19 September 2019

Do human beings have an infinite appetite for distraction?

Do human beings have an infinite appetite for distraction?

Huxley was writing about mass communication in his work, Brave New World Revisited, and how the media was more interested in what is irrelevant than what is true or false when he discussed the idea of distractions. The new world of mass communication, in the 1950s, was challenging the spirituality of modern western societies: hence his observation that humans have an appetite for distractions. (All references below)

For better or for worse Huxley died in 1963, too early to even imagine the modern era of social media, apps, mobile phones and personal computers. He most probably would not have approved of the online information age of today. But as Alfonso keeps reminding us during the meetings, past philosophers did not have smart phones; so who knows, he might have loved to have one.

More or less at the same time Huxley was writing another philosopher was on the rise, the Canadian, Marshall McLuhan. It is claimed that McLuhan did foresee the World Wide Web, but he is more well known for the terms, "the medium is the message" and the “global village.” There is no doubt that today we do live in a "global village", but I would say even global villages: twitter, facebook, instagram, youtube, Whatsapp and so on, plus of course for many of us Madrid in the real world.

The idea of the population being distracted is not new, Karl Marx himself pointed out the influence of religion by describing religion as “….the opium of the people.” Basically the idea being that religion is both the cause of our misery and then promoted as the salvation of our misery. This should not come as a surprise given that Marx was writing about human conditions during one of the most oppressive and inhumane times of modern history, the height of the industrial revolution. Both Huxley and Marx found objection to capitalism since these distractions prevent us from concentrating on what is important in life.

That we have an infinite appetite for distraction is not in doubt, what is interesting is why and what for?

In English we have a saying, “The devil makes work for idle hands” (although there are many versions of the saying) meaning that people who are not busy can easily getting involved in mischief. The issue for us is of course idle hands. Why should we have nothing to do? And why should busy hands keep the devil away? After all those involved in religion and mass media keep very busy in distracting us.

But even if we were busy all hours it does not follow that we are not distracted from what we are doing. I would argue that distraction has nothing to do with human weakness but rather with human boredom. If mass media is the killer of spirituality, boredom is the killer of our intellectual souls. The political revolutions of the 19th and 20th century, culminating into Nazism, were not caused, I would argue, because people were oppressed but rather being poor and oppressed is very boring. Likewise, we are not distracted because we are weak, but boredom leads us to seek distractions. The 9 to 5 work day, is just as boring as shift work in a factory.

But repetition is not necessarily boring in itself, for example, doing the morning check list before we leave for the office is very efficient and very reassuring. Regularly ordering our favourite ice cream is not boring if only because we anticipate the pleasure it will give us, we enjoy it when we are eating it and at the end we are left with a pleasant experience.

A consequence of boredom is that it directly affects our attention span. Indeed distractions like social media might physically affect our concentration span and boredom due to the situation we are in affects our ability to concentrate. In effect we seek distractions because we are bored and our attention span is affected by our distractions.

It is one thing to argue that distractions take our attention away from what is important for us, and another finding ourselves in a world of boredom. Our attention span is a brain disposition unlike say our value judgements that what is spiritual or religious is important.

Consider the article “What Are the Causes of a Short Attention Span, and How Can I Improve It?” from Healthline.com. What is important for us here is that the authors identify medical causes that could lead to reduced attention span. Thus attention span is of great importance, but we cannot conclude that we are solely responsible of our attention span, whether for medical reasons or mental judgements. Some people are really just boring!

In an article in the Guardian reported, “Global attention span is narrowing and trends don't last as long, study reveals. …… Research combed from everything from movie tickets to social media finds more to focus on but less time to do so”.  An interesting observation made in the article is that a Twitter trend in 2013 lasted 17.5 hours and in 2016, 11.9 hours.

Indeed today we do suffer from information overload, but we are affected by information overload when the information is boring, irrelevant or downright depressing. I would argue that we seek and are affected by distractions as a consequence of disengagement and boredom. If we are not interested or engaged in what we are doing we would welcome a distraction. Compare the boredom of a 9 to 5 job with the following headline on Fifa’s website: “More than half the world watched record-breaking 2018 World Cup”. But what is important for my argument is the subheading: The final was seen live by a combined 1.12 billion viewers worldwide.

What the subheading means is that 1.12billion people were able to concentrate for more than 90minutes all at the same time and for the same event. I grant you that football might be the modern religion and equally alienates the people, but what matters here is that 1.12billion people felt engaged and certainly not bored.

My conclusion is that distractions might be sought because of the boring state we find ourselves in. And the antidote for distractions must surely be interesting engagement, involvement and motivation. Who, I ask you, in their right mind would be motivated to be bored?

“In regard to propaganda the early advocates of universal literacy and a free press envisaged only two possibilities: the propaganda might be true, or the propaganda might be false. They did not foresee what in fact has happened, above all in our Western capitalist democracies - the development of a vast mass communications industry, concerned in the main neither with the true nor the false, but with the unreal, the more or less totally irrelevant. In a word, they failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions.
In the past most people never got a chance of fully satisfying this appetite. They might long for distractions, but the distractions were not provided. Christmas came but once a year, ………”     Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited   ( https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/75681-in-regard-to-propaganda-the-early-advocates-of-universal-literacy )

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people…… Karl Marx  Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opium_of_the_people#cite_note-2 )

Marshall McLuhan

What Are the Causes of a Short Attention Span, and How Can I Improve It?

 Global attention span is narrowing and trends don't last as long, study reveals
Dream McClinton in New York - Wed 17 Apr 2019 17.32 BST

More than half the world watched record-breaking 2018 World Cup

Best Lawrence

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(minor corrections made 22/09/2019)

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