Sunday Reflections: Is technology interfering with our peace of mind or the mind itself?

Author Cal Newport

I’ve been wanting to tackle a project, but I keep getting distracted. It’s easy to do in this age of distraction when attention is the coin of the realm.

We seem to be permanently distracted—by news alerts, text messages, emails, and the angry cry of advertising power that is taking over our landscape.

The focus we know we need to focus on our purpose is constantly interrupted by the beeps and noises of the very technological revolution that promised an easier, streamlined life.

It’s not just at work, where Slack, email, Zoom, and Teams invade to disrupt our concentration, but at home, where the need to check the latest Facebook post, Instagram, or TikTok video impedes our ability to decompress and detach. of a world that is, as Wordsworth said, “too much with us.”

I find that the more I acknowledge the primacy of attention, the less I escape it. There is always a hum of “check, check, check,” an annoying rumble that leads me to believe that there is someone or something that needs my immediate response. The tech giants have hijacked our neural networks so that we become addicted to distraction itself. Evolution has built us to be prepared for danger, and Silicon Valley wired that neural network.

Cal Newport, the bestselling author of Digital Minimalism and A World Without Email, reminds us that every time we switch contexts—checking email, the phone, the Internet—we lose productivity. “Your brain can’t leave your inbox open next to the note you’re writing while you’re on the phone,” he told The New York Times. (Really?)

Newport calls our current way of working a “hyperactive hive mind,” where unstructured digital messages bombard us at random intervals, forcing themselves on our attention.

“As long as we remain engaged in a workflow based on constant, ad hoc messages, our Paleolithic brain will remain in a state of low anxiety,” Newport writes.

In his fascinating new book, The Wandering Mind: What Medieval Monks Tell Us About Distraction, Jamie Kreiner takes us into the world of early Christian monks who sought the exact kind of attention that eludes us today. What she finds is that these monks suffered from the same absent-mindedness that we do, suggesting that it may not be technology that interferes with our ability to concentrate. It may be human nature.

Kreiner writes that the monks, “those supposed exemplars of concentration,” were in fact “deeply preoccupied with the problem of distraction,” a preoccupation that dates back to antiquity. The ancient Greeks in general, and the Stoics in particular, zealously guarded their minds from distraction, adamant that time was better spent on self-cultivation and philosophy. “Do external things distract you?” wrote Marcus Aurelius. “Then take time for yourself to learn something useful; stop being pulled in all directions.’

For monks, solitude and prayer are paths to union with God. Distraction was the work of the Devil as he separated himself from God. Kreiner’s book describes the monks’ elaborate self-denying efforts to effect this union, from refusing to bathe to refusing to eat.

Later philosophers, such as Pascal, would argue that our weak will makes us vulnerable to distraction—a conclusion that leaves us equally unhappy. “The only thing that consoles us for our misfortunes is entertainment,” he wrote, “and yet it is the greatest of our misfortunes. Because it is precisely this that mainly prevents us from reflecting on ourselves and causes us to imperceptibly ruin ourselves.”

I find some comfort in knowing that even the most dedicated monks have been disturbed by the tendency of their own minds to dwell on deviations. And yet I envy their application to the task and wonder if technology is interfering with our peace of mind, or the human brain itself.

Tracy O’Shaughnessy writes Sunday Reflections. Reach her in

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