We hear all the time that digital technologies distract us from other, more important things. Perhaps your smart phone encourages you to play games or check social media instead of chatting with your family. Perhaps your laptop distracts you from listening to a lecture. Statistics show that text messaging distracts us all from careful driving. Digital Nation makes much of distraction as a new condition—especially for students—in the age of hypermedia. Multitasking, the filmmakers tell us, has become an unfortunate norm for college kids all across the nation. Unfortunate because studies show we don’t do it very well. So-called digital natives are no exception to the rule of split attention causing decreased productivity.
There’s little doubt that distraction can have unfortunate consequences, and less still that digital devices can distract us. However, the idea that distraction is a new problem specific to digital culture ignores the pertinent history. The comic XKCD makes fun of such thinking by pointing out that we’ve long worried about how media technologies occupy our attention and draw us away from social interaction.
Literary historians have documented the novel as instigating moral crises, and not just because they distracted people from more important reading. Novels also had the power to sway their readers, especially young readers, according to Samuel Johnson, who thought novels could “take possession of the memory by a kind of violence.” In Digital Nation we saw virtual reality do something similar by inventing memories for young users. And no doubt we’ve all encountered debates about violent video games leading to violent temperaments among young gamers.
The idea that our media technologies distract us from the world, or have a negative influence on cognitive function, runs deep in our cultural history. That history should encourage us to think twice before blaming digital devices for an unprecedented level of attention deficit. However, that history also shows why it might be a mistake to dismiss the problem of distraction as irrelevant. As the kaleidascope craze in Victorian England confirms, especially engaging devices can lead to injury. The lesson we learn from history might just be to take a break from our phones while walking.