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On Disruption and Distraction

Disruption and disorder have always stalked the human condition. This reality sometimes plays out on the grand scale, as in the brutality of terror and war, and sometimes more intimately, as in the sudden arrival of ill health or a personal betrayal.

Though such upheavals are timeless, our options for response have continued to evolve. The last decade or so has added a new, culture-warping tool to this collection of coping mechanisms: smartphones. Or, to be more specific, the algorithmically-optimized content delivered through these devices.

The techno-psycho dynamics at play here are straightforward. The algorithms that drive content curation platforms such as TikTok, Twitter, or Instagram are designed to increase engagement. This is an inherently interactive process: the services decide what to show you by combining what they already learned about you in the past with observations on what seems to be drawing more of your attention in the moment. In a period of disruption, this will, more likely than not, lead you deep into digital grooves that promise to offer some relief from your emotional pain.

This relief can be delivered by drowning out your pain with even stronger emotions. These platforms are adept, for example, at stoking a satisfying fire of anger and outrage; a repeated electronic poking of a psychological bruise. For those who were unlucky enough to wander onto Twitter in the immediate aftermath of the horrific terrorist attack on southern Israel last week witnessed this effect in its full unnerving power.

These platforms are also able to move hard in the other direction and serve up the grim surrender of apocalyptic narratives. This was made apparent during the coronavirus pandemic when many were lured by their phones into a sense of survivalist despair that left physic scars that persisted in constraining their lives well after the virus’s inevitable transition toward endemicity.

This relief delivered by our phones is not always about amplifying feelings. It can also be delivered in the form of numbness: drips of endless, meaningless, shiny, shallow distraction that take the edge off your distress. TikTok specializes in this style of deliverance: swipe, swipe, swipe, until you temporarily dislocate from the moment.

As we right now find ourselves mired in an extended period of unusually heavy disorder, it seems an appropriate time to step back and ask how well smartphones have been serving us in this manner. Has the escape they offered led us to a lasting calm or a sustainable response to our travails? Few believe they have.

In search of a better alternative, I reached out to my friend Brad Stulberg, who earlier this fall published a bestselling book, Master of Change, about how to navigate unavoidable upheaval. (You can also watch my recent podcast interview with Brad here.)

He told me that a more sustainable response to change can be found in your core values:

“When you feel the ground shifting underneath you, when you don’t know your next move, you can ask yourself, How might I move in the direction of my core values? … The portability of core values means that you can practice them in nearly all circumstances. Thus, they become a source of stability throughout change, forging the rugged boundaries in which your fluid sense of self can flow and evolve. Nothing can take your values away from you. They provide a rudder to steer you into the unknown.”

This is, or course, not a new idea. In response to the horrors of the Blitz, besieged Londoners famously found meaning in joining volunteer ambulance corps. Dr. King responded to his unjust imprisonment in Birmingham, followed by the public rejection of his cause by the Alabama clergy, through the careful construction of a manifesto, written surreptitiously behind bars, that justified his movement with inspired, mind-changing logic.

But even if not new, it has never seemed more important to remember this truth. Value-driven responses are not as immediately appealing as finding a hyper-charged digital escape, but these latter escapes inevitably reveal themselves to be transient and the emotions they’re obscuring eventually return. If you can resist the allure of the easy digital palliative and instead take on the heavier burden of meaningful action, a more lasting inner peace can be achieved.


In other news…

  • In Episode 270 of my podcast, Deep Questions, I dive deeper into this topic of how “super distractions” like social media are so durable because of the associations we create between these behaviors and emotional pain. Building on this reality, I then offer concrete advice for finding freedom.

11 thoughts on “On Disruption and Distraction”

  1. Great essay, Cal! It’s definitely one of the reasons I followed your advice and quit social media several years ago now. Value-driven responses that lead to meaningful action are certainly the way to go. Your writing is also really great in this piece. 🙂

  2. I love it also…brilliantly expressed Cal, as it spells out the spell (pun intended) induced and a way out of it.

    “In a period of disruption, this will, more likely than not, lead you deep into digital grooves that promise to offer some relief from your emotional pain. This relief can be delivered by drowning out your pain with even stronger emotions….”

    Some will not understand this or argue they are not in pain. But all they did was block out the pain, or forget they ever had to begin with, because pain is often rather subtle–not consciously perceptible, or barely so.

    Digital dopamine is such a great wonder drug for all this. It boils down again to prioritizing wanting to feel something first. Press few cell phone buttons and you have it instantly. As with most addictive drugs the toll on our brain is insane.

    I hope your new book dives into this distorted priority.

  3. Thank you Cal, this is a great reminder why having these distractions readily available can be so damaging. After the horrendous events in Israel occurred, it was hard for me to stop doom scrolling on my phone as I saw post after post on Twitter (X). I’ve since removed the app from my phone and strive for healthier ways of using my time.

  4. Great essay, Cal! I recently went through the digital declutter you recommended in “Digital Minimalism” and was thinking about whether or not I wanted to re-introduce Websites like Instagram or YouTube back into my life. I wanted to still be able to watch the content I was deeply interested in and stay somewhat in touch with friends that live far away but I at the same time wanted to prevent the algorithmically-optimized content from luring me in.

    The solution I came up with was to remove the algorithm-based parts of the websites with a browser called “Arc” that lets you modify websites pretty easily. Through that, I have been able to unhook from the addictive pull of those websites.

    Your essay now made me realise why this was the case: The websites – once disentangled from the algorithmic content – simply don’t offer any relief from that emotional pain anymore. After one day being welcomed by a website with one new video of a person you are subscribed to or 3 new holiday pictures of your friends just doesn’t do the job. I now maybe check said websites once a day, have a look at the few pictures that have been uploaded, watch one video and then get on with my life.

  5. 100% True!! And don’t forget LinkedIn in this sad game – the new Business-Insta. Even worse!

    LinkedIn is so hardcore superficial and not diverse at all. The Growth-Coaching, New Work, Well-being and HR-Bubble is out of this world.

  6. Unfortunately, you see the attack on Israel as a terrorist attack, but you do not see that the attack on the people of Gaza and the killing of children and women is a brutal barbaric attack. You do not see, and you do not want to see, that the people of Gaza are its owners and the owners of Palestine.

  7. Great post. Especially the parts on the “at stoking a satisfying fire of anger” and the numbness on the other end.
    Thank you.

  8. After doing research on this subject, and 7 months of indiscriminate bombing in Gaza, it’s clear who the real terrorists are, the ones who don’t value human life because they are a different race or religion, or simply because of where they are located, this is the textbook definition of ethnic cleansing and genocide. You don’t have to believe me, just look at what Israeli government officials have to say about the matter. Free Palestine 🇵🇸


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