Our infinite appetite for distractions: yesterday, today and tomorrow

Thought-provoking musings about our tendency to seek out distractions - from intellectuals from the 1930s to the present day

Our infinite appetite for distractions: yesterday, today and tomorrow
a photo of an hourglass

Dear Realists,

Today I'd like to share with you words from brilliant writers and thinkers whose books - published decades ago – were incredibly prophetic in predicting our current cultural climate… and our fragmented attention.

George Orwell's “Nineteen Eighty-Four” (1949) is quoted extensively as a premonition of surveillance capitalism and the stripping of privacy by Big Tech. And yet, Neil Postman, in the foreword of his brilliant book "Amusing Ourselves to Death" (published in 1985), astutely remarked that another book turned out to be a more accurate prophecy for the state of things in the late 20th century: Aldous Huxley's “Brave New World” (1932).

Amusing Ourselves to Death: what we love will ruin us

Postman writes:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture [...]. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

"Amusing Ourselves to Death" is a sharp critique of show business and how television and its codes altered public discourse:

Today, we must look to the city of Las Vegas, Nevada, as a metaphor of our national character and aspiration, its symbol a thirty-foot-high cardboard picture of a slot machine and a chorus girl. For Las Vegas is a city entirely devoted to the idea of entertainment, and as such proclaims the spirit of a culture in which all public discourse increasingly takes the form of entertainment. Our politics, religion, news, athletics, education and commerce have been transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business, largely without protest or even much popular notice. The result is that we are a people on the verge of amusing ourselves to death.

This argument perfectly applies to the internet and especially to the most popular social media app of the 2020s: TikTok. Short clips, lasting a handful of seconds, are commanding the attention of over a billion people worldwide.

NYU business professor Scott Galloway recently wrote on his blog a post titled “TikTok: Trojan Stallion” remarking about TikTok's wide - and free - talent pool:

Fifty-five percent of its users are also creators, meaning there are approximately 700 times as many creators working for TikTok than there are professionals producing content in film and TV across the globe. Most aren’t as talented, but many are.

TikTok revenues are dwarfing those by Netflix. Yes, you read that right. And while the latter is spending 17 billion dollars in content creation this year, TikTok's users are creating content for the company for free.

Rapid-fire media is destroying our attention

Galloway writes in another post:

Compare the TikTok doomscroll to the Netflix experience, where you skim infinite thumbnails trying to figure out what to watch. Then you have to focus for 40 minutes. A big commitment these days. Parents report their kids can’t sit through feature-length films because they’re too slow. I notice with my 10 year-old, when he’s exposed to uninterrupted, quick-hit media, he has a difficult time afterward doing anything that requires focus … including being civil to his parents. Expect an emerging field of academic research looking at the effects on behavior, and the developing brain, of rapid-fire media.

Decades before the arrival of smartphone and social media, Neil Postman had written in "Amusing Ourselves to Death":

Tyrants of all varieties have always known about the value of providing the masses with amusements as a means of pacifying discontent. But most of them could not have even hoped for a situation in which the masses would ignore that which does not amuse.

Doesn't this apply perfectly to our current social media landscape? TikTok especially?

It’s fascinating how the app’s success has inspired rivals YouTube, Instagram and Facebook to radically change their products, imitating it, in an effort to recapture their users’ attention. (If you’re interested in learning more about this, just yesterday the New York Times published the article: “Meta tweaks Facebook app to act more like TikTok”).

4000 Weeks

In 1985, Postman warned:

When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility. In America, Orwell’s prophecies are of small relevance, but Huxley’s are well under way toward being realized. For America is engaged in the world’s most ambitious experiment to accommodate itself to the technological distractions made possible by the electric plug.

It’s worth repeating that Postman wrote this in 1985 about television. Decades before the arrival of smartphones, social media, and addictive, AI-driven recommendation platforms like TikTok. And this phenomenon is not limited to America. One could say the same about any other country.

Apologies for the doom and gloom of this post. Where may one look for causes and solutions? I have been reading Oliver Burkeman's "Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals." The title of the book refers to the average life span: 4,000 weeks or 76.7 years.

Burkeman addresses head-on our "infinite appetite for distraction":

[…] whenever we succumb to distraction, we’re attempting to flee a painful encounter with our finitude – with the human predicament of having limited time, and more especially, in the case of distraction, limited control over that time, which makes it impossible to feel certain about how things will turn out.

He continues:

No wonder we seek out distractions online, where it feels as though no limits apply – where you can update yourself instantaneously on events taking place a continent away, present yourself however you like, and keep scrolling forever through infinite newsfeeds, drifting through ‘a realm in which space doesn’t matter and time spreads out into an endless present’, to quote the critic James Duesterberg. It’s true that killing time on the internet often doesn’t feel especially fun, these days. But it doesn’t need to feel fun. In order to dull the pain of finitude, it just needs to make you feel unconstrained.

I can't stop thinking about what Galloway said about the behavior of his 10 year old son. This has been on my mind a lot lately, as a filmmaker.

I'll share this again:

I notice with my 10 year-old, when he’s exposed to uninterrupted, quick-hit media, he has a difficult time afterward doing anything that requires focus … including being civil to his parents. Expect an emerging field of academic research looking at the effects on behavior, and the developing brain, of rapid-fire media.

It feels like hundreds of millions of people are being conditioned every day to be as distracted as possible. To amuse themselves to death, in the words of Postman. Entire creative professions are being made irrelevant by the rise of certain tools and social media platforms.

And there is a stark difference between the media we have discussed so far. Television programming is the same for every viewer. Smartphone content is personalized and tweaked to each user. Burkeman recalled the words of Center for Humane Technology founder Tristan Harris:

[…] Each time you open a social media app, there are ‘a thousand people on the other side of the screen’ paid to keep you there - and so it’s unrealistic to expect users to resist the assault on their time and attention by willpower alone.

I think - I hope - the tide will turn at some point. That we will experience a global reckoning. That these conversations will become mainstream and that people will start actively resisting - and steering away from products that destroy their attention.

When I was researching and writing my documentary The Illusionists back in the day, very few people were talking about the influence of media and advertising on body image. There was one single body standard - white, thin women with big breasts, airbrushed to perfection - in billboard ads the world over. There has been incredible change in this field - now global brands are constantly striving for diversity and inclusion, of even older women, who used to be invisible in advertising. It took about a decade for change to happen. There are obviously still unattainable beauty ideals on display everywhere, but there is real consciousness, on the part of consumers, about what is happening and what to look out for.

I hope, with The Realists, to see something similar happen regarding our relationship to technology. Maybe Realists are pioneers of a new age of consciousness, of a more mindful approach to technology.

Our future generations deserve a better world - and more control over their attention, away from distractions. It may be easy to blame technological devices and platforms, but real change happens at home - and in schools, for younger kids. We need to start modeling a different behavior. Parents and grandparents have a big responsibility in this - digital literacy should be a topic they address head-on. And for adults with no kids, there are many burgeoning resources, books, and tools to reclaim focus and attention. I will include links to organizations at the bottom of the post.

We got this.

Resources for parents and kids:

  • 5Rights Foundation: building the digital world that young people deserve
  • Common Sense Media: global nonprofit helping families navigate media, tech and digital parenting.
  • Fairplay: “creating a world where kids can be kids, free from false promises of marketers + Big Tech.”
  • Screens and kids: research and advocacy for classroom digital device health & safety policies.

Resources for adults:

If this post speaks to you, please share it with friends and loved ones. And let me know in the comments how I can improve this newsletter or if you have requests for future issues.

Thank you!

- Elena