Today, The New Yorker ran an article called “A New Theory of Distraction.” In the piece, the author–Joshua Rothman–speculates as to the nature of distraction in modern times:

Like typing, Googling, and driving, distraction is now a universal competency. We’re all experts.

Still, for all our expertise, distraction retains an aura of mystery. It’s hard to define: it can be internal or external, habitual or surprising, annoying or pleasurable.

The article continues:

Another source of confusion is distraction’s apparent growth. There are two big theories about why it’s on the rise. The first is material: it holds that our urbanized, high-tech society is designed to distract us. In 1903, the German sociologist Georg Simmel argued, in an influential essay called “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” that in the tech-saturated city “stimulations, interests, and the taking up of time and attention” turn life into “a stream which scarcely requires any individual efforts for its ongoing.” (In the countryside, you have to entertain yourself.) One way to understand the distraction boom, therefore, is in terms of the spread of city life: not only has the world grown more urban, but digital devices let us bring citylike experiences with us wherever we go.

The second big theory is spiritual—it’s that we’re distracted because our souls are troubled. The comedian Louis C.K. may be the most famous contemporary exponent of this way of thinking. A few years ago, on “Late Night” with Conan O’Brien, he argued that people are addicted to their phones because “they don’t want to be alone for a second because it’s so hard.” (David Foster Wallace also saw distraction this way.) The spiritual theory is even older than the material one: in 1887, Nietzsche wrote that “haste is universal because everyone is in flight from himself”; in the seventeenth century, Pascal said that “all men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.” In many ways, of the two, the material theory is more reassuring. If the rise of distraction is caused by technology, then technology might reverse it, while if the spiritual theory is true then distraction is here to stay. It’s not a competition, though; in fact, these two problems could be reinforcing each other. Stimulation could lead to ennui, and vice versa.

Rothman spends a substantial portion of the article considering Mathew Crawford’s book “The World Beyond Your Head: Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction.” The conclusions (both Rothman’s and Crawford’s) are interesting, and I recommend reading the entire article (which you can find here).


  1. I will read The New Yorker article. Thanks.

    Distraction doesn’t exist unless life has purpose (there must be something to be distracted from). In our modern times purpose is self created. A college student might try on and abandon several purposes in a month. A middle aged person might settle for happiness as a purpose — or even just to be excused from too much pain. Uncertainty about purpose makes it harder to recognize distraction.

    I will be interested if the article accepts the concept of self-created purpose. If you begin to question whether life’s purpose is self-created, it raises interesting questions. It is possible, if one is sufficiently confused, to spend a lifetime in one-pointed pursuit of a distraction.

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