Culture of Distraction

From the Hacker News discussion of my Silicon-Valley-is-destroying-the-world remark I came across a Joe Kraus talk on We’re Creating a Culture of Distraction. (I’m a huge fan of Joe and excited to see he’s on WordPress now.)

It’s also important to read Paul Graham’s Acceleration of Addictiveness where he compares addictive technology to alcohol and cigarettes, society developed “antibodies” to the danger of cigarettes, but it took about a hundred years, and technology is changing much faster than that now.

The most prescient here is Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, originally published in 1985. It’s long, but I’m going to quote the foreword in its entirety because it’s worth reading a few times over:

We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.

But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another – slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions”. In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.

Oh, and we just launched new comment push notifications for iPhone and iPad. It’s one of those days. 😉

42 thoughts on “Culture of Distraction

  1. I re-read Postman’s rather prescient book every once in awhile since it’s so short and the arguments about Las Vegas are so funny and dead-on.

    Anyway, those of us in journalism are constantly having to rethink what our place in the world is in a time of content oversaturation.

    Watergate was a big story that was broken because information was too scarce; it required that reporters suss out and connect dots and knock on doors to bring information to light.

    Our new world is one in which information is too plentiful; this has given rise to data journalism and the intersection of programming/journalists who can use big data to discover trends, make it understandable, visualize the masses of information, etc.

    So the former information”gatekeepers” are thinking about this, the fact that as a society we’ve given over our free ability to think over to a technologically driven hegemony. To that end, I’m more concerned about what it does to how we act as individuals. If you haven’t seen this documentary, you must:

    OK ending comment rant now. (Can you tell I am home sick and just distracting myself to death?)


  2. Awesome post.

    People is getting more and more addicted to external stimulation.

    We code while we are following the game on TV, talk over the phone and write emails at the same time. We don’t realize that by doing less, we accomplish more.

    If only we could learn to focus then we could achieve a lot of awesome things from which we would all benefit.

  3. A wonderful video and great for parents that need to realize how their actions affect there children and how their children’s actions affect others.

  4. Brave New Thought!!!

    I’m Norwegian. And these days, we’re trialing the mass murderer of Utöya, where 76 young lives were lost after the repulsive shooting, plus 7 killed, due to the bomb in our governmental area . We promised then that our response should be more demcoracy, more tranparency. Well, that’s what our Prime Minister said the following days of July 22nd, 2011.

    I fear the opposite is happening, somewhat in accordance to what Huxley described. We have only two nationwide TV stations. Both are delivering continous streams of the trial. Here’s two forthoming examples of May 2012 from Norway:

    1. Everybody almost cheered when an Iraqi threw a shoe towards the accused in court two weeks ago. The Iraqi lost his brother at Utöya, and were in Oslo solely to follow the trial. This behaviour were very understanding! At least in regard the Iraqi state of mind versus our almost 2000 years of constitutional traditions. But throwing a shoe is not susceptible, in regard of the courts security check, it’s so-called bomb-proof safety-measures and secured court yard, etc. In short, we were prepared for the worst, and nobody didn’t even care to ask why such a petty incident could take place?

    Not even the media!

    Are we appropriately prepared? Or is the worldwide, security business the new Soviet Union in disguise?

    2. Paris Match printed last week pictures from the casualities at Utöya in July, 2011. Not plausilbe, by all means. In the aftermath however, we insisted on the freedom of the press and speech; and that our democratic freedoms should prevail. Even more so, because the Norewegian Embassy in Damascus, Syria were torched to ruins by an infuriated mob in 2006. Norewegian flags were burnt in numerous countries by an angry Moslem mob, too. The reason: A small, Christian paper in Oslo had printed some charicatures of the prophet Muhammad, which originated from Denmark’s largest paper, JyllandsPosten.

    After we had violated their feelings in 2006, we insisted on the freedom of the press. Even more so, last summer.

    Now, when our feelings are violated, Paris Match were denied distribution nationwide in Norway. Nobody questioned the incident! And by all means, not in shed of what our Secretary of Foreign Affairs defined as a democratic Gold Standard in 2006.

    Not even the media!

    Which freedom is violated by whom – in regard of such double standard?

    That’s in my opinion what Huxley’s novel is all about. I’ve been thinking of Orwell lately, when I should’ve thought about Huxley! Thanks for reminding me about that. And to reread Huxley now, Matt!


  5. Ironically, Matt used this essay to also announce his company’s new comment push notification feature for iOS app-enabled devices such as iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad. Hmmm? Now, while some might consider this a paradoxical juxtaposition – the ultimate of postmodern marketing – he still makes some insightful and important points to consider. Especially when it comes to education. After all, how are we teaching students (as well as parents and adults) to pay attention and respond appropriately in a culture of distraction? Could it be that the high-tech solutions we love, require taking more slow-tech time to process what we learn, how we live, and why we’re doing what we’re doing?

    1. I teach alternative HS students in MI. The lack of attention-span in school has diminished dramatically in the pat 2 years alone as the level of distraction has increased.
      Students do not think they can make it one hour without checking their texts, messages, etc.
      Talk about distracted! It never ends. They do not see how limited their attention has gotten, severely limiting their input of knowledge in school. It’s very hard to combat this invader.

  6. Hey Matt, props to you for pointing this out both here and in the Pando interview. Your reasoning is why I still don’t own a smartphone today. After years of watching friends and family absorbed in their phones at social gatherings, I’ve made it a personal goal to avoid distractions.

    I find it ironic that while everyone is more connected nowadays to what is happening across the globe, they’re less connected to their immediate surroundings. And I’d say they’re missing what’s important.

  7. Joe Kraus’s talk is a good one. There’s a bunch of us thinking about the problems of distraction.

    From last year:

    Check out my follow-up blog post to Paul Graham’s Acceleration of Addictiveness:

    and aside specifically identifying “interfaces of distraction” as the key to this problem in our world in particular:

    Another blog post on “interfaces of distraction” coming soon.

  8. OTOH, have you met Jane?

    [ted id=799 lang=en]

    WordPress + Epic Win Technology = ?

    How would we do that?

    Urgent Optimism, Blissful Productivity & Epic Meaning. Hmmmmmmm . . . See also


    Badging = Leveling Up?

  9. Great video, and post.

    I’m in a field where contemplation and creativity are vital to effectiveness (pastor of a church), but I constantly battle the culture of distraction, as well. This is helpful!

    Thanks for sharing!

  10. A very thought provoking post.A couple of points spring to mind from Andy Adams’ remark about smart phones. The first paradox is a vision of people in a crowded environment, with ample opportunities of talking and interacting with real people, yet prefering to “chat” with their virtual friends.
    The second paradox is that while our children probably do more writing voluntarily than ever before, through the nimbleness of their thumbs, their spelling is becoming almost indecipher able to those of us not familiar with “text speak”.

  11. Well… to be distracted you’ve got to have something you want to be distracted from. Something you don’t like but can’t avoid.

    You’ve got to find that thing and find a way to avoid it and draw people’s attention to this instead of distracting them.

    And you become famous without doing evil 🙂

  12. It might well be a Huxley -then- Orwell, not a -vs-: the one is a precursor to the other. Once a Huxleyian state has been achieved; a crowd of well-organised folk might direct and tip that harmony towards an Orwellian state with relative ease? There will be little or no resistance since the tools of resistance and awareness will largely be lost. An “easy picking” if there ever was one…

    Mixed in that battle is the battle against ADD/ADHD. I think if we can effectively cope with distractions, and more- equip the next generation to handle it better than we are- we can sharpen our awareness and prevent either state from happening (

  13. True. We live in a much more Huxlean world now, than it was just 20 years ago. And its invisible dangers are slowly but surely killing what remains of human in our souls.

    You cannot hit “Redo” “Undo” or “Save” in real life. Even if you believe that Jesus saved you somewhere in the Cloud.

  14. Solid post..:) I need to get back to my routine of turning off electronics after 7 PM and firing up the kindle…;)

  15. I work and live in a treehouse in a remote rain forest. I recommend everyone do the same.

    Not sure how you folks stay in the cities but kudos for keeping your sanity.

  16. I remember reading Huxley and having nightmares about it. As I got older, I realized that a lot of his paranoia was inspired by his fondness for psychedelics. Either way, I preferred Brave New World to 1984 – if I have a choice, I’ll skip the pain, thank you very much.
    Of course, I am surfing the net while watching TV 🙂

  17. As a Senior, I am so pleased to see this conversation taking place. I managed to teach myself a little DOS in ’89 and then I moved along into Bill Gates user friendly world. Now, I am overcoming the initial intimidation of WordPress. I don’t think my blogging has totally distracted me, but it has come close. I have been distracted (and overwhelmed at times) by the techy culture. I have been wondering whatever happened to those hours with a book in a linear world. And I am so very pleased that folks like you, much younger than I, have inspired me to go back now and read Huxley again. I think I shall worry a little less about the virtues of low tech. Your conversation has done good things for this old fart.

  18. I’m watching this video because I have work to do, and I’m writing this comment because I’m supposed to be watching this video. W-T-F brain????

  19. I would highly recommend Postman’s ‘Technopoly’ as well; it is even more cutting than ‘Amusing Ourselves’. I read both those books years ago but think about them all the time.

  20. I am not sure that technology is the culprit. We have the ability to choose to engage others but to be truely authentic we must connect with their welfare. That’s to uncomfortable for some of us. We walk over, step over and talk over each other without the slightest apology. The phone or technology becomes an excuse we hide behind to justify our failure to put others before ourselves.

  21. The hard part these days is making a name for yourself or doing half the jobs in existance without OVER-STIMULATING yourself. I find it’s nearly impossible to blog, keep up w/Facebook, Twitter, text msgs., email,etc. It leaves such little time for LIVING LIFE! I agree, too much of what we LOVE can rob us of living, as much as too much of what we hate. Being mindful of your TIME plugged to a gadget is key. I keep wondering if this generation is going to have an epiphany and just go OFFLINE and start going back to the outdoors and indoors of real life. You know, do things the old fashion way, pick up the phone and call someone that you actually know and forget about the rest. Timely post indeed and great blog too!

  22. I was recently thinking about the predictions of 1984 and North Korea, where something worse has transpired. We in the free world may have been distracted when that year passed and we still had our liberty.

  23. I am semi-retired. Thanks for this post. I mean really thanks. It makes sense that you would focus on iPhones, texting, etc. I don’t have an iPhone and my cell is set not to receive texts period. That’s old-fashioned I know, but I’ve noted that even at 71, I have been overly-drawn to the Internet. TV is still high on the list of distractors. As an old English major I worry about the fate of literature and the long novel that requires patience and commitment — even the short, profound poem that demands immense concentration, something I seem to have less and less of. The Tortoise has much to tell us of life and living as he slogs across the field at his infinitesimally slow and steady pace. Where he is going is just about as urgent as where we humans are going. Thanks again!

  24. I’m really glad you built WordPress. One thing I can tell you about the year 1984, it was chilling when the film came out. It’s important to watch it, now. This one? Is the original which I recently saw. The one that had John Hurt was chilling enough — this is a bit different. What Open Source fights is the scrubbing? Something I have been looking into lately are semantics and words. In Wordnik, the Urban Dictionary — those two especially. Metaphor is being lost, so we are at Newspeak. What is interesting is the universal language being developed as emoticons — almost like a primitive heiroglyphics? This is Newspeak, Matt. I think you see the kind of massthink when you look at twitter? But WordPress, because of the search strings? Is a very great “diagnostic” behind the scenes. Just thank you, for building it. I’ll come back and say more on cognition from my training in Depth Psych at Pacifica. I want to write “cure” as text and am. The rise of these boxes with everyone sitting at them did not exist in 1984. It wasn’t until the end of the 90’s when everyone was “wired” to these electronic devices. Life was much slower. There was far less to think about and people were far less isolated. The strides technology has made have increased that for human beings. Anyway, you know what? Bless you Matt, for what you have done. Orwell would.