Do we like being distracted?

It’s sunny and I’ve just ordered at my local cafe. My fellow customers and I wait in the little socially distanced phalanx we’ve been trained to form. Business seems to have been steady for the cafe since they reopened in May. I suspect they may be selling to customers who this time last year were queuing for coffees in Belfast city centre, but now come here to break up a day spent working from their breakfast table. All of a sudden I’m scrolling a newsfeed on my phone and I realise this is an involuntary response to the previous thought. I look around and realise that each of us is peering through our own little private glass screen, scrolling through something, checking something. I’ve been thinking a lot about where location fits into how we organise our economic activity in the era of pandemics and contagion. I realise looking around me, as the sun shines on us and we avert our eyes from the pavement it illuminates, that our relationship with physical location has actually been under renegotiation for some time.

How many things do you check? How many times a day do you check each thing? Do you ever unsleep your phone or laptop and start aimlessly checking, unsure precisely what for? If you’re any way like me, you’ve lost more complete hours than you could ever count following your nose through things demanding your attention before then remembering what it was you set out to do an hour or so previously.

Attention is now broadly accepted as a scarce resource to be competed for. We’re familiar with expressions like clickbait being used as shorthand for that competition, though it’s jarring to have something so fundamental to our experience compared to fish in a pond. (I seldom hear how attention is earned or won, more often captured.)

The competition for eyeballs is another way this market is ‘visualised’ for us. Is this TV series sufficiently riveting in the opening two episodes to maintain an audience, each member of that audience with both his eyeballs trained on the desired screen space? How many views, engagements, how much influence exerted?

Distractions proliferate furiously in the modern work environment. 2020 has been the year many people have had to adapt to at least one new platform to better facilitate remote working, be that Facebook’s Workplace, Microsoft’s Teams, or a project management platform like Slack or Monday. While there may be a solid case for more opt-in communication spaces to replace the need for endless group email threads, each of these which is introduced adds a new tile or icon to compulsively click on; another thing with the power to pop onto your screenspace and grab you by the eyeballs; one more thing that can sync to your phone and wake you with a bzzz and a beep if you forget to silence your phone before sleep. (Or, better still, put that phone down to sleep a safe distance from where you can reflexively check it first thing next morning.)

Here’s a question. Do we like being distracted? At first glance it does seem we like to have a release from what we’re doing. Generally there are some pull factors intrinsic to where we send our attention. News, for example. There are big, important stories unfolding in our lifetime, many of them polarising the English-speaking world in what can feel like an epoch-defining way. Not only do we want to stay informed, but many of us feel the drive to stay connected to our tribe. Every event ripples out into commentary, satire, venting in WhatsApp groups.

Smartphones seem to be the key determinant of where our attention is directed, though it was in the pre-iPhone era that I first encountered the expression “attention-based economy”. The 2005 article reported from a leadership conference where a keynote speaker opened with a simple message, “Pay attention”, and waited as heads lifted from laptops and Blackberries. The speaker’s prediction as described was one where attention and focus would become a valued commodity and resource, in the sense that organisations would invest in nurturing staff, protecting them from distraction and enabling deep work, seeing a possible advantage in extracting the maximal value from their employees’ time than a rival whose staff were distracted.

Apart from being off as a prediction, that analysis falls into a common logical pitfall: the assumption that more time at something will linearly produce more output. This assumption may have had some validity when used to plan the industrial shift work from which we still inherit our business hours of today, but it may actually be counterproductive for work which involves people thinking through tasks. Modern workplaces seem to reflect a different approach to this problem, namely the sharing out of problem sets across teams and a preference for connectedness over reliance on any individual’s ability to produce through deep focus. It may be a corollary of this that the attention economy we were delivered, the eyeball market if you will, is really more of a distraction economy where connectedness at a given instant is what’s up for grabs. Why let that person be connected to their colleagues or teams when they could be connecting with our site and the advertisers who pay us to deliver them their attention, their engagement?

It seems we do need time away from our tasks in order to let our brains process and work quietly, reframing the problem, drawing on other reference points, other types of problem set. Clearly the threat of greater distraction hasn’t put us off our rapid uptake of new personal tech over successive decades. Maybe even framing this piece in terms of distraction involves a pejorative judgement on my part of people’s behaviour during what is their time; a moralistic idea of what is deserving of our time and energy, an acquiescence to capitalism’s reduction of humans to units of production and consumption.

But here’s the flipside: do we have a means of escape? If we haven’t already assented to push notifications from a favourite news website, then the mere fact of being alive seems to present constant reminders that something is happening now now now. An ambulance siren rings in the distance. Check today’s updates on COVID numbers. A ball bounces on the pavement. Will the match be allowed go ahead on Saturday? Check the restrictions. (Doesn’t look like it.) Then one looks at the emerging literature on smartphone addiction and wonders if we may superficially enjoy the things we distract ourselves with, but no more than any other dependency the utility equation gradually flips from: “I enjoy this” to “I suffer in the absence of this, therefore I need this just to feel neutral”.

In the time I’ve been writing this, I’ve several times been drawn to the very apps, icons and notification symbols whose allure I’m trying to become more aware of. A few times I’ve seen the dark screen of my phone and, as if it were dossing off while on the clock, poked it awake just to see it light up, not even particularly curious if the homescreen has anything urgent to alert me to- just ‘cause it’s there. Maybe that’s because the sun has departed and left a wet and dreary day outside and the cars passing are making a splashing noise that I want to drown out.

This is another driver of the distraction economy: a war on boredom. This is the instinct to ‘pair’ a source of stimulation with a task which is otherwise mundane or understimulating. This could be a work task which is routine-dominated, a routine household chore, or a commute. The proliferation of podcasts is surely linked to our access to devices which remove the need to endure any such tedium in silence. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone have an exchange in La-La Land which revolve around Stone’s character Mia having forgotten where she parked. Sebastian (Gosling) suggests she hold her car key to her chin so her brain will boost the signal like an antenna.

“I think it gives you cancer but you find your car faster”.

“What?”

“I mean you don’t live long but you get where you’re going quicker so it all evens out.”

My daughter is three and likes La-La Land, though I’m not relishing explaining to her in a few years’ time why I find that exchange both funny and chilling. The joke works because it taps into a real suspicion that any of our time on earth spent enduring any kind of tedium, triviality or boredom is objectively wasted time, time you may as well have been dead. “There’s an hour of my life I’m never getting back”.

A risk here is that this instinct comes to colonise our entire waking experience. For most of us, many components of the day are under-stimulating. I recently sat on a bus where all but three of the commuters on my deck had earphones and two of the remaining three were scrolling their phone. On one level, I entirely get that bus journeys aren’t all that interesting. People have passions and interests, and the opportunity to nurture those while on the move or otherwise engaged is an exciting outworking of technological development. But having just said that we can undervalue the productive function of distraction, I think it’s also a mistake to discount boredom as lost time and to fail to see value in periods of understimulation and, especially, to signal out the entire ambient experience of sociality and replace that with a fully personalised and curated soundscape. Surely this is a vicious cycle which further reduces our tolerance of any sort of under-stimulation and leaves us never truly at rest or ‘alone with our thoughts’. Might we then even seek out more low-engagement time when we’re distractible as an opportunity to get through more peripheral stimulation? Or indeed, could the ‘pairing’ of journeys and tasks with particular distractions create an association, whereby next time I’m in that part of the city, or house, I crave similar distraction and am taken out of any sense of presence in that place?

If I had to guess, I would say that the biggest driver of where we send our attention is our aversion to loneliness and conflation of being alone with being lonely. Podcasts, along with talk radio, seem to serve as synthetic human company and companionship. Meanwhile, after an initial ten years during turning a podcast into a profitable product proved difficult, listeners will have noticed the tsunami of paid-for slots from show sponsors, automated advert inserts and paywalled content which mark the monetisation of the medium. Part of this is a technological story of market segmentation and analysis of audience, alongside the production tools to reach ‘eardrums’ by the same scalable methods that eyeballs have been reached before. But also significant is the affinity and relationship listeners have with those human voices they connect to routinely and the scope to leverage and monetise that affinity (hence advertisers asking hosts for personal endorsements in those sponsored slots).

The question we’re left with is why and what next: what about this past decade has made the quest for capture of eyes and ears so urgent? As I wait to hear my coffee order called, a glance up from the screen and around my local high street gives a clue. Businesses which can’t compete with online retailers are closing. COVID seems to have accelerated an emergent placelessness in our economic transactions. Suddenly physical proximity, the old laws of location location location, are tumbling in value. If our screens are a marketplace for our goods and services as well as our attention, we’re suddenly even more bound to that space by dint of working from home and moving even more of our interactions online. If we value the places we inhabit, we may need to pay them more attention as we move through them and think about how we can reconfigure how we spend our attention and money to sustain those places and communities into an uncertain future.

Photo by Averyanovphoto is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA