The way we talk about distraction has always been a little self-serving—we say, in the passive voice, that we’re “distracted by” the Internet or our cats, and this makes us seem like the victims of our own decisions. But [German sociologist Georg] Crawford shows that this way of talking mischaracterizes the whole phenomenon. It’s not just that we choose our own distractions; it’s that the pleasure we get from being distracted is the pleasure of taking action and being free. There’s a glee that comes from making choices, a contentment that settles after we’ve asserted our autonomy. When you write an essay in Microsoft Word while watching, in another window, an episode of “American Ninja Warrior”—trust me, you can do this—you’re declaring your independence from the drudgery of work. When you’re waiting to cross the street and reach to check your e-mail, you’re pushing back against the indignity of being made to wait. Distraction is appealing precisely because it’s active and rebellious.
How did “rabbit hole,” which started its figurative life as a conduit to a fantastical land, evolve into a metaphor for extreme distraction? One obvious culprit is the Internet, which has altered to an indescribable degree the ways that we distract ourselves. Twenty years ago, you could browse for hours in a library or museum, spend Saturday night at the movies and Sunday at the mall, kill an afternoon at the local video arcade or an evening at its X-rated analogue—but you couldn’t do those things every day, let alone all day and night. Moreover, content-wise, you couldn’t leapfrog very far or very fast from wherever you started, and there was a limit to the depth and nichiness of what you were likely to find; back then, we had not yet paved the road between, say, Dorothy Hamill and a comprehensive list of Beaux-Arts structures in Manhattan, nor archived for the convenience of humankind ten thousand photographs of fingernail art. Then came the Internet, which operates twenty-four hours a day, boasts a trillion-plus pages, and breeds rabbit holes the way rabbits breed rabbits.
Our economy is in the midst of a grand shift toward the Hollywood model. More of us will see our working lives structured around short-term, project-based teams rather than long-term, open-ended jobs. There are many reasons this change is happening right now, but perhaps the best way to understand it is that we have reached the end of a hundred-year fluke, an odd moment in economic history that was dominated by big businesses offering essentially identical products. Competition came largely by focusing on the cost side, through making production cheaper and more efficient; this process required businesses to invest tremendous amounts in physical capital — machines and factories — and then to populate those factories with workers who performed routine activities. Nonmanufacturing corporations followed a similar model: Think of all those office towers filled with clerical staff or accountants or lawyers. That system began to fray in the United States during the 1960s, first in manufacturing, with the economic rise of Germany and Japan. It was then ripped apart by Chinese competition during the 2000s. Enter the Hollywood model, which is far more adaptable. Each new team can be assembled based on the specific needs of that moment and with a limited financial commitment.