How distraction rules our lives

With the inevitable arrival of Covid-19 on our shores, I was debating what to say about it for this week’s column.

However, short of reminding people to wash their hands regularly and basically repeating what the World Health Organisation (WHO) has been saying since January, there wasn’t much I could really add.

So instead, I’d like to introduce you to my new favourite thing ever.

WHAT’S OLD IS NEW: The ‘rotary cellphone’ designed by Justine Haupt
Picture: JUSTINE HAUPT/SKYSEDGE.COM

Basically it’s a custom-made cellphone from US engineer Justine Haupt that eschew’s standard smart-phone capabilities like touch-screens and internet connection and instead only sends and receives calls. Also, it uses a rotary dial, which is really cool.

I wasn’t just drawn to this device because it looks like something straight out of a cyberpunk novel.

When explaining why she went through all the trouble to build a new cellphone from scratch, Haupt said:

“Why a rotary cellphone? Because in a finicky, annoying, touchscreen world of hyperconnected people using phones they have no control over or understanding of, I wanted something that would be entirely mine, personal, and absolutely tactile, while also giving me an excuse for not texting.”

She went on to say her new cellphone gave her a way to break away from the constant distractions that modern gadgets force upon us 24/7.

As I type this, I have my cellphone next to me.

Every now and then, the familiar ‘ding’ will interrupt me to announce a new thing I absolutely have to see right now, even though I’m busy.

The red notification light keeps flashing at regular intervals to remind me of all the other messages, social media posts and general reminders that I have so far tried to ignore.

My work laptop is not much better, and the constant stream of e-mails I receive are accompanied by a loud bell and a pop-up that lingers for two seconds too long, ensuring that whatever train of thought I might have been riding at the time is thoroughly derailed.

Our modern lives are built on interruption. Attention is a valuable commodity these days, more so thanks to the internet, and anything that can draw yours for even a few seconds is worth a lot of money.

You can see this especially in advertising, with corporations going to increasingly desperate lengths to make themselves stand out and insert themselves into your daily routine.

As the saying goes, though, every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

As technology intrudes further into our lives, the backlash becomes just as strong.

Haupt’s custom cellphone is a more extreme example, sure, but it is not alone.

You could go through your phone’s app store right now and discover hundreds of apps designed to help you avoid the perils of distraction, from notification blockers to meditation apps.

And then there’s the increasing popularity of “tech detoxes”, where people give up technology altogether for extended periods of time.

Clearly, we have reached some kind of saturation point and are starting to realise that a world that is always connected also means a world where we are always distracted, and are taking steps to change this.

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