BY BECKY NATHANSON
Historically, humanity has always searched for diversions. The search for diversion brought us Galileo, Shakespeare, Picasso. One could argue that diversion is merely riding the coattails of curiosity, that it’s the dependent step-child looking for a free ride in a bright place. But the line between the two has come into focus in the last decade with the use of omnipresent digital technology. By 2015, two-thirds of Americans owned a smartphone—that’s over 200 million people with constant access to an infinite amount of immediate information, flashing bright, congratulating us merely for existing. A 2015 study in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication demonstrated a clear pattern of developing separation anxiety inhibiting the spectrum of cognitive abilities. In other words, we are becoming addicted to our distraction, and the addiction is shutting us down. But we continue to choose it.
Arguably, distraction and curiosity part ways when creativity loses a seat at the table. Before the 1930s, which was the Golden Age of radio entertainment, gatherings turned to music-making as the main source of after-dinner entertainment. This practice was centuries old; the history of casual salons in the home for commonplace diversion begins in the 17th century, when the middle class was created. They were inspired by court entertainment, by chamber ensembles, troubadours, and court jesters. And the courts, in turn, were inspired by the ancient narratives about storytellers and poets who documented the majesty of wars and wonders in ancient cultures. For years, our entertainment was predicated on a certain amount of developed attention. Stories take time to weave; the piano takes patience to learn. The derived pleasure was always tempered by the double investment of effort and idea.
Without that investment, the reward should be theoretically impossible. Queue smartphones and unlimited streaming television: the veritable all-you-can-eat buffet of diversion. No expertise necessary. Now anyone can spend hours investing in the pleasure of diversion and forgo the tedium of effort and idea.
The 17th century philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote, “The only thing which consoles us for our miseries is diversion, and yet this is the greatest of our miseries.” Pascal was primarily a mathematician who was best known for inventing the calculator and defending the scientific method. His father was a tax collector; he himself was a pious Catholic whose own brush with death deepened his reverence. In a time without even electricity, distractions were still abundant—humans will find a way to look another direction if it means unplugging from responsibility for a time. But what is the consequence? Pascal hypothesized a possible mental backlash; he foresaw a circumstance without room for thought.
For it is distraction, which principally hinders us from reflecting upon ourselves and which makes us insensibly ruin ourselves. Without this we should be in a state of weariness, and this weariness would spur us to seek a more solid means of escaping from it. But diversion amuses us, and leads us unconsciously to death.
That unconscious march to death—is that what we subconsciously desire? The absence of reflection surely grows not only more accessible but more definite with every passing moment. Society will continue to trend towards the most immediate delivery of pleasure as long as humans exist. We are animals, after all. But the question is worth sitting with, even if only momentarily: is distraction the slow death? For now, it’s enough to start with that single reflection; it’s a foot in the door to breaking the pattern.