The Distraction Project

For more resources on smartphone addiction and coping with the digital age, see:
The Occupation
It was a bloodless coup, a quiet revolution.
There were no guns or bombs; no terrified shouting in the streets.
They came among us wearing the masks of friends. They held out gleaming toys and tasty bon-bons.
We were transfixed.
We opened wide our doors for them; ushering them in as guests.
We sat them down at the family table.
We even took them into our beds. We lay whispering sweet nothings to them last thing at night, and first thing at dawn.
As we idly played with their treats, they transgressed every border. Their revolution swept upon us, as they silently hoisted glowing blue totems in each once-sacred space.
They began to watch us day and night. Eventually they knew when we woke, when we slept, where we lived, and where we worked. They knew our secret passions, and our darkest desires. They knew how we spent our money and our time. They listened in on our private conversations. In some ways, they knew us better than we knew ourselves.
A vast dossier of information was filed carefully away against each of our names, in case one day it because useful.
Once they had the measure of us, they started selling our attention. There was much to sell: hour upon hour of precious, human time, traded day and night in a vast digital slave market. Compliantly, we followed each new master home. We learned to do their bidding without complaint. We watched what they asked us to watch, bought what they asked us to buy, believed what they asked us to believe, felt what they asked us to feel. 
With each passing year, their culture engulfed us further, remoulded us in their image. 
Too late we learned their shining gifts had come at a heavy price. 
Distracting Ourselves to Death
I got my first mobile phone at 18, a gift from friends weary of calling my home landline.
It would be another 10 years before I finally got a smartphone. 
I now live with digital tinnitus. The low, incessant drone of the online world follows wherever I go.
It’s still baffling to me how such a seemingly innocuous slab of black glass can rearrange my mental furniture, undermine my concentration, dull my creative and analytical faculties. Perhaps having not grown up with it, the contrast to my pre-smartphone life feels all the more stark.
I have often told myself that access to unlimited information – the hallmark of our modern age – is a net positive. But five years of daily grazing on 24/7 news and blogs have not made me wiser.
I cannot say I understand the complex fabric of the world any better. Truth be told, I probably understand less about myself and the people around me. I have been distracted, less able to watch, to listen, to reflect: less able to do the things that might help me grow wiser and kinder.
I don’t think our minds know what to do with the rushing torrent of contextless information we encounter online. It engulfs and overwhelms us, hurrying us downstream, preventing us making deeper connections. Worse, our consumption of information can actively work against growth in true wisdom and understanding. The online world draws our attention away from our embodied contexts, and towards a stream of one-dimensional facts and opinions. The stand-alone nuggets of information we encounter on social media and news websites are easily digestible, like sugar. But like sugar, they leave us flat and unsatisfied. Our tastebuds are stimulated, but our stomachs are not filled.
Few of us genuinely think our time online betters us. Our motives lie elsewhere. The deluge of information flooding newly upon us each morning becomes a kind of numbing agent; a chew toy for the skittish mind. Online distractions offer a form of therapy from the pain and disappointment which are part of the warp and weft of embodied life. Real people can be difficult, hurtful and boring; often all three at once. Our own physical limitations, our weakness, and our emotional insecurities can form a deafening internal monologue. We crave consolation, and online spaces offer a tantalising form of comfort.
As Jean Vanier has said:
We are often frightened of reality because reality can be painful and a source of disappointment. We tend to escape into a world of illusions and to seek refuge in dreams. We bury ourselves in ideas and theories or fill our days with distractions.” [1]
The problem is, our online diversions are not neutral. Social media and 24/7 news operate like any other addictive vice. Like nicotine, gambling or alcohol, they first create in us new cravings, then present themselves as the fulfilment of those same cravings. In the case of our digital habits, constant connectedness produces a deep existential malaise, then cynically offers itself as the solution.
This cycle of existential craving and satisfaction is ruthless in its effect on our agency and empathy. 24/7 news now bombards us with so much information from outside our immediate contexts – unflinching details of far-flung wars, coups, famines, and crises – that we can be entirely overwhelmed. We are numbed, brought to what documentary-maker Adam Curtis calls a state of ‘oh dearism’ [2]. As the world’s suffering pours onto our retinas, we feel profoundly disempowered. After all, we are almost always too culturally and geographically distant from any practical response to these issues. Even if we try to empathise, any sense of agency is easily overwhelmed by the complexity and scale of the issues. Faced with the magnitude of pain and suffering, and the apparent impossibility of constructive personal response, we simply throw up our hands and say “Oh dear, isn’t that terrible“.
Weary Wanderings
But time online kicks the agency and empathy out of us in other ways. It acclimatises us to a synthetic world where everything is a service, a world where appearance trumps reality, a world of algorithms finely tuned to feed every impulse, no matter how unhealthy. In this atmosphere, we are shaped as consumers and spectators, setting expectations we then carry into the non-digital world. It is no wonder, for instance, that higher education is caught in crisis, when the focus of so many students is not to truly learn, but to game the system to get the right accolade. At least some of the blame for this must lie in the consumer mindset instilled by online services, and the desperate superficiality of our performances on social media. Who truly cares how much we actually know – what our actual capabilities are – if they can hide behind a 2.1 as effectively as we hide our true selves on social media?
Our new, ever-connected way of life is not neutral. Those providing the online services which absorb our best hours know precisely what they are doing. Under their expert training, the human mind becomes an obedient lapdog, tuned to respond obediently to the call of unchosen masters. Try for too long to sniff out some demanding train of thought or some patient creative endeavour, and before long there will be a sharp tug on your leash – a craving – calling you back to disengagement; to the sweet, ever flowing river of the online world.
Our minds are under occupation. Yet day by day, we return to social media, to streaming TV, to gaming, shopping, blogs and endless news. We do so despite knowing objectively that these services have neither brought us happiness, nor made us better people. Most of our time in the disjointed dreamland of the online world is unplanned; hours and hours filling the spaces between the week’s activities: our sleeping, working, socialising, housework, exercise, and creative pursuits. So often, these online escapes also bleed into those embodied activities, distracting us from engaging fully with them. We are never fully where we actually are; part of us is always somewhere else, floating in the ether.
The Fightback
So what is to be done?
It doesn’t help to stare down our noses at those lost in a chaos of online distraction. Not only have the older generation not had to deal with growing up swimming in the strange new water of the ever-connected world, but many are as hopelessly tech-addled as their children and grandchildren. 
Nor is it realistic for most of us to leave the online world behind. There are  too many invaluable tools available for learning, creating and connecting, in both our work and family lives. The answer for most is not to shun the digital age wholesale, but rather to work out how to navigate our lives around it for the sake of our mental and emotional health, to let us flourish as embodied people, fully engaged with the environments – and the people – around us.
To that end, I have formed a set of convictions about where I stand on the digital age; convictions that help guide my current strategies (below) for engaging with tech in a more healthy way:
1) A phone should be primarily a phone. Being able to be contacted is usually a net positive, but there’s no need to carry a multi-functional computer around with me every moment of the day.
2) Apps should support, not hinder, embodied life. There are some apps which genuinely help us be creative, organised and informed. Evernote, for instance, has become a key way of jotting down thoughts and ideas on the go. But discernment is needed to honestly assess whether a given app is a constructive tool or just a portal to escapism.
3) Social media, news, blogs and email have a place, but that place is not in my pocket. These online spaces can drink our time, and can drive potent feedback loops of craving and reward. Accordingly, their reach into our time, our emotions and our mental patterns ishould be put on a short leash. I have learned that personally, the best way of interacting with social media, personal email and news is twice a day: ten minutes in the morning, and ten minutes in the evening. Doing so on a desktop computer lets me switch off and walk away in a way that is much harder with a laptop or phone.
Having decided on my convictions about healthy interactions with digital technology and the online world, the key question is implementation. To that end, I have tried three main strategies. Not all of them have worked for me, but I set them out in the hope they may be a help to others.
Strategy 1 – AppBlock
I have long used anti-distraction apps like Self Control and Cold Turkey on my personal computers. These apps let you disable a ‘blacklist’ of websites for a chosen period of time. They can be a lifesaver when you need to knuckle down to serious task, cutting off the most potent distractions.
AppBlock is an android app, providing similar functionality for smartphones. It blocks at the app level, which means you have to kill the whole web browser rather than only selected sites. But it lets you turn your pocket computer with all its distractions into, well, a phone.
In principle it’s a great idea. Have all the connectivity you want, when you want it, and shut it all out when you don’t. The problem is having the discipline to routinely set up blocks, and the self-awareness to preempt the times distraction will hit. It’s all too easy to ‘forget’ to turn it on, or to over-ride it (which you can do by simply plugging in the power cable). 
In practice then, though it may work well for some people, AppBlock simply gives too much leeway to my distraction-craving mind to be a reliable solution to tech addiction.
Strategy 2 – Dumbphone 
So how about true cold turkey?
The throwback. The veteran. The long-buried fossil. 
For years this back to basics tough-phone has been an indestructible companion on surf and kayaking trips.
It certainly fits the bill for a radical anti-distraction device. Tiny fiddly keys? Check. Grainy screen? Check. No internet? Check.
Carrying this phone is like being under the brutal care of an austere mother superior.  It is the phone equivalent of a straw mattress, early bedtime, and porridge with no sugar. It offers no comfort, no entertainment. It offers nothing.
It was an amusing form of outer-body-experience, feeling my dopamine-hungry brain pawing at the laughable selection of apps, trying to squeeze some meagre drops of distraction out of them. So bad were my cravings at one point that I spent five wretched minutes flagellating myself with a terrible, clunky golf ‘game’, before coming to my senses and putting the phone away.
For some people, the dumbphone may be a great bet. Even if you only take it out from time to time, it’s no bad thing to be reminded what life is like when you have to fully engage with your environment and the people around you. 
However, the problem with this proto-Amish option is that there are some things for which a smartphone is hugely useful.
When inspiration strikes, it’s a good thing to be able to jot things down on Evernote. It’s good to take a call hands free in the car. It’s useful to have a wireless hotspot when you want to do some work miles from any WiFi. It can be enriching to listen to podcasts whilst doing mundane tasks.
It’s also a grind not having WhatsApp. There are certain groups of people I simply wouldn’t be able to maintain a friendship with were it not for WhatsApp. The dumbphone option shut me off from genuine, amusing and affirming connections with people I rarely see due to pressures of geography, family and work. For me, that was a bridge too far, preventing me adopting the dumbphone as my one-stop solution to smartphone addiction.
Option 3 – Going Hybrid
Though neither has proved a fully satisfactory option, my experimentation with AppBlock and dumbphones taught me a few important lessons.
My perfect phone, it turns out, has Evernote, WhatsApp, Google Maps, voice recording, internet hotspot ability, and perhaps a music app and a podcast app.
However, my perfect phone categorically does not give me access to any web browsers, email, video streaming, social media or news apps. 
Unfortunately, dumbphones are a non-starter for most of these requirements. And just as problematically, Android smartphones usually come with Chrome and YouTube as core apps which cannot be removed, as well as games and other so-called ‘bloatware’.
So is there a middle way?
Although it won’t be the solution for every tech addict, ultimately I realised my perfect phone is actually two phones: a slightly more capable dumbphone for everyday use, and a neutered smartphone for those times I need more sophisticated productivity apps.
First I had to find the optimal dumbphone, my ‘everyday carry’. On the wish-list was WhatsApp support and 4G internet (for hotspot duties). I actively wanted something with such a nasty screen and clunky interface that accessing any distractions would be a non-starter.
I found the perfect fit in the Nokia 8110. This recent re-release of the iconic “matrix” phone has a clunky keypad and a small grainy screen, just like the first mobile phone I ever owned. But it also has WhatsApp, 4G capability, and Bluetooth, so I can make calls in the car.

Unfortunately, by default the 8110 also has Google Chrome and YouTube as non-deletable core apps. Though the phone is fortunately so clunky these apps are virtually unusable, I still wanted them gone. Fortunately there is a way to gain administrator control by plugging the phone into a PC and installing some software on it to unlock full functionality, a process known as ‘rooting’ (for more detailed instructions see here). Now my 8110 just has my contacts, SMS, a clock, a camera, and WhatsApp. Just how I want it.

So what about my now-redundant smartphone?

Ideally, I wanted to transform it from a distraction portal into a tool for constructive tasks like note-taking and listening to podcasts. I wanted a device I wouldn’t always take out with me, but could slip in my bag if I was expecting to have some extended time to kill (e.g. on a train, or in an airport), and wanted to get some writing done, or listen to something informative.

The problem – as with the Nokia 8110 – is getting rid of the ‘bloatware’ that can’t normally be uninstalled, and in particular Chrome and YouTube. The answer to this conundrum, as before, lies in “rooting” the operating system, which for Android phones is a little more involved (see here for more details).
Because I’m deeply suspicious of Google, having rooted the phone, I went a step further and installed a non-Google version of Android (see here). I then deleted every app except a chosen few:
  • Evernote
  • ESV Bible
  • Stitcher (podcasts)
  • Amazon Music
  • Soundcloud
  • Camera
  • Voice Recorder
  • Atmosphere (white noise)
Finally, to avoid the temptation to re-install any distracting apps, I threw away the key, so to speak, by deleting the App Store. This means I can’t install any more apps without going through the hassle of reinstalling Android again from scratch.
My smartphone is now neutered, a wolf with no fangs, a scorpion with no tail. It can only be used for writing, taking photos, recording voice messages, reading the Bible, and listening to podcasts and music: in other words, the things I actually want from a smartphone. But having no Chrome, YouTube, email or social media has eliminated distraction. Of course I could have just gone with this as my only phone, without also needing the Nokia. But in my particular case, I even wanted to be able to get away from ‘useful’ diversions like podcasts and note-taking apps when I want to be most fully undistracted and present in embodied life.
It is hard to express quite how radically these changes to my digital life have already transformed my thought life, my concentration, and my awareness of my surroundings. Only having left behind the possibility of easy digital distraction do I fully realise what a toll it was taking on my awareness, my presence in situations, my creativity, my sense of agency. When distraction isn’t so easily available, it’s amazing how much easier it is to get started on more meaningful activities and projects.
It’s an irony that escaping tech addiction requires a fairly sophisticated ability with technology. But the tools are out there to take back control over digital devices and online services, making them our servants, rather than being their slaves.
*** I will follow up with instructions on rooting the Nokia 8110 and Android smartphones in a separate article ***
[1] – Jean Vanier, Befriending the Stranger, 2005, Darton Longman and Todd, p5
[2] –