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Khaya Dlanga: Technology and the curse of distraction and immediacy

Khaya Dlanga

Technology and the immediacy it brings has made the world a better place. But with it comes the responsibility not to miss out on each other.

Even though people are here, they are on their phones to see what's happening there, somewhere else. (Reuters)

A friend of mine gets really irritated when he is chatting up a girl and her eyes start wandering; like she is looking for something better or someone else to talk to. He finds it rude and I agree with him. I remember many years ago when we were at a party and he was talking to a girl he had met. She was a nice person and showed a keen interest in him but she kept looking around. He got so irritated that he walked away while she was in the middle of a sentence.

This is the era we live in: the age of distraction. We have a constant need to find out what else is happening. We are here but we’re never really here. It’s not that there is something out there that we yearn for, it’s the mere fact that there is something else, anything but this.

Even though people are here, they are on their phones to see what’s happening somewhere else. It is the age of somewhere else. When we are in the moment, we check our phones to see who is having a moment. Being in the moment now means looking at someone else’s moment on your phone. 

There are, of course, those who like to make themselves better than the rest; you know those people who hardly ever post anything on social media? Those voyeurs who just spend hours looking at what others post. They may be the worst culprits because they wait and watch what everyone is doing and know every single post, and will smugly say they are hardly ever online; but they stalk. We know you, stalkers.

Over and above people looking to see what others are doing, there is the curse of immediacy. The phone keeps beeping, notifications keep popping up, demanding attention. Like a crying baby whose pacifier has fallen off, it rings, vibrates or flashes non-stop until it’s taken care of. It’s like a seductress calling you with some promise of the unknown. Yet, it’s nothing you don’t know already. It constantly demands your attention. When you ignore it, you know it’s there at the back of your mind, and you won’t rest until you have checked it. So you check it.

The curse of immediacy leads to the need to want to respond to the phone ringing, abandoning your current conversation. The ringing phone has told you that something else is more important than the thing you are busy with now. We have become enslaved to it. And we want to. 

There was a great beer advert I used to love many years ago. It shows a man at a diner by himself and then we hear his phone ringing. This copy follows: “Back in the day the only people who were summoned in such an urgent manner were your superpowered heroes. Even then planet Earth should have been on the brink of disaster. What’s today’s crisis?” And then in a soft, mildly sarcastic tone the voice over says, “There are no eggs, dear”.

Everything that is not important masquerades as important and demands immediate attention.

Then there is instant messaging. Permanent, constant accessibility has given rise to the illusion of validity and relevance. People get upset when messages go unanswered for a considerable length of time. This is why people hate that “last seen” notification on Whatsapp. People don’t feel the need to respond to a text immediately but feel the need to when they receive a Whatsapp, because Whatsapp is a snitch. It tells on you.

The worst thing about it must be the distraction that such things cause. We are distracted into flirtations with people other than the ones we are with. We need an age of focus, without killing all the benefits that come with our phones, of course.

Despite this, we know more about each other, we discover more and we have become a little more curious. The world is a better place, but with this we have a responsibility not to miss out on each other because of easy distractions.


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