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We're plugged in – but checked out

As the virtual world becomes our substitute for direct, spontaneous experiences in the real one, we're finding ourselves bereft of genuine connection. Corporate technologists are reengineering the human personality, turning us into Homo distracticus.

By John Sanbonmatsu / June 3, 2011


At the playground, a toddler struggles to get her father's attention, eager to share a small personal triumph with him. But the man is too busy checking e-mail to notice. She finally turns away, crestfallen.

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Crossing the street on a well-marked crosswalk in broad daylight, I am nearly run over by a police cruiser. The officer glances up from her on-board computer just in time to see me.

At a memorial service for a friend's mother, a Holocaust survivor who lived a quiet life of service to others, the rabbi is suddenly interrupted by the loud, jaunty tune of a cellphone. We all wait while the woman struggles to silence the ringer.

Strangely disconnected

Welcome to life in the Distracted Society.

Even as our world burns – as species wink out of existence at an accelerating rate, the climate heats up, and billions struggle without medical care, running water, or even a toilet – people seem strangely disconnected from the real world, and strangely obsessed with their gadgets.

Our heedless technological narcissism is proving dangerous. Last year alone, cellphones were implicated in more than 1.6 million car accidents in the United States. In 2009, a trolley operator texting on the job in Boston ran a red light, injuring 49 people. In 2008, the engineer of a Metrolink passenger train from Los Angeles was too busy texting to notice a warning signal. The train collided with a freight train, killing 25.

But such headline-grabbing accidents barely hint at the extent to which we all find ourselves enmeshed within a technological order that is fragmenting our consciousness and keeping us from attending to the things that matter most – big things like global warming and the erosion of our constitutional rights, and smaller ones like the subtle weather of our children's emotional lives.

And those children? American children between ages 8 and 18 now spend more than 7-1/2 hours each day in front of a computer screen, TV, or other electronic display (a figure that jumps to nearly 11 hours if you count multitasking). Undeterred, public school systems are increasingly embracing computers in classrooms, even while laying off teachers.

Poor substitutes

As the virtual world becomes our substitute for direct, spontaneous experiences in the real one, we and our children are finding ourselves bereft of genuine connection. In place of conversations with friends, we have Facebook status updates. In place of genuine democracy, we have online polls and high-tech public relations firms manipulating public opinion through "astroturf" campaigns. In place of a thriving public sphere, we have an anonymous online culture of voyeurism and bullying. In place of intimacy, we have degrading pornography. In place of meaningful labor and the right to privacy, we have insecure employment and corporate surveillance of our spending habits.


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