not just how people received information, but how they processed it, and consequently, how they responded to it. Our political culture is a TV political culture, and 2016 was irrepressible proof of that.

You don’t have to venture far from this line of thinking to see why the digital age represents similar dangers. As Douthat mentions, the soft, inviting blue glow of impersonal personality and our Pavlovian responses to “Likes” and “Retweets” are enough of a rabbit hole themselves. But consider still the effect of the digital age on information. The online information economy is overwhelmingly clickbait: “content” custom designed by algorithms to get traffic and give as little as possible in return. Even more serious news and opinion writing, when subjected to the economic demands of the internet, often relies on misleading, hyperbolic, or reactionary forms of discourse.

In the digital age, the competition is not so much for people’s patronage but for their attention, and screams and alarms always get attention. This trend isn’t just annoying for readers and exasperating for writers. It represents a fundamental challenge to the discipline of thinking, and to the moral obligation to believe and speak true things. Postman warned that using lights and flashes to blend facts with entertainment would shape culture’s expectations of truth itself. When what is interesting/fun/sexy/cool/outrageous/ becomes indistinguishable, visually, from what is true, then what is true becomes whatever is interesting/fun/sexy/cool/outrageous. If this is true for television, it is exponentially more true for the smartphone, a pocket-sized TV with infinite channels.

Who can foresee the politics of a distracted age? What kind of power will conspiracy theorists who master the art of going viral wield in years to come? What kind of political ruling class will we end up with when a generation of would-be leaders have been Twitter-shamed out of their careers? It’s hard to say.

Can we reverse these trends? I do like much of what Douthat prescribes as antidote. But the fact is that the internet, social media, and the smartphone are not merely trendy fads. They are part of an emerging technological transformation. Facebook will wither and Twitter will fade, but the “age of ephemera” will stand. Resisting it will likely depend much more on what people value than what they fear. Loneliness, for example, is endemic in the social media generation. Does the healing of lonely souls with real physical presence disarm an important motivator in online addiction? That’s a question that every parent, and every church, should be asking right now. And of course, individuals fed up with the noise of pixels will trade in their smartphones and delete their accounts.

For those who really want to resist the age of distraction, there will be ways to do so. The hardest challenge will be for those who kinda want to resist but also want to be plugged in. These are the folks to whom the smartphone is most cruel. And perhaps the best advice that can be given for those of us in this camp is: Deactivate every now and again, go to church, walk outside frequently, and read at least 1 physical book per month. A distracted age is a loud age. Thankfully, the universe is, once you’re able to really listen to it, pretty quiet.