Odysseus and the Age of Distraction

The Greek hero Odysseus never owned a smartphone (or so the annals of myth record). The Trojan Horse ploy was not live tweeted, the escape from the Cyclops never streamed to Facebook Live, the bloodbath in Ithaca spawned no Instagram posts.
Yet armed with a phablet, the Greek hero could have been the influencer to end all influencers. With YouTube videos of his edgy escapades racking up millions of views, Odysseus’ ad revenue would have been on point. Blacksmiths, boat-builders and horse-traders would have flocked for his endorsements, bronzed torso gleaming on Instagram next to towering warhorses, gold-plated triremes and jewel-encrusted swords. Had he more carefully curated and monetised an online presence, Odysseus might have returned from the Trojan wars set for life. 
On the other hand, it’s tempting to think the mythic hero would never have reached Troy had the riches of Netflix been at his disposal. After all, what kind of masochist would spend ten gruelling years besieging a foreign fortress – and a further ten simply getting home – given the option of staying home, logging in and zoning out? An alternative but less compelling version of Homer’s Iliad might have our paunchy hero lying vacantly on a fur-draped couch in Ithaca, bingeing on boxsets and playing Farmville while others pursued glory in faraway lands. 
But fortunately for the pantheon of myth, Odysseus was no digital native. His vibe was just not very 21st Century. Murdering an entire city in their beds and killing 108 blokes for looking the wrong way at your wife just isn’t very woke. It’s hard to imagine even the saltiest YouTube comments thread providing rough enough entertainment for such an unreconstructed slab of man. 
Odysseus and the Sirens
But there are reasons to believe Odysseus might have thrived in our age of distraction, artfully sailing between the Scylla of social media and the Charybdis of bottomless boxsets.
En route from triumph in Troy to his home in Ithaca, Odysseus was forced to pass the island abode of the Sirens; beautiful creatures with voices of such irresistible sweetness their chorus mesmerised all who heard it. But the song was a trap, by which the murderous Sirens lured passing sailors to death and destruction. The rocky coastline of their island was littered with the splintered wreckage and drowned sailors of vessels lured to shipwreck on its rocks.
To hear the Siren’s song was paradise. To hear their song was death. 
Fortuitously, as his ship approached the Sirens’ island home, Odysseus was warned of their ploy by the goddess Circe. There was only one way to survive the journey past the island: the entire crew had to stuff their ears with wax, neutralising the Sirens’ fatal attraction. What the men couldn’t hear couldn’t hurt them.
Though the men dutifully plugged their ears, curiosity was too much for Odysseus. He had to hear the Sirens’ deathly-sweet song for himself. Rejecting the earplugs, he instead ordered his men to take ropes and bind him firmly to the ship’s mast. They were to keep rowing until the island had faded from view behind them. No matter how much Odysseus commanded or begged them to let him go, the crew were to ignore his pleas. 
As Homer’s myth recites, Circe’s cunning ploy worked. The crew set their heads down and rowed, their stuffed ears rendering them oblivious to the Sirens’ song. Though Odysseus begged to be released, the men obediently ignored his cries. The ship passed safely by the island, and Odysseus eventually made it back to Ithaca in one piece, ready to kick back and binge a few boxsets slay his wife’s many suitors.
Odysseus and the Digital Age
Rationally speaking, Odysseus knew the Sirens’ song was death. He knew his true desire was to make it home. But crucially, he also recognised the susceptibility of his heart to the allure of things he didn’t rationally want. Much as he longed for home, he recognised the magnetic pull of his disordered heart towards rival and destructive visions of what is good, true and beautiful. Odysseus knew that in the moment of hearing the Sirens’ song, powerful subconscious desires would overwhelm his rational goal to reach Ithaca. If his crew untied him in earshot of the Sirens’ seductive serenade, his disordered heart would be free to ruin them all. What saved Odysseus was not willpower. It was not rational self-control in the moment of temptation, or mental visualisation of his settled desire to make it home. Rather, Odysseus’ trump card was simply to identify temptation ahead of time, and literally tie himself up from its clutches. The ropes binding him to the mast rendered him powerless to pursue the Sirens’ alluring but deceitful beauty. 
We may not believe in mythical she-beasts, but our culture is nonetheless full of Sirens. Powerful forces call out to us, seeking to latch our desires, to draw our hearts at subconscious levels towards rival visions of flourishing. If we simply ‘follow our hearts’ and don’t critique the destinations to which they are being drawn, we risk being shipwrecked on all kinds of jagged rocks. Malaise, distraction, procrastination and FOMO are part of the texture of our age, rocks towards which we are frequently lured by our online habits. 
We too easily forget the online world is not a neutral space, but a marketplace brimming over with messages, experiences, products and services, weaponised by skilled marketers to lure our hearts. Just as the Sirens’ song sought to lure Odysseus’ heart away from his true desire to reach Ithaca, our hearts are constantly pulled away from our own personal Ithacas: the things that in our right mind we know we actually want to prioritise.
So, the digital world is ground zero for our own battle with the Sirens of the 21st Century. Every pocket contains a portal to virtually infinite quantities of high-quality entertainment, oceans of pornography, and hours of grazing across eternally-updated social media feeds. We have perhaps never faced so much easily-accessible distraction. 
It would be attractive if we could block our ears with wax like Odysseus’ crew, ensuring ahead of time that we never heard the Siren songs of the online world, in all their seductive, sugary sweetness. But for most of us, it is too late. We have heard these songs many times, and been shipwrecked by them many times, and what has been heard cannot be unheard. When we are tired or bored or emotionally low, the seduction of the black mirror in our pockets can be so loud it deafens the call towards our true desires. Whether that true desire is spiritual growth, academic achievement, deepened relationships, professional advancement, or something else, many of us make little headway towards it, but instead crash repeatedly against the rocks of the online world.

Binding Ourselves to the Mast

But plugging our ears to the digital world is likely also impractical. For most of us, our smartphones, tablets and laptops are simply too ingrained with our work, our hobbies, our communication, the ways we maintain our relationships, and how we administrate our lives. There are many  useful services and opportunities we would lose by going back to a basic feature phone. Going cold turkey from the digital world may be beneficial and possible for a few, but for most of us, the more realistic option is to take a leaf out of Odysseus’ book and ‘tie ourselves to the mast’ from time to time, so to speak. 
By periodically blocking ourselves from the sugar rush of the online world, we can liberate ourselves to travel towards the more valuable destinations of deepened relationships, realised creativity, and undistracted work or study. By recognising in sober moments the ways the Sirens of the digital world tend to drag us away from what we truly want, we can come up with strategies to bind ourselves from reaching them, and so, paradoxically, find a kind of freedom.
In my own experience, willpower is not enough to escape the jagged rocks of the digital world. Only by periodically tying myself up, leaving me powerless to reach my digital Sirens, can I find release from the hamster wheel of destructive distraction. To this end, there’s a particular set of digital ‘ropes’ I’ve found invaluable in helping me more regularly win this battle. Each provides a way to ‘tie yourself to the mast’ as you negotiate the digital world, with its unique mix of huge possibility and huge risk. Each of these ropes has a particular strength, and used together, they can provide a very powerful strategy to defuse the threat our devices and online spaces pose to our relationships, our mental health, our creativity, our productivity, and our concentration. Without them, I wouldn’t even be in the fight.

AppBlock (Android)
AppBlock is a free app which, as the name suggests, simply blocks other apps on your phone. You set up a customised schedule which disables individual apps or groups of apps between whatever times you select. This means rather than being at the mercy of your phone’s distractions, you can take control of what kind of device your want it to be. If there are times you want to avoid social media, or messaging apps, or email, you can block these off, without having to throw your smartphone in the bin. If distraction at work is an issue, then web browsers, social media apps and YouTube can be blocked from 9.00 to 12.30, perhaps unblocked from 12.30 to 13.30 to allow some lunch break browsing, then blocked again from 13.30 to 18.00. A neat feature of AppBlock is its ‘charger lock’ system, which uses the charger cable as a kind of key. Once a blocking schedule is activated, it can only be disabled if the cable is plugged in. On the move, this makes it impossible to override the block schedule. 

But the greatest strength of AppBlock is in letting you tailor your phone’s functionality to keep the helpful apps but shut out distractions. You can keep messaging, note-taking, email, camera and map apps for instance, but block your Web browsers, social media apps and YouTube. You can gear your phone to productivity and creativity rather than distraction. Overnight you can block everything except the phone function, turning your distraction hotspot into a simple brick phone, and letting you sleep with the peace of mind that you could be reached in an emergency.

SelfControl (Mac OSX) and Cold Turkey (Windows)
SelfControl and Cold Turkey are free website blockers. Both provide largely the same function, of enabling a custom list of sites to be blocked (a ‘blacklist’) or a list of sites to be allowed (a ‘whitelist’). You simply set a time period, set up a blacklist / whitelist, and hit go. Until the timer expires, you will not be able to access any of the blocked sites on any of your web browsers. The blacklist option enables you to select specific sites to block, whether that’s social media, email, news, Wikipedia, or anything else. The whitelist option is more hardcore and only lets you access your nominated sites (for instance a work email portal).

A particularly attractive feature of both programs is how hard they is to override. Even restarting the computer does not remove the block, and short of reinstalling your operating system, anyone who isn’t a computing expert won’t be able to circumvent the software. 

CovenantEyes (Windows, Mac, Android, iOS)
CovenantEyes uses the assistance of one or more friends to help you break patterns of negative online behaviour. Though designed particularly for those seeking to live free of pornography, accountability software can help you to be more critical about any form of online behaviour, including gaming addictions or night-time browsing. The premise is simple: you nominate an ‘accountability partner’ who then receives email alerts about any questionable sites you visit, as well as more general reports about your internet habits (for instance you usage patterns throughout the day and night). The idea is that you and your accountability partner can then have a helpful dialogue about how and why you use the internet the way you do.
To get the most out of this tool, your accountability partner should be someone you know will have the confidence to raise any red flags with you (and the maturity to do this in a constructive way). Many people have found the human element involved in accountability to be the key factor in breaking free and staying free of the temptations of pornography and other destructive online destinations. 

Odysseus never owned a smartphone, but if he had, he might have found his rope trick bought him some respite from the relentless distraction of the online world. Homer’s  millennia-old old epic is timely for our own tech-addled age. My hope is that the ropes outlined above might save you from some of the more jagged rocks littering our path through the digital world, and help you make better headway towards the things which truly matter.