What’s the first thing you did when you woke up this morning? I bet you picked your smartphone and spent the first few minutes of your day catching up on the news, on social media, or emails. You didn’t meditate, reflect, or have a conversation with the person lying next to you.
Welcome to the Age of Distraction, where many of the five billion people on earth with access to a mobile phone live.
Mobile devices have been accused of creating as many problems as they’ve solved. In the last few years, numerous studies have sought to link these gadgets to shorter attention spans and even reduced memory capacity. After all, why remember anything when you can Google it, or use an app?
To be fair however, distraction did not begin with the mobile phone or the internet.
Since the beginning of time, human beings have found ways to distract themselves from the humdrum of everyday life. As technology has advanced, so has the number of ways in which we are distracted. From newspapers to TV to social media, human beings crave distraction for various reasons. It could be to pass time, to find an escape or to avoid having conversations.
So distraction is not new, it’s just gone digital now.
Think about it: When was the last time you really had a conversation with somebody, without looking at your phone? When did you last switch off voluntarily, and not because your phone ‘died’?
It’s ironic that the mobile phone, the device that keeps us connected to the world around us, is also disconnecting us from the people closest to us. We claim to be more connected than ever, but we barely speak to each other anymore. Our devices are replacing real human connection, and it’s time to reclaim what we’ve lost: conversation.
In her book, Reclaiming Conversation – The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Sherry Turkle says: “Many of the things we all struggle with in love and work can be helped by conversation. Without conversation, studies show that we are less empathic, less connected, less creative and fulfilled.”
Technology, for all its amazing capabilities, can never replace in-depth, face-to-face conversations. What is said via text message or email almost never carries the same weight, or meaning, as that which is said in person. Therefore technology cannot – and should not – be a substitute for real conversation.
In 2017 Vodafone India ran a social experiment engineered to get more people to talk to each other without the distraction of mobile phones. The #LookUp campaign encouraged people to put down their phones and talk to those around them, and sparked conversations about the reality of screen addiction – an interesting choice for a telecommunications company.
The campaign made me reflect about my own screen time. So about two years ago, my wife and I decided to look ups. We set aside some time each evening during which we would put our phones aside, and just talk.
Later, when I was in hospital receiving cancer treatment, I learned to embrace solitude. I spent time reflecting on life and the meaning of human connection, rather than scrolling through my phone. During this time, I realised how much of our lives are spent looking for distractions, avoiding conversations and deep thought.
Mobile devices have become the walls that prevent us from engaging those around us. They distract us from communicating, from real empathy, from dealing with what needs to be dealt with. We’ve become afraid of really talking to each other, of being alone with our thoughts, afraid of letting our minds wander.
In so doing, we have become addicted to the kind of easy stimulation we receive from our devices. We are overstimulated, saturated with information we could do without, and afraid to step away from our devices.
So this year, in the spirit of doing more to be fully present, I’m challenging myself to put down the devices and look up. I want to disconnect, to think deeply, to listen more and look within, without the distractions of technology or media. I have a feeling it’ll be good for me, good for those around me, and ultimately, good for business.
The writer is the Chief Executive Officer of Safaricom
The views expressed in this article are of the author.