The Age of Distraction

Consider three vignettes. Each unfolded during a May weekend in Boston. While highlighting the pernicious effects of mobile technology, these incidents say as much about human choices as they do about gadgets themselves.

1) Near the end of a Friday evening commute, beneath downtown Boston, a subway car plowed into the rear of another Green Line trolley, injuring 49 commuters. The operator immediately admitted to being distracted by the act of sending a text message to a friend on his cellphone.


2) Minutes later, two miles west at Fenway Park, fans roared in joy as the Red Sox tied a spirited game against the rival Tampa Bay Rays with a three-run homer off the bat of slugger Jason Bay. The packed grandstand was rocking as I rose to my feet to follow the towering arc of the ball. But two nearby fans did not return my offer of a high-five. They were too busy operating their smart phones.

3) Thirty-six hours later, the Minuteman Bikeway was filling up with joggers and cyclists enjoying the first truly warm weekend morning of the notoriously late-arriving New England springtime. Flowering trees were blooming at last. A great variety of songbirds, just back from winter hibernation, were serenading the eager folks jogging and pedaling along. (Note to self: find a good guide to songbirds of the Bay State.) But many missed the delightful natural concert. Their ears were wired to iPods and Walkmans. I even spied a few parents sporting earphones, despite the presence of their children inches away, strapped into carrier seats on the back of their bikes.

Anybody with a conscience will be horrified at the serious harm inflicted by the malfeasant transit driver. Within days this abuse was addressed by changes in local public policy. If you share my distress at the opportunities missed in the other episodes for human connection and sheer joy, then you will join me in hoping for changes in the personal policies people set for their use of technology. On both micro and macro levels, our society has some hard thinking to do regarding appropriate limits on distracting gadgets.

Full disclosure: I may be the least qualified person to make recommendations on such matters. Although not a pure Luddite, I have somehow steered clear of most of the distractions that enthrall the tech-savvy. I have never been on Facebook or MySpace, the major social networking sites. I have never owned a cellphone or sent a text message. I have blogged exactly four times. I don’t know a Blackberry from a Blu-Ray.

But I have seen enough to notice that American society has been grappling of late with the theme of mindfulness, or the lack of it in our world today. On the positive side, I was delighted to learn that my alma mater, Amherst College, recently instituted a “day of mindfulness” on its campus, offering meditation breaks and encouraging students to take a media and technology fast. I was also pleased to hear the filmmaker Ken Burns, in his recent commencement address at Boston College, issue a warning about how mobile technology disengages people from one another, even as it purports to connect us. I believe we are witnessing at least a modest revival of interest in what Thoreau expressed in Walden: a yearning to live life more deliberately.

I offer a final incident from my own city. The beloved leafy Boston Common swarms in springtime with panhandlers. A homeless gentleman seemed inordinately glad for the few coins I fished out of my pocket as I walked down a bending path there recently. He sighed that practically everyone passing by that afternoon was, in his words, “out of reach.” I interpret this to mean that most of my fellow strollers were locked into the interior world of music streaming through ear pods or in cellphone conversation.

Fiddling with a handheld device turns out to be the perfect way to avoid eye contact with a beggar and the perfect excuse not to hear a request for spare change. Now, I hold no particular brief for the practice of panhandling. But the incident did lead me to think of the story of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke’s Gospel, in which the very existence of the needy man at his gate went unacknowledged by the affluent man. If technology is rendering this sort of deliberate oblivion more likely, then let’s unplug and make a choice for immediacy.


Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
9 years 8 months ago
You would enjoy and appreciate the article "Blackberries Don't Fit in Bikinis" by Joe Robinson in the 8/13/06 LA Times. The title alone is cause for pause ...
Edward Visel
9 years 8 months ago
This theme is already worn out, perpetuated by those who largely fail to understand or appreciate what mobile technology has accomplished, which is enormous: the amount of information accessible today has vastly increased with the internet, and has furthered its reach and use via mobile technology. Though I do appreciate your abstention from proving your wit in combining the names of social networking sites, the neo-romantic transcendentalist call for a return to nature, while not without point, neglects what has been gained by mobile technology, and the worlds it has opened. Not long ago, it would have been inconceivable that a 4 inch by 2 inch by .5 inch device could not only allow instantaneous communication with the majority of the planet, but also contain the performances of orchestras and operas (or their modern equivalents), and full libraries' worth of information, as well as the other innovations it has spurred. That said, I am not certain our preoccupation is due to mobile technology. We are equally preoccupied by the older technology of perpetually-on televisions in our houses and radios in our cars. Rather, the uses to which we put mobile technology are merely the symptom of the modern need for perpetual stimulation and assurance that we are not alone. We do not need to unplug, which just leads us to preoccupy ourselves in different manners; instead, we need to face our selves. We ignore existentialism, only to have our own existence haunt us.
Richard Gegenwarth
9 years 8 months ago
Robert Koch
9 years 8 months ago
Father wrote: " I have never been on Facebook or MySpace, the major social networking sites. I have never owned a cellphone or sent a text message" Neither have I. Thanks for the reminder to enjoy life around us.
Nancy Williams
9 years 8 months ago

Thank you Father Massaro for having the nerve to speak out on this topic.  I live in the heart of high-tech Silicon Valley, but I also don't have a cell phone, PDA device, iPod or MP3 player.  I am sick of what all that technology has done to our culture!  My teeth are on edge watching parents paying attention to their phone conversation instead of their toddlers, or young people in a restaurant chatting away on a cell phone while ignoring their elderly lunch companion.  Trying to find our way in a strange city recently, my husband and I tried to ask for directions, but everyone we passed was engaged on their phones.  Probably less than 20% of the people who have these things really need them for work.  The rest are just hooked on them.  One of my students (college) told me she spends $200 a month on her telecom bills!  I've noticed that people think nothing these days of arriving late for meetings - because they can just call and warn their meeting partners that they're "running late."  I on the other hand arrive when I say I will because I have no way to call, and frankly, I think the world would run much more smoothly if everyone just did that instead of all this calling and coordinating of schedules. 


The latest from america

Acknowledging that the church is currently “in a state of crisis and shame,” Sister Veronica Openibo urged church leaders to “acknowledge that our mediocrity, hypocrisy and complacency have brought us to this disgraceful and scandalous place we find ourselves as a church.”
Michael J. O’LoughlinFebruary 23, 2019
Lay oversight of Catholic bishops is needed—but it should be a process that respects the principle of apostolic succession while providing a check on the successors of the apostles.
John GarveyFebruary 22, 2019
Dr. Joseph J. McGowan, president of Bellarmine University, Patrick Hart, O.C.S.O., and Archbishop Thomas Kelly during the ceremony at which Brother Hart received an honorary degree from Bellarmine University on May 10, 2003. (Courtesy of Bellarmine University)
For decades, Patrick Hart was the literary executor of Thomas Merton's works and the custodian of the legacy of the 20th century’s most prominent religious seekers and teachers.
Joseph McAuleyFebruary 22, 2019
Child psychologist and founding member of the Ending Clergy Abuse (ECA) organization, Miguel Hurtado from Spain, center, reads an open letter to the Benedictine order outside the St. Anselm on the Aventine Benedictine complex in Rome on Feb. 22. (AP Photo/Domenico Stinellis)
In addressing the abuse crisis, Ms. Ghisoni called for “the dynamic involvement of the whole people of God.”
Gerard O’ConnellFebruary 22, 2019