Essays on Technology and Culture

Disconnecting While Staying Digital

The computer, the tablet, and the smartphone offer myriad ways of getting distracted from the task at hand. The Internet is there, waiting, with the latest pithy comments from Twitter, the potential of the important email from your client, or a classic episode of The Simpsons. There’s MP3s to tag, new task managers to install, and computer games to play. The sheer number of things the technology allows us to do can be overwhelming. So, we retreat to old ways when we want to avoid the ones that distract us. A paper book won’t pop up a Game Center notification, or buzz with a new text message, after all.

I think that those who seek the old, “distraction-free” ways of doing things underestimate the number of distractions inherent in everyday life. Your book won’t buzz when it’s your turn in Letterpress, but your land-line phone can ring with a telemarketer who wants to reduce your credit card rate. Your neighbor can knock at your door. The mail might get delivered. The cat wants to be fed. There could even just be something good on TV that you forgot about.

The thing about technology, and its distractions, is that in the end, we control it, it does not—or at least should not—control us. Show me one buzzing, chirping, distraction laden digital device that doesn’t also offer a way to shut it up for an arbitrary length of time. In movies, TV shows, and books of a certain time, a shorthand for someone who wanted true, uninterrupted time to themselves was to unplug the telephone. It was as close to a guarantee of no distractions as you could get. While it’s not as easy as pulling a plug out of a wall, we still have that power.

Unplug the Ethernet cable, and turn off Wi-Fi. Turn on Do Not Disturb on your phone, or—even better—Airplane Mode. Quit your IM client, your e-mail client, your newsreader, your Twitter client. Turn off your smartphone entirely. If something has the potential to distract you, when you need to concentrate, mute it, disable it, or turn it off. The power of our devices to distract us is second to our ability to avoid them with some vigilance and knowledge.