In the ‘Age of Distraction,’ how can we connect?

This moment in human history has been labeled the “age of distraction.” I’ve come across the phrase in a number of articles and even recent events. At a conference for higher education teaching methods, there was a panel titled “Teaching in the Age of Distraction.”

It’s not exactly a new term, and it’s not something that comes as a surprise. We know that we live in an “age of distraction.” I see increasing numbers of students entering college with more accommodations in learning styles. When I first started teaching in college seven years ago, it was rare to receive an e-mail from the university’s disability services office requesting a student be given an “accommodation” in the class environment. Now, it’s unusual if I receive only one e-mail. Today, 1 in 9 children are diagnosed with ADHD; in the 1980s, it was 1 in 20.

But how did we get here? It’s hard to generalize about the variety of distracted experiences. There are two main theories on the growth of distraction. Over the summer, Joshua Rothman from The New Yorker summarized them as material and spiritual.

The first is easily recognized: our high-tech society is designed to distract us. One way of understanding this growth in distraction is by looking at the influences of city life, even when escaping to the suburban areas or the countryside. The data networks on our phones and tablets provide stimulation and entertainment, regardless of whether we’re near a wifi connection.

“Not only has the world grown more urban,” Rothman writes, summarizing German sociologist Georg Simmel, “but digital devices let us bring city-like experiences with us wherever we go.”

The second theory is spiritual, and it comes from Nietzsche in 1874. Distraction comes from troubled souls. Nietzsche wrote that “haste is universal because everyone is in flight from himself.”

We are driven to distraction as a means of coping with our individual spiritual crises. In an attempt to lose ourselves – or to ignore aspects of ourselves – we find ourselves becoming increasingly placated by the virtual world. In some ways, Rothman argues, the first theory is more reassuring because technology might be reversed. But this second theory is more troubling because the rise of distraction can be attributed to ourselves in relation to the world around us and our inability to cope with such immensity.

And yet, philosophers are still pursuing the antidote to distraction. Matthew Crawford proposes in his newest book that working with our hands can be an antidote to this haunting sense of uselessness. I’ve not read Crawford’s work, but his idea has its roots in 19th-century England with the arts and crafts movement.  In an attempt to reform the industrialized ugliness and mechanized production of England, John Ruskin and his followers – notably William Morris – turned to the arts and crafts. They returned to beauty in skilled forms of labor: textiles, stained glass and illuminated manuscripts. They found pleasure in their work.

It’s increasingly rare to see children outside in our neighborhoods racing bikes or skating with their friends. It’s increasingly harder for parents to send their children outdoors, away from the distractions of media and technology.

A return to simplistic creativity is one way of redeeming this age. Finding a sense of purpose in our own creations seems to be one way forward. And, indeed, we have no further to look than our own book of Genesis. Our story begins with creation: “And God was pleased.”

Dr. Heather Bozant Witcher can be reached at hbozantwitcher@clarionherald.org.

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