Communication: Distraction and Focus

I do not believe it an exaggeration to name Byung-Chul Han as today’s most provocative living philosopher. His books are brief treatises—long essays, really—that pierce holes in the widely-accepted narratives about our present. Many of his claims have proven prescient, as the detriments to culture rendered by our sudden and violent immersion in an environment produced by digital irruption which he perceived 8 or 10 years ago have become patent in the intervening years.

In one of his more recent works, The Disappearance of Rituals, he draws attention to the way in which the immediate unreal world we digitally inhabit compels us to be in constant communication, despite which we evacuate our experience of community. We lack the distance and duration through which may arise stable, symbolic activity. We become performative clones. Absent the ability to linger upon objects, to seek depth in their being, we repeat meaninglessly, with slight and insignificant variation, the patterns we observe in endless perceptual change. Social media trends—the endless copycatting and seeking to improve upon some not-so-original performance—are only the most obvious form of this repetition, or as Han calls it, the hell of the same.

Emails, text messages, notifications: we are all too readily all too drawn into distractions. A distraction, etymologically considered, is that which draws away. From what are we drawn away? Primarily, we think of work. But today, work is itself constituted from distractions. The immediacy and ubiquity of communication means we are always being pulled.

Are the means of contemporary technological communication media intrinsically distracting? Or have we just allowed ourselves to fall into bad habits of their use—or, perhaps more accurately, allowed bad habits of an unthinking mindset to determine our use of them?

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