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We’re creating a culture of distraction (joekraus.com)
143 points by nava 1787 days ago | hide | past | web | 47 comments | favorite

Perhaps some of the most enlightening years of my life were towards the end of high school, when my computer died. At the time I was going through a youthful phase of freeing myself from worldly attachment. I just didn't bother fixing it or getting another. All my electronics and possessions, save for my stereo system, some books, and writing tools were packed away or sold. I wore pretty much the same clothes every day.

At school, I got in trouble for writing my essays on paper, when they were to be typed. I had no way of communicating with my friends who were all using cellphones and IM, so I just talked to them at school if I saw them. If I wanted to play video games, I went to the arcade, and since I had no car, it was always a fun adventure getting there and back. From the perspective of others, I was becoming an outcast. From my new perspective, they were the outcasts - out of touch with themselves, mindless robots in an artificial reality.

I spent my time reading books, writing my thoughts down, sketching ideas, taking walks, observing humans and nature, introspecting, and developing my personal philosophy and plans for the future.

Eventually I grew out of the phase, bought a bunch of new stuff, including a new computer, and got addicted to the Internet harder than ever. It led to a lot of great things - getting better at programming, participating in a bunch of online communities, making money, sharing my work and thoughts, and finding inspiration from others. However, there is always a nagging feeling that my younger self is questioning my lifestyle.

No matter how far in the zone I am, how much effort I take to remove the distractions from my environment, how secluded a place I go to get away from it all - I cannot reach the level of clarity and the perspective from those days. Just knowing that sweet feeling that awaits once I am jacked into a live connection again, and hit the browser tab, is enough.

The crux is not a culture of distraction - it is that our culture, especially our technology, is too heavily skewed towards consumption over creation. To make full use of our humanity, we need to be able to take the time to look inside ourselves - we need to allow ourselves to be distracted from within. The Internet by nature creates connections outwards - perhaps balance can be restored by finding its inverse. An Intronet?

A computer, much like paper and other creative mediums, is an impressive tool for exploring and expressing the inner self. An Intronet may actually be a cultural shift in computing rather than a technological development.

Arguably, psychodynamic therapy is a form of your described Intronet. It's the practice of reflecting on things already present (memories, repeated thoughts, patterns of behavior, even dreams at times) and hypothesizing insightful connections. It doesn't emphasize the acquisition of new knowledge from outside sources.

Many have discarded psychodynamic and other long form therapies for practical reasons (expense, indefinite time commitment), but perhaps regular time slots for forming connections by exploring inwards — rather than from new information from the world — is the key to achieving balance.

Mindfulness, meditation, and so on are also included in this. Psychodynamic therapy happens to offer a verbal approach.

Your story reminds me of Thoreau's motivation for Walden (highly recommended to anyone who hasn't read it).

With this in mind, it feels like the sentiment expressed by the author of the posted link, yourself, and many others (including myself) might just be a constant of humanity, no better or worse now than it ever was (much like many other things; for instance adults saying that teenagers are more disrespectful than ever, which is a feeling that the ancient greeks expressed several millennia ago).

Funny you mention. Walden was one of the books I read during that period of my life, and it heavily influenced me.

Also related, the idea of Degrowth (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Degrowth).

"our culture, especially our technology, is too heavily skewed towards consumption over creation" - This really cuts it to the core!

>""our culture, especially our technology, is too heavily skewed towards consumption over creation" - This really cuts it to the core!"

Perhaps, but I don't buy it. In my opinion, our technology has enabled us to "create" on levels never seen in history. The ability to "have an audience" at your fingertips has provided everyone and their mother with a platform to generate media, be it music, literature, movies or graphic art.

You are both right. The Internet is a tool like fire. Very powerful in both ways.

Sounds like you were quite hypermaterialized and overstimulated a mid high schooler, if you had all those things to sell/discard.

Oh the irony of distracting myself by reading this on Hacker News, then making a comment which I will flip back to and check reflexively for the next two hours.

I'm glad to hear I'm not the only one that goes back and checks their comments.

I know it's superficial, but it still gives me a buzz to wake up in the morning and see a bunch of up votes and replies to something I wrote the night before. It's equally frustrating when I say something I think is smart and it gets ignored.

Damn you internet, validate my existence!

Here, let me feed your habit a little more. ;-)

I don't think it's about validating your existence. I think it's that internet communities are gradually replacing more traditional forms of interaction. We, even introverts, still crave some amount of interaction; if we don't get useful interaction elsewhere, we can maybe get it online.

HN, and email, and everything like it becomes a lot less important to me if I've spent the day having fun with other people. (Counterpoint: I also wind down on HN after a stressful day of dealing with other people.)

I read the first half of the first item and closed the page. I was going to write more on this subject, but now I'm going to submit this comment as is and close the page.

While this was certainly not a manic episode I did go through a period where I threw out or sold many of my possessions. I decided to leave all my electronic items at work. This included my laptop, netbook, computer monitor and various other gadget doohickeys from a lifetime of impulsive Thinkgeek shopping. Now I have a cluttered desk at the office and virtually nothing at home. But not having a computer at home has been incredibly liberating. Four weeks ago I lost my smartphone and seeing as how I don't have a computer at home I couldn't check my emails, my messages or log into Skype. All I had was an old iPod shuffle filled with Melanie Safka songs. Those few days without my phone and without any way to connect to the internet were the two greatest days of this year. I read comics from the comic book store, took a walk around the city and at night when the city noise gets too much, I put on my little earphones and listen to Melanie on my iPod.

I eventually got my phone back thanks to a honest taxi driver and on occasion, I've simply left it at work choosing instead to go home with only my trusty iPod.

I haven't done this in the past two weeks and think I'm about overdue. As for Hacker News as a distraction, I love this infinitely useful HN newsletter[1] by Kale (@duck). Avoid HN for the week and dedicate one day of the week to just reading through the stories posted in the newsletter. I've noticed I tend to pay more attention to the posts and there's less chance of me making impulsive comments.

[1] http://www.hackernewsletter.com/

Thanks for the Hacker Newsletter mention!

I spend more time at my desk at work than anywhere at home. My work desk should be clean and peaceful!

I spend a lot of time at my desk but being a small office, my co-workers tend to use my desk if/when I'm not present. I simply don't have as much control over my office environment to put effort into keeping it clean and pristine. It is what it is and so I'd rather focus on the environment that is within my control. At least that's how I've come to rationalize it.

'As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions".'


“Distraction is the only thing that consoles us for miseries and yet it is itself the greatest of our miseries.”

--Blaise Pascal (17th century)

I felt that full-screen mode in OS X was in part a response to avoiding distraction.

Also, in social settings, I've noticed I'll check my phone if I'm alone, or near people where conversation has ended. Part of that is a mini-escape, and another part is caused by insecurity/peer pressure. If you're all alone doing nothing, you have less perceived worth than if you're all alone doing something.

Full-screen mode did nothing for me. I can enter and leave full-screen instantly. It added the kind of speed bump that has room on the side to be perfectly circumvented.

I don't think it's possible to create a distraction-proof UI that is also user-friendly.

Books are a distraction-proof UI. Their simplicity focuses you only to read. Magazines and newspapers are books plus distractions. Ads divert your attention. Thoughts in newspapers must be hunted like a wild animal, scattered all over pages. Books only compete with external distractions, such as noise, or you're own thoughts.

You can build a distraction-proof UI on a computer, but all parts must cooperate. If a single one annoys, the UI has failed. This is difficult to do if the UI's foundation, its OS, doesn't play along nicely. That's probably the way to do it, build a new OS, or train an existing one into submission.

"I see there are wireless networks available. Would you like to connect to one?" (...currently connected to a wired network, concentration lost...)

The problem, then, is that the OS is interested in helping you multitask.

We’re not creating anything. We’ve always found ways to distract ourselves.

Life is a horrible place underneath fishing, video games, Twitter, hiking, stamp collecting, sports, coding, horticulture and everything else we’ve invented. It would be impossible to live with the knowledge that you’re going to die and have nothing to take your mind off things. That’s why solitary confinement really is torture.

I had the “get rid of all my possessions” phase too. I sold everything and lived out of a 28-liter backpack in South America for 18 months. What did I learn? That everyone just wants a distraction. Often with some combo of drugs, booze, sex and music. Yeah, sometimes I climbed mountains or got cultural and moved in with a local but it was all done to keep my mind off death.

It’s all the same crap. Even criticizing others for their preferred distraction is in itself a form of distraction.

I like cheap red wine, vicodin, and PlayStation myself. Sometimes I suck down caffeine and crack open Knuth to read up on data structures but I don’t feel it’s any better than the former. Whatever keeps the dopamine flowing is fine by me.

The one risk is whether today's distractions prevent you from enjoying future ones. That is, do they interfere with your ability to obtain sustenance, shelter, sex, and social status. This is why drug addictions are frowned upon, but recreational use less so..

I wonder how much of this argument will always be made-- one generation after another. As a thought experiment I put myself in my father's shoes and replaced every reference to phone with television. The text still resonated. I'm tempted to try seeing how many generations I could go back (all the way back to Buddha maybe)... but I have fruit to slice.

Heck Adam and Eve got bored and wandered into trouble with the snake when they had more important things to do.

Please do yourselves a favour and look up Neil Postman. I can recommend "Amusing Ourselves to Death" and "Technopoly", in particular.

I read his "The Disappearance of Childhood" many years ago, I should put one of these in my queue soon.

There is another angle to this: a distracted population is a happy population. Or at least a population that isn't marching and burning in the streets.

I don't think its a crises of attention or a culture of distraction. I think it's that literally everyone can publish grammatically incorrect rantings with terrible spelling and incoherent structure and we've gotten really good at wading through the chaff. There just isn't that much good stuff out there and yet every single person thinks they are Shakespeare. There never has been that much great stuff it's just we relied on other means to filter it for us (publishers, editors, etc.).

When I take my kids places, I take the sim out of my iphone and put it in a dumbphone I got off ebay. It's like a time warp.

Ah but that cursed SMS still exists on dumbphones. I'd like to see alternatives to the John's Phone[1] which just gives us the basic calling functionality, all we really need.

[1] http://johnsphones.org/

We created our distractions, and we will surely limit them if doing so becomes worthwhile.

If a company that banned non-enterprise smartphones during work hours was more profitable than one that did not, if the difference was great enough, the banners would quickly overtake everyone else.

This is where culture comes from.

How are you so sure? It seems like the red queen effect to me. We do it because become the norm, not because we actually get anything from it. Actually it seems to be related more to this:


I don't think you quite got what I am trying to say. Addictive smartphone checking isn't culture, it is a problem that culture will be generated to solve. (Well, it could also turn out to be not nearly as much of an issue as we think it is, and then we will all forget about it save for the odd blog post making fun of how we were scared of something as normal as walking or watching a movie.)

Right, but it's posts like this that are the culture that starts us on finding a way around our problems.

I would invite Mr. Kraus and all here on HN to look up Maggie Jackson's "Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age", a great read on this very issue. Se was talking about this years ago and has since built on her previous work.

Ability to focus (or defocus) improves with practice, so for example reading a book for one hour every day will make wonders for you. And almost no cravings.

Creating? I drove to high school listening to AM radio, with three-minute songs and short punch commercials. I did mostly quit watching TV while there were still just three channels, and before the remote became popular. But I still read newspapers in which the three-sentence paragraph is a long one.

THe best part about this post is that as I whizzed through my RSS feeds in google reader, I saw the title of it as "We're creating a culture of distinction" and said to myself "That looks boring." Yes, I am over-stimulated and distracted...

Everything in moderation! Check out http://thedigitaldetox.org. There are those of us who have been thinking about this problem for a while!

If there's a local New Zealand version of this, sign me up! I'd love to meet fellow hackers away from our hacking tools.

Great blog post... but the grammatical errors were a huge distraction.


Observe a sabbath?

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