Distraction from a reality that cannot compete

Distraction from nature

Distraction from the natural world

One of the inspirations for this book is Oliver Burkeman’s truly exceptional, soul-feeding volume ‘Four Thousand Weeks: Embrace your limits. Change your life.’ This led to reflections on the nature of attention in the digital age.

Have you ever had the experience of walking somewhere naturally beautiful and felt the pull of your phone? Not just out of curiosity, or because your phone vibrated, but because the natural world had lost its allure? Burkeman describes exactly this scenario – one that feels unsettlingly familiar – where the world feels tepid in comparison to the world inside of our rectangular devices. This is a prime example of how our natural inclination has been reconfigured to respond to technology.

Biologist Terrence McKenna once relates a story about his experience of living in the remotest jungle for weeks on end, whilst undertaking research. There was no link back to modern civilisation – just pure jungle – apart from one item: In the village chief’s hut there was a cheesecake calendar. McKenna reflected how he was unable to concentrate when he was speaking to the chief because his attention kept being attracted to the cheesecake calendar. It wasn’t the cakes, however, it was the vividness of the imagery of the cakes – the dopaminergic spectrum of fantastic bright colours, unlike anything else in the natural world. Consider: and that was the effect of a cheesecake calendar!

Our interaction with digital technologies is creating a new mode of attention in humans. A light-hearted interpretation would perhaps describe this phenomenon as a more fleeting, readily changeable form of attention that enables us to operate fluidly in an information rich age. A stronger, more cynical interpretation might describe this as a mode of attention that pulls us (distracts) from long-evolved forms of engagement with the natural world towards human-made artifices that have developed rapidly with the express intention of engaging our attention.

“Are we experiencing a battle between slower forms of engagement and quicker cursory modes?”

Matt Gwyther

Doing something about it

I decided to test this out. During the digital detox journey I decided to switch my phone to grayscale to tone down this competition, to let the colours of the natural world be the most vivid and compelling visual stimuli in my existence.

Although this act was perhaps a one-dimensional and paltry attempt to ‘arm-up’ in response to the war on attention, it did bare some fruit! Now when I switch back to colour – in my experience unavoidable if you want to look at photos or order food from delivery apps – I am confronted by the vividness of the colours on my phone. They feel ‘unreal’, coarse and overpowering. The break from the sickly, dopamine-saturated colour scheme of some tech wizards’ psychedelic dreams enabled me to see this use of colour and light for what it is – a calculated attempt to draw attention in an unrelenting attempt to make the device more appealing than the world around.

At this stage, it’s appropriate to ask ourselves some deep questions.


  • How can we ensure that stimuli in the physical world remain salient to us in the digital era?
  • How can we avoid a kind of tech-induced derealisation where the natural world is drained of beauty, and instead we look to the digital space for stimulation?
  • How can nature compete with the potential endless evocative novelty of the digital world! And why do we want that?

The real beauty

Jaron Lanier, computer scientist and tech philosopher / ethicist who coined the term ‘Virtual Reality’ (VR), is clear on this point. The most compelling part of engaging with VR should be in the removal of the headset prompting a realisation of the unreplicable beauty in the world around us.

“Attention is the beginning of devotion”

Mary Oliver