Online Distraction

Yes, I know. It has been a long time since I’ve written here on this blog. Well, much of the reason that I haven’t is actually a result of the topic that I’ve wanted to write about: distraction.

I wanted to write. Really I did. I also wanted to read the books on my bookshelf. But something was getting in my way. Distraction was my problem, and it still is. Well, I needed someone to blame for it all. Was it the incessant chime of a new email in my inbox? Was it work ringing my cell phone? Was it that next big project I wanted to get done on my computer? Was it the text messages vibrating night and day in my pocket? Was it the movie my roommates were watching downstairs in the cool basement on a hot summer’s day?

Then, I had it. I had my scapegoat. It was right there, constantly on, and constantly connected to me. Distracting me when I hadn’t asked it to. It was technology.

Yeah, that was it. I knew there was a Luddite within me reaching out— especially after naming my blog after an essay of the contemporary Luddite, Wendell Berry. <Now, don’t look too far into the irony of putting the words “my blog” and “Luddite” in the same sentence. > For those of you who aren’t familiar with Neo-Luddism, it may be the medication for this symptom of evil in today’s society. Based on the historical legacy of British Luddites, who infamously destroyed machines of the Industrial Revolution between 1811 and 1816, Neo-Luddism has been awakened to critique the effects of technology on individuals and their communities.

I had my facts*. I had been gathering all of the damning evidence to liberate the masses! “Soon, my dear friends, we will be free! Free of the curse of Adam and Eve’s Apple®! That irritable fruit with its iPhone, iPad, and iPod, cursing us to toil the fields with the swipe of our finger! We will continue to hold our Motorola RAZR with pride once more and bask in its un-smart phone glory! This is where the future lies — it lies within the past!”

Well, maybe not. Something still wasn’t right. I spent hours writing my manifesto against technology. Hours and hours finding the right stance, with the right amount of wit, personality and a proclivity for wisdom. I knew that in order to reach the masses, I must speak in their “blog language.” But the answer was obvious in these facts; many people were seeing the same thing I saw in this new mobile digital era. This was the end-all be-all truth that had to be fought, freeing us from the slavery of distraction… right?

A friend challenged me to give up my laptop and cell phone for a mere 36 hours. “Yeah, here’s the solution to my distraction,” I thought. I had been following all the articles I could on how the digital world has taken us away from something real within ourselves and from our relationship with others. So, the best way to overcome this evil force was to withdraw from it, or at least limit my time in its abyss.

I started my “digital fast”.  Almost instantly once turning off my phone, I felt myself tensing up. I was disconnecting. No one would speak to me in those 36 hours. How could they? I had turned off ALL means of communication to my generation: no Facebook, no email, no text messages, not even a phone call. There was a fear left within me: I was going to be alone.

I admit that it’s a bit dramatic. I have roommates to begin with, and so I would be alone as one can be alone with others. I found myself with new time on my hand. There were no longer any emails to write and voicemails to respond to. I was here … in this moment … with myself … alone. Later I found myself immersed in the shelves of Powell’s Books downtown, picking up a worn book with a very 1970s’ cover graphic of autumn green and orange colors reading, “Reaching Out | HENRI J.M. NOUWEN”.

I had heard many things about this Dutch-born Catholic priest and writer, Henri Nouwen. I’ve heard how many friends adore him both as a person and as a writer. He had been on my list, so I here I was finally reading it. I’m usually tempted to skip the introductions and forewords to books so I can go straight into the heart of the book, but this time I didn’t. As I read these short introductory pages, I was instantly drawn in, and even found myself underlining large sections of the short passages. He knew exactly what I was talking about and had the key, written there in 1975.

As I read more and more, a real sense of awareness came to me. It turns out that this whole struggle wasn’t technology’s fault — it was mine. The problem lay deeper with me. Getting rid of my laptop, my internet access, and cell phone wasn’t going to fix my problem of distraction. These were symptoms of my issue, but they were not the disease. We are a symptom-based society, and not a core-adjusting one. Here, Nouwen writes:

When we have no project to finish, no friend to visit, no book to read, no television to watch or no record to play, and when we are left all alone by ourselves we are brought so close to the revelation of our basic human aloneness and are so afraid of experiencing an all-pervasive sense of loneliness that we will do anything to get busy again and continue the game which makes us believe everything is fine after all.

Wow. He goes on to write how the individual constantly lives in the tension between two poles:  the polarity of loneliness and the polarity of solitude. We have become such an individualized society seeking constant forms of validation of clever tweets and Facebook comments that we have lost ourselves. We have forgotten to give space to form a connection and understand our personal self.

How telling it was of me to feel “alone” when disconnecting my laptop and mobile phone. I wasn’t excited to enjoy my now freed up time. I felt lonely.

We are lonely. We allow ourselves to be distracted so that we do not feel alone. The whole point of social medias and all of this digital connectivity is to be distracted. We want to be distracted. It’s why we leave our doors open in our offices and to our rooms. We want people to walk by and ask what we are up to, or if we’d like to go to lunch. Only in times when people are annoying us do we feel that we want to be left alone, but when we are lonely we’ll return to embrace community. Nouwen, however,  asks us to embrace our loneliness. “By-passing loneliness, hostility or illusion will never lead us to solitude, hospitality and prayer. We will never know for sure if we will fully realize the new life that we can discover in the midst of the old.

Now, I still live with the chime of my inbox and the vibration of my text messages. And as romantic I may be for a different era, there’s no leaving behind this modern world of smart phones and social networking of any form. Technological progress doesn’t make life better, it just changes the way we live it. But the question is, will I leave the space to hear from myself every now and again?

When our life ceases to be inward and private, conversation degenerates into mere gossip. We rarely meet a man who can tell us any news which he has not read in a newspaper, or been told by his neighbor; and, for the most part, the only difference between us and our fellow is that he has seen the newspaper, or been out to tea, and we have not. In proportion as our inward life fails, we go more constantly and desperately to the post office. You may depend on it, that the poor fellow who walks away with the greatest number of letters proud of his extensive correspondence has not heard from himself this long while.

– Henry David Thoreau, Walden


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