The Age of Distraction

At a department store in Houston.

Last week my telephone said, “CNN BREAKING: White House has pix of #Osama bin Laden with open head wound, his burial at sea, scenes from raid.” The face of mass murder, now hashtagged and hyperlinked next to the word “pix.” Also: “12 Pop Stars Tweet About the Death of Osama bin Laden.” I can’t get this phrase out of my head. It sounds like a modern koan, a signpost of upcoming chaos.

I often think that everybody else has a thicker skin than I do.

Other headlines that I recently clicked: Man attacked by alien-hand syndrome. Woman wakes up from surgery speaking in a foreign accent. Your pets might smother you while you sleep.

The internet is wearing me out. Every minute in front of the screen is a knotty act of monitoring, filtering, and self-chastising. Stay on task. I live with the knowledge that I shouldn’t read about the latest political kerfuffle or click on streaming images of a celebrity getting arrested, yet I do it anyway as if I’m on autopilot, controlled by some dark and terribly bored lizard-brain that demands constant proof of the End of Days. Yet scanning headlines and subscribing to a zillion news feeds is a conscious choice. A deliberate act.

Facebook keeps telling me to “like” Duracell batteries.

Right now several grown men are writing earnest articles about how to get retweeted and innovate your click-through rate, and it’s my fault that I’m aware of this. I worry about the good minds that we’ve lost to personal brand-building. Every morning I receive emailed newsletters from highly-paid professionals who recently began referring to themselves as “thought leaders” and “veterans of the web,” as if these are perfectly normal things for an adult to say. I don’t remember subscribing to their newsletters, yet I don’t bother unsubscribing, either. Their messages about innovation strategies seem inevitable and if they don’t come in through my screen, they’ll seep through the floorboards.

The trivial sits next to the catastrophic like never before.

Five ways to liven up your life stream. Troops open fire on protesters. Ten things you’re doing wrong at restaurants. Asia opens higher on data. Did Ralph Macchio survive the dancing contest? Second serial killer suspected. I am not blameless. I can switch this machine off at any time. Teacher busted for strolling naked in the hallway. Why shampoo is a waste of money. Five things you should know about catnip. The beat goes on.

Sources: #Osama; 12 pop stars; surgery accent; restaurants; liven life stream; catnip; Google the others.

M. Ashraf feat Nahid Akhtar – Good News For You
from The Sound of Wonder! (1973-1980). Finders Keepers Records | buy it
Good news for you! Vintage film music from Pakistan.

7 thoughts on “The Age of Distraction”

  1. jayne says:

    I love that you list yourself as a writer first in your bio because, of course, you are.

  2. John says:


    I have found myself in the same situation, and I’m even contemplating leaving all social media for this very reason. I try to teach my students about this in college: how an abundance of trivial information leaves us unable to process what we actually need to know abou the world.

    Two recommendations that I’ve tried, if I might be so bold: 1) Leave the political blogs behind for real news sources. I’ve stopped hitting political-gossip blogs like The Huffington Post; instead, I subscribe to ‘Harpers’ magazine and get my news from Al Jazeera English (no pop culture, ads, or political gossip). 2) You must read George Saunders’ essay “The Brain Dead Megaphone.”

  3. Stefan says:

    “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads,” he says. “That sucks.”

  4. James says:

    Thanks, John — I quit those political blogs after the 2008 election (unsubscribing from Andrew Sullivan freed up hours); and I realize that, for news, magazines and newspapers make a lot more sense to me: it’s better to wait for somebody to tell me what’s important after they’ve had a chance to properly absorb, research, and explain the week’s news. The premium placed on being the first to know is odd. I even subscribed to The Economist at some point, although they just pile up by the door, unread. The thing that kills me is Google News; so many Dada headlines ripped from context, sorted by popularity, and it’s shockingly addictive…

    I like George Saunders’s other essays — will definitely keep an eye out for “The Brain Dead Megaphone.” Thanks for the recommendation.

    Stefan: my first thought was that our greatest minds have always been drawn to making people look at advertisements, e.g. the number of artists and writers who toiled on Madison Ave selling cigarettes and dishwashers before/after making it big (Warhol, Bayer, Raushenberg, etc) — but yeah, they weren’t doing Harvard-caliber math about interlacing advertising with the personal or with breaking news — and I think it’s the collapse of these three boundary lines that make things feel screwy…

  5. Stefan says:

    You should re-read that book you lent me, which I’m having a hard time remembering the title of, the one that questioned the news industry, prearranged travel packages, and other stuff.

    Christ, what was the name of that book?

  6. James says:

    “The Image” by Daniel Boorstin from 1961, in which he worries about the impact that morning and evening editions of newspapers will have on our attention spans.

  7. AnnMarie says:

    Every once in a while I visit here, and every time I do I find something relevant to me at that particular moment.

    This one is really resonating with me right now because I feel like I may never feel rested again, all because of this self-inflicted overload.

    Is it possible to stop?

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