Consumerism and Distractionism

My friend Jaime was recently trying to convince me that capitalism and consumerism are inextricably interlinked. I protested, thinking about the economic dominance of tech companies and how software isn't a stereotypically consumerist good. But in fact, Amazon and Apple basically epitomise consumerism: one the "more things cheaper" variety, the other the "conspicuously shiny things" variety. Google and Facebook aren't intrinsically consumerist themselves, but they facilitate consumerism - they make money by convincing people to buy more things, and they use extensive psychological manipulation to do so. Spotify and Netflix might be the main counterexamples, as the rare customer-facing companies whose primary revenue sources aren't selling or advertising physical products.

But why do we dislike consumerism anyway? Probably because over the last half-century, the world has slowly realised that physical resources aren't inexhaustible, and that material consumption does large-scale environmental damage. Concurrently, there has developed a very compelling body of evidence that buying things doesn't provide lasting happiness. These two factors have combined to give consumerism - originally a term referring to the economic power of consumers - very negative connotations. But we need to go further, because exactly the same arguments apply to the pursuit of distraction, which has taken over the modern world. Facebook and Youtube and Netflix and millions of mindless apps don't provide lasting happiness - if anything, it's the opposite. Even worse, they sap away an exhaustible resource - the time and energy of individuals who have better things to do - on a gargantuan scale. Humans have fairly strong natural inclinations to think a lot about a few things: how to make ourselves better off, how to make our families better off, learning new things, and our friendships and relationships. These thoughts aren't always enjoyable, or productive, but overall they're pretty important. The modern world's strip-mining of our attention is exactly analogous to the exploitation of natural resources for the production of useless material goods. Each not only leaves individuals worse off, but also reduces our ability to create a better future. Each is also incentivised by capitalism since the wider harms do not accrue to the firm which caused them.

I think it's easy to underestimate the sheer scale of the problem that distractionism poses. Imagine if every scientist were 10% more productive; imagine if there were 10% more startups, or that the ones which currently exist spent their energies creating products of tangible value. And I think 10% is a conservative lower bound on the extent of the problem. During my time at Oxford and Cambridge, I've seen so many people - myself included - who can't stop themselves from procastinating and wasting huge amounts of time online, and only starting assignments days or even hours before they're due. This is particularly horrific because the people around me have been selected largely based on their ability to productively learn and work! Whatever problems we have must be magnified tenfold elsewhere. 

Distractionism doesn't just prevent us from starting important tasks, it also makes us much slower when we are working. What we think of as "multitasking", such as occasionally replying to messages while working, in fact forces our brains to entirely switch context and refocus our attention. Computer scientists seem particularly aware of this problem, judging by the frequent complaints I've read about how unproductive open-plan offices are; for a more thorough discussion, I recommend Cal Newport's book Deep Work. There's also growing evidence that distractionism is a major cause of the current epidemic of mental health problems in the West, as time online replaces healthier activities and interactions, and as the impressions we get of our friends' lives become ever more picture-perfect. Similarly, the evidence is mounting that online porn is particularly addictive and may have long-term consequences. In addition to all of that, technology seems to contribute to widespread sleep deprivation and attendant health consequences.

I don't have a quick fix for these issues. Personally, I've uninstalled all unnecessary phone apps, and installed ColdTurkey on my laptop to irreversibly block Facebook, Youtube, Reddit, and all the games which used to suck away my time. I've also bought a kindle so that I don't have to read ebooks on my phone or laptop. I try to make notes in a physical notebook, rather than on my laptop; and I leave my phone behind when going to the library. I still spend too much time messaging friends instead of arranging face-to-face meetings, though; and I haven't found a good way to block websites on my phone. I often find myself reading articles, essays or stories online during time I'd allocated for work. And even when I do sit down to consistently work, it tends to be on things like this blog, rather than the most important tasks facing me.

But this blog post, at least, is important. A major reason I'm writing it is that I feel like, right now, the struggle with addiction to technology is a very individual one. It's fought at home late at night; and upon waking up, when our phones are the first things we reach for; and during the morning commute, with every stranger on the train remaining a stranger because their faces are glued to their screens. It doesn't feel like a real addiction or disorder, not the sort of thing you'd expect sympathy for. But maybe that's just because it's become the new normal. Certainly if you asked someone from even a century ago to analyse modern society, they'd be shocked at how we spend our time. Some of that is inevitable, since so much work requires computers; but I'm going to try and see how much of it I can change. I'll try to publish progress reports on this blog. I hope you'll join me.


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