Essays on Technology and Culture

Make Believe Help for the Easily Distracted

On App.Net, Patrick Rhone linked to a pouch for your phone that blocks cell signals. The idea is that you can put your phone in there, freeing you from the distractions it presents, so you can actually pay attention to whatever you need to do. In the same post, Patrick also notes how hard the off button to use, with only the slightest hint of sarcasm. The panacea of putting your phone in a portable Faraday cage is a textbook example of solving the wrong problem. If you’re too busy checking your phone to pay attention to the world around you, the problem is not the phone, the problem is you.

Technology is an enabler, both in a positive and a negative sense. We have new ways to create, communicate, and control our lives, but we also have new ways to distract ourselves from creating, communicating, and controlling our lives—especially the latter. When we give in to the impulse to check Facebook twice a minute to see if someone “liked” our witty status update, we’re habitualizing ourselves to the idea that we need to know now, right now, whether our friends think we’re amusing. While it doesn’t help that a lot of these services, and the devices we use them on, are designed to buzz, chime, and vibrate with every virtual interaction, even when they don’t, it’s easy to fall into the habit of needing to know.

The services aren’t to blame. Neither are the devices. They are tools for us to use to our own ends, and a tool can be neither good or bad. It’s the application and the intent that determines that. In the case of constant notifications and the endless need to check for updates, it could be that lack of intent is also the problem. I admit that, during periods of mental downtime during my day [1] I will whip out my iPhone and do a run of my Twitter feed, App.Net feed, Facebook, and personal e-mail. If I post something, I’ll do this run again, just to see if I missed anything, despite knowing that I’ll get a push notification if someone replies to me on App.Net. It’s typically subconscious, and acknowledging that is the first step.

Paying $38(!) for a pouch that blocks cell signals, no matter how well designed, is only treating a symptom. I know that if I can’t check Twitter on my phone at work, I’ll check it on the web. If I disable Wifi on my work machine… well, I can’t get work done. So, maybe I’ll install apps that prevent me from accessing non-work related things for a certain period of time. Except that I can typically disable them with minimal effort. [2] The pouch may keep my phone from buzzing when I get an @-reply on App.Net, but when I take it out, they’ll be waiting. Instead, I can permanently disable push notifications for Riposte for free, which I just did.

Buying toys for your toys isn’t going to help you use those toys better. Products like the cell signal blocking pouch are like putting a bandage on a tumor. It covers up the problem, but it doesn’t fix it. The problem exists in a different space entirely. It’s internal, it’s hard as hell to get at, and it is a real pain in the ass to fix. However, it is fixable, and we have the tools we need to get it done. Some of the tools we need come baked into the devices and services that we use to aggravate the symptoms, but most of the tools exist within us. It just takes the willpower to use them, and they’re a lot easier on your wallet.

  1. Approximately every ten minutes or less, by my very bad estimation.  ↩

  2. This is not a joke. During a period of unemployment, I decided to install an extension to my browser that blocked “fun” sites from 9 AM to 5 PM. I could only disable it by typing a randomly fifty character string. I am very good at typing random, fifty character strings.  ↩