Suntosh Pillay
Suntosh Pillay

Are we a chronically distracted society?

How often do you have a completely uninterrupted space where you can just sit and think, pondering life’s mysteries in silence? Personally, I lack enough creative pauses. My cellphone, like a battery-powered limb, relentlessly entices me with its flashing red light. A chance for quiet serenity exists only in my dreams.

Scott Belksy, author of Making Ideas Happen is sceptical of new media’s ubiquity. He writes that “brilliance is so rare because it is always obstructed, often by the very stuff that keeps us so busy”. Do we need liberation from over-stimulation?

Digital quickies abound. Surfing, while emailing, while SMSing, while eating. At dinner, friends routinely check in with their digital devices because, after all, aren’t we supposed to seem available all the time to everyone, everywhere, no matter what we’re physically doing? According to a large mobile media consumption survey, South Africans spend 30% of media time on their mobile devices — more than TV or radio. Local stats claim there’s six million internet users, 4.5 million Facebook profiles (± one million inactive and two million accessed from mobiles) and 10 million Mxit users.

If my phone battery dies, I descend into today’s scariest social nightmare. This means (wait for it) being limited to interacting with the real flesh and blood human beings that you are physically with and having no recourse for electronic escape. It’s a dark space, I tell you. In fact, it’s difficult to even write about.

Chronic anxiety of wanting to be linked in is officially pathological. Fomo is a new buzzword: the fear of missing out. Pharma Dynamics recently surveyed 3 000 South Africans to investigate a sudden increase in sales of immune-boosters, finding that 62% of us are highly stressed, anxious and irritated with being bombarded with images of friends having fun and fear being out of the social loop.

These ideas aren’t entirely new, although the context might be. Psychologist Abraham Maslow long postulated that human needs are prioritised in a hierarchy. Our most basic needs are physical, survival needs like food and shelter. Then comes “a sense of belonging” — a need to be affirmed by others. Today, our self-esteem increasingly hinges on digital “connections”. If my boss calls me an idiot, it’s okay — I can comfort myself by soliciting the (empty) sympathy of my cyber followers by posting an angry rant. In a minute, my self-esteem will be restored. New age therapy (Wi-Fi sold separately).

Similarly, I need not envy folks who can memorise pages of text with effortless finesse, or easily fit in to any social setting, or always have the confidence to voice an opinion. If I’m in doubt, I Google. If I want to mingle, I Facebook. If I want to blurt, I Twitter. These websites are no longer things online, they’re actions that we participate in. These products of the steroid-infused information super-duper highway have accelerated astronomically into public consciousness. They have diffused into the intricate fabric of our everyday lives.

In a knowledge economy, researching a topic means the internet is academic oxygen. Task-completion is inconceivable without perusing the online abyss. But this glitzy tunnel of hyperlinks is polluted with distractions. Who can resist or get out untouched by the meaningless and pointless temptations that turn into hours of hypnotic “browsing”? There’s so much glittery junk for us helpless magpies.

But, in our frantic search for more and more, are we scattering ourselves so thin that we’re sacrificing quality for quantity? Are we proverbial Jacks of all trades, master of none? Do we rely less and less on our own memories because there is little need to store information – the mass, virtual repository of all knowledge (Google) will archive all of humanity’s collective wisdom for easy access 24/7? But far worse than depleting the intellectual resources in our own brain, lays the possibility of murdering our own innate creativity. Are we less creative since the birth of digital networks?

Intuitively I might say no. After all, look at the amount of creativity online, spiced with amazing graphics and flashy websites. But, if creativity is about “thinking outside the box” and if the internet is the virtual all-encompassing box, am I able to think outside of the very thing that is contouring, shaping and inspiring my thinking? Am I able to engage in creative processes without “digital consults” or “a quick search”? Am I able to tap into my own emotional processes and (un)conscious stuff and unlock inner passion and genius that’s still raw and personal and daring? An inner poetry, unmediated by the affirmations or directives of the contents on a screen.

Are our muses my monsters? Do we just need to slow down, breathe, and turn inward for a few minutes every day?

Our fast-paced lives, free of solitude and disconnection, is being challenged by some advocacy groups, particularly in the US, who’ve begun The Sabbath Manifesto and The National Day of Unplugging. Cute concepts to restore a bit of mindfulness and Zen to our otherwise mindless misadventures.

As Belsky sagely suggests: “When you’re rushing to a solution, your mind will jump to the easiest and most familiar path. But when you allow yourself to just look out the window for 10 minutes — and ponder — your brain will start working in a more creative way.”

This article was originally published in the The Witness as an opinion category finalist in The Witness True Stories of KZN 2012 writing competition.

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    • Vijay

      It’s a culture of faceless interaction. People become more withdrawn from society as they become more dependent on online platforms for social comfort. Significant gestures such as hugs and kisses are reduced to curly brackets and “X’s” and “O’s”..The human element and warmth of genuine social interaction will be lost.

    • Belle

      A very good article Suntosh. Sometimes we get so tied up in maintaining our busy lives, we sometimes forget to pause, reflect and most importantly, enjoy it.

    • Stephen Browne

      I find turning off my router, lighting up a green cigarette, cracking open a beer – usually with a few buddies – slows things right down to a comfortable level. Not for everyone, but worth a shot :)

    • Lennon

      You guys should watch a doccie called “Black Mirror” – particularly the second episode.