“Distraction is a special kind of the obstacle of attention,” wrote the Swiss philosopher Jean Pierre Crousaz in 1720. Defining that dichotomy between distraction and attention launched a conflict that obsesses us to this day. On one hand we have our attention, "giving heed," as the word meant as early as the 14th century; on the other, we have something that’s forcing away our focus—the object of distraction, Crousaz’s “obstacle.”
Technology’s ability to distract us has been a debate for as long as screens have absorbed our attention. But the concept has come to the fore in reviews of the new Apple Watch, which was recently previewed to journalists, though it’s not debuting for regular customers until April 24. Yes, the Apple Watch is absolutely a distracting piece of technology. It will cause you to swing up your arm during conversation to check the content of a wrist-sized text message or social media notification. But mostly, what the Apple Watch is distracting from is other technology. It’s a distraction from distractions—and perhaps a better one.
Feeling the arrival of an alert on our wrists is supposed to help us refrain from pulling phones out of our pockets, thus preventing a larger break in conversation or work, whatever real-world activity requires our attention. Reviewers have noticed that the newer device helps them stay more engaged. “By notifying me of digital events as soon as they happened, and letting me act on them instantly, without having to fumble for my phone, the Watch became something like a natural extension of my body,” Farhad Manjoo writes in the New York Times.
In Apple’s ecosystem of devices, the Apple Watch is supposed to come first. It’s the computer that’s always on, presenting the user with a superficial layer of information available immediately. This is the positive spin. The negative critique is that the watch is simply “a tool for correcting problems created by the device to which it must be paired to operate,” John Herrman writes at the Awl.
Yet in the ecosystem of distraction, it’s possible the watch doesn’t actually succeed. “Isn’t the promise of the Apple Watch to help me stay in the moment, focused on the people around me and undisturbed by the mesmerizing void of my iPhone?” Joshua Topolsky writes at Bloomberg. “So why do I suddenly feel so distracted?” Taking stock of the constant taps to his wrist, Nilay Patel at the Verge notices that “even small distractions make you seem like a jerk.” Raising a watch, as it turns out, carries a deep-held cultural signifier of being in a rush, distracted from the matter at hand—all the way back to White Rabbit’s pocket watch in Alice in Wonderland. By trying to dodge the distraction problem, the Apple Watch actually falls into it.
This diffuse distraction fetish begs the question, just what is distracting us and what are we being distracted from? Few watch reviewers evaluate what distraction actually means in our daily use of technology. The implicit argument, however, is that technology is distracting us from focusing on non-virtual social situations, the people in front of us. Yet this ignores the subtleties of distraction.
Immanuel Kant divided the concept of distraction in two, separating voluntary distraction from involuntary. Involuntary distraction is absentmindedness, the kind of lack of attention that allows us to gaze out windows in the middle of a classroom lesson. Voluntary distraction, in contrast, is what lets us focus on more than one thing at once as we choose what to pay attention to and what level of focus to give it. Rather than simply being a negative concept, “distraction is the state of diverting attention from certain ruling ideas by means of shifting to other dissimilar ideas,” Kant argued in his 1798 Anthropology From a Pragmatic Point of View.
Raising a watch, as it turns out, carries a deep-held cultural signifier of being in a rush, distracted from the matter at hand—all the way back to White Rabbit’s pocket watch in Alice in Wonderland.
In other words, distraction is a necessary method for dealing with the competing stimuli of everyday life. “Intentional distraction ... is distributed attention,” Michelle Oosthuyzen writes for Amsterdam University’s Institute of Network Cultures. Distraction is why we can carry on a conversation in a bar even while checking our phones, or watches, as the case may be. Attention and distraction are not a dichotomy, as Crousaz may have argued, but a continuum, two sides of the same coin.
The Apple Watch is a form of distraction that we think is voluntary. It’s supposed to help us parse information and distribute our attention more effectively. But it actually becomes an involuntary distraction, absorbing our focus much the same way a sunny window on a boring school day does. We are hopelessly compelled to pay attention to the screen. But defining this experience purely as a distraction from the real-world moment plays into the problem of digital dualism, where we continue to separate our virtual experiences from our physical ones.
You are not being distracted by your device, whether it’s a phone or a watch. Instead, you are choosing to pay attention to the content your device is showing you—the social feeds you set up, the messages from friends. The device is not showing you anything you have not already agreed to see. “Apple Watch does as much, maybe more, than competing smartwatches, but it doesn’t demand that you pay attention to it,” Mashable notes. No technology actually demands anything. Instead, we give it attention.
In an ideal world, technology would help us modulate our levels of attention, creating the conditions necessary for Kant’s enlightened state of voluntary distraction. We’re not there yet: Screens remain windows that we can’t help but look out of. Changing this will likely require a shift not just in technology, but in its users as well.
Disruptions is Kyle Chayka’s weekly column for Pacific Standard about personal technology and the way it influences our daily lives.