One Friday in April 2016, as that year’s polarising US presidential race intensified, and more than 30 armed conflicts raged around the globe, approximately 3 million people spent part of their day watching two reporters from BuzzFeed wrap rubber bands around a watermelon. Gradually, over the course of 43 agonising minutes, the pressure ramped up – the psychological kind and the physical force on the watermelon – until, at minute 44, the 686th rubber band was applied. What happened next won’t amaze you: the watermelon exploded, messily. The reporters high-fived, wiped the splatters from their reflective goggles, then ate some of the fruit. The broadcast ended. Earth continued its orbit around the sun. I’m not mentioning this story to suggest there’s anything especially shameful about spending 44 minutes of your life staring at a watermelon on the internet. But it’s a vivid illustration of one central obstacle we encounter when it comes to our efforts to use time well: distraction. After all, it hardly matters how committed you are to making the best use of your limited time if, day after day, your attention gets wrenched away by things you never wanted to focus on. It’s a safe bet that none of those 3 million people woke up that morning with the intention of using a portion of their lives to watch a watermelon burst; nor, when the moment arrived, did they necessarily feel as though they were freely choosing to do so. “I want to stop watching so bad but I’m already committed,” read one typically rueful comment on Facebook. “I’ve been watching you guys put rubber bands around a watermelon for 40 minutes,” wrote someone else. “What am I doing with my life?” The average human lifespan is absurdly, terrifyingly, insultingly short. Here’s one way of putting things in perspective: the first modern humans appeared on the plains of Africa at least 200,000 years ago, and scientists estimate that life, in some form, will persist for another 1.5bn years or more, until the intensifying heat of the sun condemns the last organism to death. But you? Assuming you live to be 80, you’ll have had about 4,000 weeks. Social media is engineered to constantly adapt to our interests. No wonder the rest of reality seems unable to compete Advertisement When I first made that calculation, I felt queasy; but once I’d recovered, I started pestering my friends, asking them to guess – off the top of their heads, without doing any mental arithmetic – how many weeks they thought the average person could expect to live. One named a number in the six figures. Yet, as I felt obliged to inform her, a fairly modest six-figure number of weeks – 310,000 – is the approximate duration of all human civilisation since the ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia. On almost any meaningful timescale, as the contemporary philosopher Thomas Nagel has written, “we will all be dead any minute”. And so distraction truly matters – because your experience of being alive consists of nothing other than the sum of everything to which you pay attention. At the end of your life, looking back, whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment is simply what your life will have been. When you pay attention to something you don’t especially value, it’s not an exaggeration to say that you’re paying with your life. This was why Seneca, in On The Shortness Of Life, came down so hard on his fellow Romans for pursuing political careers they didn’t really care about, holding elaborate banquets they didn’t especially enjoy, or just “baking their bodies in the sun”: they didn’t seem to realise that, in succumbing to such diversions, they were squandering the very stuff of existence. Seneca risks sounding like an uptight pleasure-hater – what’s so bad about a bit of sunbathing? – and, to be honest, I suspect he probably was. But the crucial point isn’t that it’s wrong to choose to spend your time relaxing, whether at the beach or on BuzzFeed. It’s that the distracted person isn’t really choosing at all. Their attention has been commandeered by forces that don’t have their highest interests at heart. All of which helps clarify what’s so alarming about the contemporary online “attention economy”, of which we’ve heard so much in recent years: it’s essentially a giant machine getting you to care about things you didn’t want to care about. And you have far too little control over your attention simply to decide, as if by fiat, that you’re not going to succumb to its temptations. Many of us are familiar with the basic contours of this situation. We know that the “free” social media platforms we use aren’t really free, because, as the saying goes, you’re not the customer but the product being sold. In other words, the technology companies’ profits come from seizing our attention, then selling it to advertisers. You might also be aware that this is delivered by means of “persuasive design” – an umbrella term for an armoury of psychological techniques borrowed directly from the designers of casino slot machines, for the express purpose of encouraging compulsive behaviour. One example among hundreds is the ubiquitous drag-down-to-refresh gesture, which keeps people scrolling by exploiting a phenomenon known as “variable rewards”: when you can’t predict whether or not refreshing the screen will bring new posts to read, the uncertainty makes you more likely to keep trying, again and again and again, just as you would on a slot machine. We mustn’t let Silicon Valley off the hook, but we should be honest: much of the time, we give in to distraction willingly What’s far less widely appreciated, though, is how deep the distraction goes, and how radically it undermines our efforts to spend our finite time as we’d like. As you surface from an hour inadvertently frittered away on Facebook, you’d be forgiven for assuming that the damage, in terms of wasted time, was limited to that single misspent hour. But you’d be wrong. Because the attention economy is designed to prioritise whatever’s most compelling – instead of whatever’s most true, or most useful – it systematically distorts the picture of the world we carry in our heads at all times. It influences our sense of what matters, what kinds of threats we face, how venal our political opponents are – and all these distorted judgments then influence how we allocate our offline time as well. If social media convinces you, for example, that violent crime is a far bigger problem in your city than it really is, you might find yourself walking the streets with unwarranted fear. If all you ever see of your ideological opponents online is their very worst behaviour, you’re liable to assume that even family members who differ from you politically must be similarly, irredeemably bad, making relationships with them hard to maintain. So it’s not simply that our devices distract us from more important matters. It’s that they change how we’re defining “important matters” in the first place. In the words of the philosopher Harry Frankfurt, they sabotage our capacity to “want what we want to want”. A clock face with the hands in the shape of arms making a shrugging gesture I vividly recall walking alone along a windswept Scottish beach as dusk began to fall, when I experienced one particularly disturbing side-effect of persuasive design, which is the twitchiness you start to feel when the activity in which you’re engaged hasn’t been crafted by a team of professional psychologists hellbent on ensuring that your attention never wavers. I love windswept Scottish beaches at dusk more passionately than anything I can ever remember encountering on social media. But only the latter is engineered to constantly adapt to my interests and push my psychological buttons, so as to keep my attention captive. No wonder the rest of reality sometimes seems unable to compete. To make things more troublesome still, it can be difficult even to notice when your outlook on life is being changed in this depressing fashion, thanks to a special problem with attention, which is that it’s extremely difficult for it to monitor itself. The only faculty you can use to see what’s happening to your attention is your attention, the very thing that’s already been commandeered. This means that once the attention economy has rendered you sufficiently distracted, or annoyed, or on edge, it becomes easy to assume that this is just what life these days feels like.