The Distraction Addiction
Recently I was having some exchanges with a guy with whom I’d been on a date and was working on setting up a second. He was inconsistent with messaging but whenever I heard a text message buzz, I found myself not breathing – anticipating something from him. I was literally holding my breath for him. Realizing how unhealthy that was, and that he wasn’t going to become magically responsive, I stopped the exchange and mentally moved on. I started breathing again.
One of the first insights in this thoughtful book is that humans often experience “email apnea”: we hold our breath checking email. It makes sense, because you never really know what sort of thing may come in to your inbox. Having just been through the process of recognizing my own failure to breathe when waiting for texts from this guy, it was easy to see how I did it with work emails too. Most of what I get in my inbox is low priority, but every time I get something from a court, I can feel my breath catch. It usually doesn’t get better until I’ve downloaded the order and read it. I was definitely primed for the opening insight of the book, and its suggestion that we focus on breathing when we hit refresh on our email, and continue breathing normally while it does so.
Pang extends this advice to the many other beeps and sounds that fill our lives. I started turning off notifications while I was reading and enjoyed the book all the more because I was able to focus on it. It helped me realize that, even though I read a fair amount, I’m often subject to distractions when doing so, and get my best reading done in the cell deadzones on the subway or on airplanes. I like the idea of intentionally cutting off when I read.
Pang is anything but a luddite. He likes and uses technology. And he makes a persuasive argument for changing our relationship with technology to one that is more intentional. Like the technology with which we are struggling, a sense that something is amiss with technology is almost ubiquitous. While reading the book I had several conversations that touched on its topics. People intuitively understand that there is a problem, but struggle with how to deal with it. Pang has excellent suggestions for doing this. Even understanding the problem – and that I’m not alone with having the problem – has helped me be more intentional with technology.
I was less impressed with Pang’s interest in Buddhism. While there is definitely much to learn from the wisdom traditions, the book seemed to like the sanitized Buddhism of college students’ rebellions against Westernism/Christianity. Buddhism has its dark sides (ask the Burmese Muslims). And the ultimate goal of Buddhism is detachment from the world, because it is those attachments that bring our souls back to the world through reincarnation rather than attaining Nirvana (to be “blown out” like a candle – or as written in Japanese, 入滅, to enter destruction) . It may be that I’m a single person living away from family, but I like and miss my family. I find the idea that my attachment to them is something to be overcome deeply dehumanizing. The multiple times “sangha” is defined is unnecessary and further reminds you that Pang likes Buddhism. Religions of all sorts have a community of the faithful. So I prefer “community” or “faithful” as more universal than the repetitive use of foreign words.
More important than my atheist quibbles with Buddhist doctrine, though, I disliked the repeated reference to Buddhism because it made the focus of the book seem disconnected from the world in which most of us live. Having to remember that “sangha” means community is a subtle disconnection from the world in which I live. Second, the relation of ascetics (monks, priests, other religious leaders) and the larger world is always attenuated. Because a monk is intentionally set apart from the rest of humanity, the monk’s (or priests, or whatever’s) relationship with the world has a different directionality than the relationships I have with family, friends, and coworkers. That is, a monk can engage in online communications with the community of Buddhist faithful as a form of outreach or ministry. If the monk fails to do so, though, it’s not like their daily life will necessarily be disrupted. I can’t do that. Responding to email is an essential function of my job. Living hundreds of miles from family means that I depend on technology to see my niece and nephews growing up.
So I preferred it when Pang talked about himself and his own family’s struggles to mediate the challenges of living in the technological world. I share his ability to get great work done on an airplane. There are times I will intentionally buy big books and save them for my next long flight. So I appreciated his discussion of intentionally preparing for flights as times to get things done.
I appreciated his discussion about taking walks – I know that my tendency to eat lunch at my desk is bad, but this book gives me more reasons to step away from the desk and go for a walk, including breathing, allowing your mind to wander which will help it form connections, and allowing it to more easily enter a type of flow state. The book includes other interesting discussions from people who work and how they interact with technology. I liked those, because they seem like the people with whom I interact.
I also appreciate the idea of a digital sabbath. I’ve retained my interest in having a day off of work from my religious upbringing. I like the idea of extending it to the digital realm. I’m not sure yet how to do it (one of the ways I stay connected with family is by playing online games with my parents, and I think I’d have to carve that out in the name of increasing connection).
In short, I like a lot about this book. I’m already trying to do some things differently because of it. Focusing on my breathing has, already, been a very good. thing. I would have appreciated more of a focus on those of us who have to live in the world and balance the benefits and downsides of digital ubiquity.