The Distracted World
Being and not being in a mediated world
It was eight in the evening on the eve of Easter. In a railway station bustling with impatient holidaymakers, a man on a bench was huddled over a newspaper reading. Oblivious to the world around him, he bored his little finger into his nose, extracted what he could and sucked the result. Even if he were aware that such behaviour was socially unacceptable, it wouldn’t matter. He was not really there. Welcome to the distracted world.
Distraction could be described as a lack of personal presence as perceived by others and possibly by the person herself. The man with his finger in his nose was not completely there. Of course, physically his body was there. After all I could see him. So what made me believe he was not all there? What made me think something was lacking in his presence? It can’t have just been the position of his little finger in relationship to social conventions that convinced me.
Distraction has to do with a deficit in a relationship. It might be easier to understand the distracted world if we take an example in which the relationship is between two people and not between an individual and the world in general as with the little piggy in the railway station. The friend I’m talking to over the phone is a real Internet “detective”. He can track down information on even the most obscure subjects. We are discussing a new generation of search engines, but he can’t remember an important detail he wanted to tell me. His words slow down. There are unusual pauses between sentences. Somehow the “conviction” has gone out of his voice. His words don’t have their usual “punch”. You might even say that there is no body behind them. What a surprising image: bodiless words. I know, without needing to see him, that he is busy searching for the missing information on the Internet. He is no longer entirely present in our conversation. He has slipped into the distracted world; his attention caught up in the Network, leaving his body like a sleepwalker trying to cope with the remnants of a conversation with me.
One of the strange things about a telephone is that although the other person is not physically present, she is present over the phone. Presence can be felt at a distance. That presence at a distance becomes all the more apparent when it slips away. What has been lost? The person’s attention? The dictionary defines the verb to distract : “to draw aside, apart, or in different directions – especially of the mind or attention”. It goes on to say : “to confuse; to harass; to render crazy”. And importantly adds of the word distraction : “… perplexity; agitation; madness; recreation; relaxation…” Ha! Recreation! Have you ever tried to hold a conversation with someone who is watching television? The person forcibly resists breaking the link with the television and entering into contact with you. Have you ever tried to reply to someone while you are watching television yourself? There is a sort of inert heaviness in your stomach that resists the call to contact as you are continually attracted back to the screen and what is happening there. Attraction breads distraction.
Presence is apparently not a question of effort. The greater you try to be present, the more likely you are to slip away. Remember what it is like to fight against sleep: the more you try, the more tired you get. It is as if efforts to be present get in the way of being present. Presence can’t be forced. The struggle of the teacher to gain the attention of unwilling pupils is mainly wasted effort. Attention can only come from the individual herself. Of course, the forceful presence of the teachers – I’m not talking of physical presence or the presence of force – invariably calls up the presence of the pupils. Presence is motivating and can stimulate presence. Note that attention and presence are not synonymous. In paying attention to how we are, we do not become more present. Self-consciousness, which can be painful in the extreme, can contribute to a deficit in our relationship to others. Attention folds back on itself, leaving little energy to be present for others.
Do not communication technologies like the Internet, television and the (mobile) phone favour distraction? It would be a strange fate if those tools that are designed to help us communicate also contribute to our being increasingly absent to others. Each of us has experienced distraction due to the attraction of communication technologies. Have you ever tried to dialogue with someone who continues reading his e-mails or watching Youtube? It is not easy. Naturally, politeness would require us to devote our whole attention to the person who is addressing us and stop reading our mails or watching Youtube. But how many people do? Something in our attitude to the technology authorises us to break with former deep-set rules of politeness. Could it be that mediated communication has more sway over our attention than face-to-face communication?
Or could it be that machines require our attention in such a way that they cannot be used satisfactorily in conjunction with face-to-face communication? Some people find it difficult to talk and drive, as if the attention necessary to drive make it impossible for them to participate in a conversation. The nature of our relationship to computers is different, but is it possible that the manipulation of the machine does distract from communication whether it be face-to-face or at a distance? Despite all their clumsiness and “unfriendliness”, blaming the machine for our distraction, however, seems a somewhat facile solution. It would be easy to conclude, as modern-day Luddites would have us do, that machines come between us and the world, between others and us. And in a sense they do. After all, that is the very definition of a medium. There is also the widespread fear of media as an opiate, that it distracts in promising all. Television, for example, purveys glitter and gore in lieu of presence. Presence is quite different. It transcends the gloss of media and show.
At the beginning of this article, in talking of the unfortunate man in the station, I assumed he was completely physically present because I could see him. Presence manifests itself through thought and emotions, yet it is neither of them. What if we were to consider “presence” as an additional physical dimension that expresses itself in the physical world in a way that can be “perceived”. Distraction could be said to be a deficit of “presence”, where presence is a perceivable quality of being in the relationship to ourselves, to others and to the world. My postulate would them be that our relationship with media tends to be such that our “presence” is diminished. Or, in other words, in the use of media we allow ourselves to be distracted. Let me illustrate this with a final anecdote. I am talking to someone when I realise that I need to add something to my tablet. I allow myself to be distracted and type in the words to the detriment not only of the communication with the other person, but also to my own presence.
So what is this mysterious presence that is felt physically but which can be experienced at a distance? The only answer I can give is that of a description. Have you ever felt you are a hundred percent there? The air smells remarkably good, crisp with all sort of delicious scents. The bursts of bird song come as sweet music that makes you heart vibrate with pleasure. The greens of the tree leaves seem to drip to the ground and the colour of the flowers stand out so powerful that they hit you in your stomach almost taking your breath away. The people around you seem to radiate such that it makes them all look beautiful and welcoming. It is really good to be alive… The clouds of the distracted world have lifted, the cotton wool packing has dropped away and you are here, now, present, fully.
Alan McCluskey, Connected Magazine, May. 20th 2001.