Roughly a decade ago, we were using separate objects for executing the following tasks: accessing our bank account, finding the route to a given destination, holding a subway ticket, listening to music, logging into our social network accounts, sending an e-mail, taking photographs, unlocking a door, waking up with an alarm, writing a to-do list. The list could continue. Today, a large portion of us executes these same tasks with a single object: a smartphone. And while this multi-purpose connected device has brought a great amount of practicality into our daily lives, it has also infused them with continuous distractions: Every time we unlock our screens to execute one of these tasks, the temptation to catch up on the news, e-mails or status updates is just a few microseconds away. Swiping has almost become an involuntary motion.
In an essay published in New York Magazine in September 2016 titled “I Used to Be a Human Being”, author and blogger Andrew Sullivan describes his addiction to information. A year ago, his years-long manic publishing of blog posts and scanning of news, images, videos and memes finally caught up with him, taking a toll on his health and personal relationships. He had fallen ill with what he labelled ‘distraction sickness’. In his essay, Sullivan points out that the “epidemic of distraction is our civilization’s specific weakness”. While he acknowledges that every revolution in information technology –starting with the invention of the printing press– has raised apocalyptic fears about its impacts on society, he suggests that the ubiquitous access to virtual content and interactions does pose a rather poignant threat. Sullivan observes that the products of modernity such as cars, planes, factories and flickering digital screens have combined “to rob us of a silence that was previously regarded as integral to the health of the human imagination” –silence as in the absence of stimuli of any type, not just sound.
By splitting our attention between the physical and the virtual worlds, we deny ourselves the opportunity to fully engage with the activity at hand. When we are in the company of people, our split attention negatively alters our interactions with them. When we are alone and we seek any virtual distraction to fight boredom, our divided attention alters our interactions with our own minds, as we do not take the time to develop an intimate relationship with our thoughts and emotions.
The addiction to distractions did not begin with the mass adoption of smartphones. Since we started surfing the web on stationary computers, we were exposed to the endless distractions of the Internet. However, the stationary aspect of computers and the limited access to connectivity contained the negative effects. The portability of the smartphone and the emergence of mobile networks created a gate to the virtual world in every moment of our lives. Moreover, the shift of smartphones from being merely productivity tools –as they were originally conceived– to also becoming entertainment hubs attracted a large stream of users; a shift arguably led by the appearance of the iPhone in 2007. Since then, every smartphone owner has become susceptible to ‘distraction sickness’.
To fight this off, some people choose to undergo a digital detox. Thousands of posts in the blogosphere describe the steps and benefits of a tech detox –either at home or at special facilities. In fact, Sullivan recounts in his essay how he secluded himself in a meditation retreat centre for 10 days, during which he had no access no technology nor books, and attended counselling sessions, guided meditations and talks on mindfulness. The retreat came after he had already quit the web a few months before. During the months following his “ultimate detox”, he began to gradually consume virtual content again. And even though he recognizes that he has developed a greater capacity to fight off the temptations of the Internet, he does find himself giving into them from time to time.
The problem with a detox is that since it is finite, it is inevitably paired with the possibility to relapse. To make matters worse, our digital devices and the world around us are specifically designed to lure us back into the digital realm and keep us there. So how do we fight off ‘distraction sickness’? Do we rely solely on our willpower and self-control? Do we quit using digital devices? Try using a car-sharing service without one. In addition, if we were to give mobile devices up, we would be missing out on new habits we have developed over the course of the last decade –e.g. tracking our sports activity, monitoring our health, using real-time traffic information to find the best route. Neither willpower nor abstinence are viable solutions to eradicate the epidemic of distraction. As digitisation advances, we need smarter solutions that help us regain silence at the same time as they allow us to reap the benefits of a connected world.
Currently, there are two strains of solutions, both of which are ironically themselves digital in nature: software add-ons and wearables.
The first group encompasses software and apps to help users stay focused. For computers, it is possible to find tools like SelfControl, Focus and Anti-Social for blocking distracting websites for a certain period of time. For smartphones, apps like Zero Willpower perform similar functions. A more sophisticated app is Freedom, which works across devices: computer, smartphone and tablet. It allows users to create various blocking sessions: for example, a “Morning Productivity” session to block social networks, shopping and news sites; or “Afternoon Power Hour” to exclusively block social networks. Furthermore, the blocking sessions can be scheduled in advance. Another example of add-ons is TrackTime, which helps people audit their time in their computers by showing them a visualization of the activities they execute. These visual patterns help them identify when they are erratically switching from one app to another and become more aware of their bad habits. Although the names of these apps swiftly convey their intentions, they are not swift solutions, since people have to take extra steps to enjoy their benefits, and in some cases they even have to pay for them –Freedom costs US$6.99 per month. Without a doubt, the benefits of these add-ons lay the basis for an adequate user experience. Therefore, tech companies ought to integrate similar features and optimize their operating systems to facilitate their users’ concentration.
The second strain of solutions consists of wearables that limit their amount of functions. Although they do not fully address the issue at hand, they are indicative of a future untethered from smartphones, which could help mitigate our temptation for distractions. For example, the S2 3G Samsung smartwatch enables incoming and outcoming phone calls and text messages, music transfer and streaming, and GPS, all this without being connected to a smartphone –unlike other smartwatches. Another example is Peeble Core, a small square that can be attached to a keychain. Originally conceived for runners, it targets people who do not want to be attached to a smartphone but still want to listen to music –either streamed or stored in the device– and track their runs. Smart jewellery is a further example of these gadgets. Under the motto “stay connected, not distracted”, Vinaya offers rings, necklaces and bracelets that alert users about important messages, calls and notifications through subtle vibrations. Vinaya seeks to keep the phone out of sight and minimize distractions. The decentralization of smartphones’ functions could help us fight off the constant distractions that come with the screen. The downside is that it generates additional needs to purchase devices, and it could also create a new type of dependency towards these new digital gadgets.
As smartphones turn into our hubs for productivity, entertainment, assistance and enablers to function in the connected and digitised world, we need smart and elegant solutions to help us strike a balance between connection and disconnection. We need designers to conceive solutions that help us fight off ‘distraction sickness’, reclaim silence and preserve our souls.
 Morgan, S., “Cybersecurity Market Reaches $75 Billion In 2015; Expected To Reach $170 Billion By 2020”, Forbes Magazine, 20 December 2015, http://www.forbes.com/sites/stevemorgan/2015/12/20/cybersecurity%E2%80%8B-%E2%80%8Bmarket-reaches-75-billion-in-2015%E2%80%8B%E2%80%8B-%E2%80%8Bexpected-to-reach-170-billion-by-2020/#271725219161.
 Lalan, C., “IBM Watson to Tackle Cybercrime”, International Business Machines Corporation, 10 May 2016, https://www-03.ibm.com/press/us/en/pressrelease/49683.wss.
 2016 Data Breach Category Summary”, Identity Theft Resource Center”, 4 October 2016, http://www.idtheftcenter.org/images/breach/ITRCBreachStatsReportSummary2016.pdf
Image via Flickr