Conceptualising ‘distraction’

Notes for my talk for the Reflexivity Forum at Warwick on May 24th

What does it mean to be distracted? For the last year, I’ve been telling people that I’m working on a new project about digital distraction and everyone seems to immediately grasp what I mean by this. But conceptualising precisely what we should take ‘distraction’ to mean is slightly more complex than I realised at the outset of the project. The dictionary offers a good starting point, with two definitions:

  1. a thing that prevents someone from concentrating on something else.
  2. extreme agitation of the mind

Looking at these definitions, it’s easy to infer a causal relation between the phenomena they designate: we might assume that (1), if encountered to a sufficient degree under conducive circumstances, leads to (2) through sheer accumulation of distraction. In other words: lots of distractions lead to distractedness

In a recent piece of work, I tried to analyse the rise of (1) in terms of constant connectivity. Interruptions have always been part of human experience, in so far as that there are always contingencies which might emerge in order to disrupt an activity that’s in process. But the ‘triple revolution’ of mobile computing, wireless internet access and social networks have contributed to a proliferation of interruptions, as have the second order effects when this multiplication of communication channels lead to the qualitative and quantitative escalation of communication e.g. people trying multiple means to contact someone in the absence of governing norms about appropriateness, strategic communication that seek to shock and surprise in order to be heard above the din.

Analysed in this sense, talk of interruptions leads rather inevitably to the consideration of reflexivity. What does it mean to ‘prevent someone from concentrating on something else’? It means there was something else they were trying to do and the external event, which we label as a distraction (1), has interrupted their action towards this end. Distraction needs to be conceived of as relational: there is the distracting object, but it only has this power in relation to an existing activity undertaken under conditions that leave someone conducive to being distracted.

What we’re being distracted from might have been routine action, e.g. I get a phone call when making a cup of coffee, but the very act of interruption engenders an awareness of that from which we were interrupted. Consider a distraction (1) significant enough to completely disrupt our previous action: when we ask ourselves “now what was I doing before he phoned?”, this is an incitement to reflexivity, albeit one that reflects a prior failure thereof. So rather than seeing distraction (1) and reflexivity as antithetical, we have to recognise a more complex relationship between them. Distractions impede reflexivity but also highlight it. Persistent distractions engender reflexivity, when we recognise something as a ‘problem’ and begin to ask what it is we might do about it?

It’s for this reason that I don’t think we should consider distracted people as somehow a-reflexive people. Distracted people are those who live within a socio-technical environment sufficiently productive of distraction (1) that we might talk of them as being characterised by distraction (2): it’s an ‘agitation of the mind’, rather than an absence of reflexivity, a difficulty articulating and sustaining courses of action rather a lack of capacity to reach conclusions about what a desirable course might be. Distraction is something which operates on a number of levels simultaneously:

  1. A distracting environment renders time and space for reflexivity unlikely: the conditions for internal conversation are often not in place and where they are, they’re unlikely to last.
  2. A distracting environment supplies more stimuli about potential courses of action and potential projects: under these conditions, ‘bounding’ variety becomes increasingly difficult, rendering internal conversation more necessary than ever.
  3. A distracting environment militates against sustained trajectories of action, because interruptions to action become more likely (with the cognitive costs they entail) as do interruptions to reflexivity exercised about those actions.

Distracting environments are characterised by the proliferation of distractions but the causality of how this leads to distractedness is more complex than I initially realised & I’m still trying to clarify my views on this.


  1. You might want to read William Powers’ thoughts on distraction in the highly entertaining Hamlet’s BlackBerry (2010) for his take on defining it; I think he would agree with your idea of the cognitive cost(s) associated with interruption.

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