We live in a culture of distractions. We watch TV and movies, or browse the innumerable Buzzfeed, 9gag, or Reddit pages, or become sucked into a spiral of Youtube videos, or spend endless hours plugged into our phones even when in the company of friends and family, or play video games of all genres and platforms.

What qualifies these as distractions, rather than play? They are all passive consumption, whereas play is an inherently creative act. It is the difference between playing a sport, or watching it on TV. Of telling a story, or having one told at you. At least books require the creative power of imagination, compared to a television show where the mental faculties required are less than when we are sleeping. Some might argue that video games, since they require input from the player, might escape the definition of a distraction, but actions in a video game cannot evade the programmable components of its software. All the possible outcomes of the game have already been foretold, and it is simply a matter of finding and consuming them.

Think of when you were a child, playing with your friends and siblings. You would create ideas, stories, and whole worlds with something as simple as a cardboard box. Sports and board games frequently had completely made-up rules that were only understood by those playing them. There was a shared intimacy, a bond, created in this play that adults in their more nostalgic moments despondently recall as having lost forever.

Think of your friendships and relationships now. How often does your “play” with friends require passive consumption? Do you go out to consume food? Or drinks? Or a movie? Maybe you play video games. Even playing in organized sports is more about conforming to rules and authority, than it is about engaging in a creative output. Do you feel as though you are not as close with your adult friends as you were with your childhood ones?

Distractions are a narcotic. They are an escape from the world we live in. They offer stimulus without effort. And, like a narcotic, we are developing a tolerance for them. Our movies are a prime example of this: movies today have faster cuts, more special effects, more explosions, more Michael Bay. Movies of the past are frequently referred to as “boring” because of this developed tolerance. Boredom is a withdrawal symptom of the lack of stimuli that our body now craves.

Busyness has become a virtue. Filling our time with something, anything, is a commendable feature of contemporary culture because it means that there is no time for that person to get bored. To stop and appreciate life, to clear one’s head in meditation, to slow down; these are all boons to both health and stability. But too often they are dismissed as “boring”, and people are frequently unable to participate in these slower activities, despite even an active attempt to try them.

The peril of distractions comes not just from their narcotic effects on our minds, but in the literal sense of “distraction” as well. If we are pacified and preoccupied, we are not paying attention to the world around us. This allows unchecked oppression, war, and other such human rights violations to occur while most of the developed world focuses more on celebrity gossip than the strife that surrounds them. The promise of the internet was a worldwide voice, access to infinite knowledge, and with that knowledge and voice would come revolution against oppression and hate, and equality for all. But if you ask anybody today what they use the internet for, typically the answer will be pornography, epic fail videos, or sports statistics.

We also tend to miss out on life; we miss out on the connection with our loved ones, if we are too busy with our distractions. If the time we spent on Facebook was spent with friends, or the time watching cat videos was spent adopting and playing with our own, or if we tried new and exciting activities rather than watching the epic fails of others, the enrichment in our lives would be exponentially higher.

Further tragic correlation with the proliferation of distractions is the jingoism that seems to almost be an inherent aspect of them. Sports fans will become physically violent with other fans, despite no real connection to anybody on “their” teams. People will get up in arms over their choice of computing or gaming platform. People will even define their lives by the television, or other mass media productions, they consume. Any perusal of an online dating website will reveal the dependence on the series Game of Thrones for a person’s sense of identity.

Do these distractions merit the emphasis and importance that we place upon them? Probably not, since they have absolutely no relevance to life, and any meaning we place on them would be purely without basis.

It is true that listening to someone else’s music or stories can affect us emotionally or stimulate us intellectually. Even regular drugs can induce creativity or offer new ways of appreciating the world. But to rely on them, to make them the foundation of our lives, that is the life of an addict.

We do need to escape sometimes. I myself enjoy movies and television, and when I go out with friends, it’s usually for a beer or a meal. The way life is set up almost requires escape; distractions are a necessary coping mechanism to deal with our day to day working lives. But what does that say about the system of our culture if it saps the life and creativity out of us, requiring us to run away with our distractions just to survive?

Post-script: Creating a story or a song requires a passive receptor of that story or song, it’s true. But often the missing component is intimacy and connection in that process. For example, being able to look and experience, or even interact with the person delivering the creative output is far more valuable than seeing them on a screen. Even with this blog, I find it much more rewarding when someone comments or brings it up with me in person, and I’m sure the reading experience is more rewarding as well if there is a connection with me as an author.

Also, for an even more critical look at distractions, specifically sports, listen to Noam Chomsky: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VA5jOdPiZWI

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