The rise of the internet and the widespread availability of digital technology has surrounded us with endless sources of distraction: texts, emails and Instagrams from friends, streaming music and videos, ever-changing stock quotes, news and more news. To get our work done, we could try to turn off the digital stream, but that’s difficult to do when we’re plagued by FOMO, the modern fear of missing out. Some people think that our willpower is so weak because our brains have been damaged by digital noise. But blaming technology for the rise in inattention is misplaced. History shows that the disquiet is fuelled not by the next new thing but by the threat this thing – whatever it might be – poses to the moral authority of the day.
The first time inattention emerged as a social threat was in 18th-century Europe, during the Enlightenment, just as logic and science were pushing against religion and myth. The Oxford English Dictionary cites a 1710 entry from Tatler as its first reference to this word, coupling inattention with indolence; both are represented as moral vices of serious public concern.