Weapons of mass distraction

Photo by Steve Wheeler
Humans were once untethered, free to wander the world and explore at will. Then came telecommunications, telephones, computers and the internet to transform the ways we could communicate across great distances. But such innovation also tethered people to specific geographical locations.

The invention of the mobile phone liberated us to move freely again, but in doing so, we became tethered in a different, more subtle sense. Now, wherever we gaze in modern, industrialised society, we can see people engrossed in their devices.  Seemingly oblivious to the world around them, many people commute to work each day wearing ear buds and headphones to block out the world around them, their visual attention consumed by the small screen in their hands. The image on this page illustrates the phenomenon. Notice the one person who is reading a traditional paper magazine - this is rare, but raises questions about how large populations can be distracted by technology.

Such mass distraction centres upon the mobile, personal device. Whether it is a smartphone, e-reader or games console, people are willing to invest their full attention to the device in their hands. And personal, mobile technologies come with a social cost. Interpersonal communication may be diverted and relationships compromised as a result of smartphone overuse. Productivity can be lost in the workplace, and individuals may place themselves in physical danger as a result of distraction. The multi-timbral nature of the smartphone gives it the capacity to capture our attention through a wide spectrum of attractions, from music and digital media, games, social media, dating sites, videos and live news streams.

In 2004 Mark Curtis wrote a book titled 'Distraction' which has the strap line 'Being human in the digital age'. In it, Curtis explores the challenges, risks, threats and barriers to good communication due to the propensity of smartphones to transfer our attention from the real world to the virtual world. Such deviations can limit our interaction with those immediately around us, and can also inhibit our engagement with our immediate environment. What are the implications of such mass distraction for the workplace, for home life, and indeed, for any social interactions?

Continues in the next post - Standard Deviation

Curtis, M. (2004) Distraction: Being Human in the Digital Age. London: Futuretext.

Creative Commons License
Weapons of mass distraction by Steve Wheeler was written in Plymouth, England and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


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