Distraction: everyday experience with the Internet

“Let us consider the way in which we spend our lives” Henry David Thoreau

An important part of everyday experience with media technologies and their time regimes is distraction. Particularly the Internet lends itself as the ultimate distraction from everyday working tasks. The compulsion to check e-mails twenty times a day, checking in on Facebook and Twitter, searching endlessly on the web for something, anything and nothing have become common everyday experiences marked by both pleasure and guilt. Distraction is seemingly desirable and wrong at the same time and intrinsically linked to procrastination. Even reading an academic book or article, away from the computer screen is coupled with frequent ruptures excused by the fact that one must check a concept or reference on the web, resulting in minutes, even hours gone on Wikipedia, Google and blogs.

19th and 20th century distraction Now, distraction through media technologies is nothing new. The 19th century style version of media-induced demands on attention can be seen in Henry D. Thoreau’s essay “Life Without Principle” from 1863. “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”. Moving on to the 20th century and the media of film, Siegfried Kracauer viewed the modern subject’s relationship to the world as ultimately a ‘distracted’ one. In both Kracauer’s and Walter Benjamin’s accounts of films in the 1920s and 1930s, distraction was linked to the reception of films, as a mode of perception that required no real attention. Although Benjamin’s views on the film was on a more positive note than Kracauer’s, he didn’t see the film fit for states of contemplation as the movie by virtue of its technique constantly interrupts thought through the introduction of new images.

However, we can no longer talk about contemplation as the valuable state of mind in the same way that Benjamin and Kracauer could. We live in a world of distraction, or more correctly distraction by choice. It is not that we are naïve, we are fully aware that we are effective time wasters and distraction seekers. Instead of asking: Is this a bad thing? What can we do? We should ask: What are we distracted and diverted from? And how does the media address subjects in an environment characterized by attention deficit and the everyday experience of distraction?

High versus low culture? In terms of modes of attuning to and perception of culture in general, distraction has typically been linked to the reception of mass culture, while the mode of concentration and contemplation has been ascribed as a feature of perception linked to high culture and traditional works of art (see for example Jonathan Crary‘s book “Suspension of perception”). To be immersed in and to take the time to fully adhere to a work of art or a novel seems to be miles away from today’s accelerated society with time regimes characterized by demands for immediacy. When things need to go fast, distraction seems to both constitute and be constituted by modern media and their time regimes.

The great distraction of cheking If we want to understand contemporary media we must understand what our experiences with these media are today. Talking to students and people in their 20s today it is evident that the Internet is experienced as the great distraction. It seems that the compulsive behaviour of checking is one of the most dominant aspects of Internet use today. Does the constant checking of mails, social network sites, online news, Google, give us better control, or is it the other way around? Why is knowing that nothing new has happened since the last time I checked e-mail comforts us, or that seeing 2 new messages in the inbox can fill us with joy and excitement? Who are we hoping reaches out for us, who is the other that we are waiting for?

Getting lost on the web and switching between multiple browser windows at the same time is part of this experience with distraction. Logging on and opening one window after another, putting the different sites to work on their loading of content, switching impatiently back and forth swifts attention away. Divided between the multiple sites one’s attention becomes scattered.

Continuous partial attention Linda Stone problematizes the effects of media technologies on states of distraction and attention deficit through what she calls continuous partial attention – a constant desire to connect and be connected. According to Stone: “We want to effectively scan for opportunity and optimize for the best opportunities, activities, and contacts, in any given moment. To be busy, to be connected, is to be alive, to be recognized, and to matter. We pay continuous partial attention in an effort not to miss anything”.

So we don’t want to miss anything, and maybe we cannot even afford to miss out anymore as life today is spent online. In considering the way in which we spend our lives, questions concerning distraction, diversions and attention becomes pressing. The Internet may feel like a distraction, whether welcoming or unwanted. What we need to understand is what the current media condition of checking really amounts to, why do feel drawn towards interruptions and checking e-mail 20 times a day? If Facebook is a waste of time, what should be the real purpose of our time? When the Internet is experienced in terms of distraction, what kind of space and time do we inhabit? Being distracted and interrupted from something and diverging into the realm of the web, how can we understand the dual state of mind that distraction promotes? And how can we understand the ontology of everyday distraction in the realm of our experience with the Internet?

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