I have this problem. I can’t focus. Or, more specifically, I have trouble focusing for any extended length of time because my smartphone and the Internet distract me. Everyday I struggle to be productive and I feel I am not alone.
In fact, I see this struggle to maintain focus as a serious and growing cultural issue, a war for our attention. To grasp the scope of this problem, I thought it would be a useful exercise to compare the war for our attention against the American struggle with obesity.
I’ll define the war for our attention as the difficulty to maintain focus and be productive in today’s super connected, forever updating, saturated world of media, information, and data. It’s starting that project or work activity, but abandoning the line of critical thinking to check your email, Facebook, Twitter, etc.
Enormous Scope: According to the CDC, about one third of American adults are obese. Now consider that 81% of Americans use a computer at work and 35% own a smartphone and half of Americans are on Facebook. The potential scope is quite large.
Enormous Cost: Obesity has obvious medical costs that totaled $147 billion in 2008. The cost of a distracted public is less clear, but it’s fair to say our favorite social network or iPhone game is not making us more productive at work.
Initially Ignored: Only after decades of fast food consumption, did the health community determine our culture had a weight problem. I think we are in a similar space now as it pertains to the distracted public. The technological culprits are too new for extensive academic research. Although, diagnoses of childhood ADHD are on the rise.
Social Stigma: It’s pretty clear when you walk down a sidewalk who is overweight. As comparison, we are surrounded by a perpetual stream of advertising and marketing that reinforces the ideal body type. Unfortunately, you can’t quickly tell by looking at someone whether they can successfully focus for hours at a time. (You can see, however, the idiot who never looks up from his smartphone as he walks.)
Fixing the Problem: Similarly, because many people don’t see being distracted as an abnormality, there is little social pressure to solve the problem. In fact, some, notably college students, think a few Adderall is enough to do the trick. Obesity is a killer, while a scattered mind, not so much.
Finally, I’ll conclude with an important similarity in my mind. For most of us, I think it inevitably boils down to simple choices we make everyday. To eat the cheeseburger or not. To log in or not. Sometimes it just feels out of our control as we are fed more and more content and media. Public awareness of the issue would be good for those who don’t recognize the problem. But, just because you know something is not healthy and unproductive, doesn’t mean you won’t indulge.