Technology… Interrupted

Hardly a day passes, it seems, without some article appearing that bemoans how distracted we have become with our over-reliance on technological gadgetry, our inability to turn our devices off, and our constant foraging for information, checking email, updating Facebook, tweeting, and who knows what else. Whether at work or at play, too many of us, it seems, are pouring too many hours down the drain due to our inability to focus on a single task and our proclivity for allowing our minds (and fingertips) to wander off into the labyrinthine corners of cyberspace.

Unsurprisingly, scientists are hard at work in studying the problem of online distraction. Here are some of the findings of “interruption scientists” according to a New York Times article from a few years back:

  • The average knowledge worker switches tasks every three minutes, and, once distracted, a worker takes nearly a half-hour to resume the original task
  • Interruptions and the requisite recovery time now consume 28 percent of a worker’s day
  • Employees who are routinely interrupted and lack time to focus are more apt to feel frustrated, pressured and stressed
  • Workers produce creative work on days when they are focused, not when they are scattered and interrupted

Not only are interruption scientists busy analyzing the problem, they have also come up with a solution:

Scientists are discovering that attention can be bolstered through training, including meditation.

Scientists are “discovering” this, are they? Well now that science has “discovered” that personal discipline, a commitment to focus on a specific task, and possibly even a spiritual component (the scientists didn’t tell us what we were to meditate on in order to become more productive workers) are worth promoting in order to protect the bottom line, I suppose we can all agree that there really is a problem and that we really ought to do something about it. Never mind that science’s reductionist, instrumentalizing approach to the world represents part of the problem of human beings becoming enslaved by their technology in the first place, it is to science that we shall look to diagnose and solve our problems.

Indeed, it seems that any sentence prefixed by “scientists have discovered” now commands our unfailing attention and respect. Now, it seems, we can take it seriously. If scientists have “discovered” that being distracted leads to stress, decreased creativity, and a lack of productivity then it is high time we did something about it.

It is interesting to consider who we, as a society, look to for wisdom. Where in the past, we might have looked to religious elders or others who, through the quality of their lives and the wisdom they imparted, had demonstrated their suitability to advise us about what a well-lived life might look like, today it seems that a white lab-coat is the primary prerequisite for commanding our collective attention. Scientists are the high priests of our technology-saturated world—it is to them that we now turn to mediate our salvation to us.

Neil Postman is a writer I return to from time to time when attempting to navigate the technological minefields of modern life. In Technopoly, Postman recommends adopting of the posture of a “Loving Resistance Fighter” in the face of a world in which science and technology reign supreme. Among other things, the “Loving Resistance Fighter” will:

  • Refuse to accept efficiency as the pre-eminent goal of human relations
  • Have freed themselves from the belief in the magical power of numbers, and will not regard calculation as an adequate substitution for judgment, or precision as a synonym for truth
  • Be, at least, suspicious of the idea of progress, and will not confuse information with understanding
  • Not regard the aged as irrelevant
  • Take the great narratives of religion seriously and will not believe that science is the only system of thought capable of producing truth;
  • Admire technological ingenuity but will not think it represents the highest possible form of human achievement.

I think that Postman saw many things very clearly and we ignore his wisdom at our peril. We do not need scientists to tell us that there are better and worse ways of using our tools or that discipline, attention, and thoughtfulness are crucial components to living well. That road is a well-traveled one, populated by countless philosophers, mystics, and ordinary religious believers down through the ages. To whatever extent scientists are “discovering” these things, they are only encountering what others have discovered long ago through different means.

The apostle Paul likely didn’t have iPhones and tweets in mind when said he that he although everything was permissible for him, he “would not be mastered by anything” (1 Cor. 6:12), but I think that, despite his lack of “scientific” knowledge, he still had some keen insight into what it means to be human. To be human is, among other things, to possess the unique ability and responsibility to live wisely—to control ourselves for our own sake, for the sake of others, and, ultimately, for the sake of a God who made us in his image.

Ryan Dueck


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