Thursday, June 26, 2008
Bleating and Buzzing in an Electronically Twitchy World
Apparently, the Atlantic Monthly is posing the question of whether Google is making us "stoopid" because the latter encourages us to move so quickly among various websites that we never really stop, reflect, and use our higher capacity for thought. At least that's what Laura, my wife, told me--she read the article; I didn't... A piece that I did read, however, came from last week's New York Times, which highlighted an issue rolling around the the Silicon Valley: Are we being overwhelmed by our technology? What does it mean that we're continuously connected through text messages, Blackberrys, and iPhones? Is the quality of our work suffering because we're continually distracted? (And the NYT article offered some reasonably compelling data that supports a resounding Yes.) I would add to these questions another: Do all the techie toys around us make us twitchy? And, do we really like being distracted?
In the emergence of a growing scientific and technological western culture, the sixteenth century scientists and philospher Blaise Pascal offered a succinct and piercing assessment of his society's condition, “I have often said that the sole cause of human unhappiness is that we do not how to stay quietly in a room.” That’s a hauntingly accurate insight for us as well.
It's even worthwhile to attempt Pascal's experiment. Try sitting in a room quietly. No TV. No stereo. No Internet. In a weird way, the lack of distractions is distracting. Our minds wander. We become uncomfortable and twitchy.
Tellingly, in Pascal’s own language French, the word distraction means “separation, subtraction, absence of mind, inattention, heedlessness, diversion, hobby.” And so we seek increasing amounts of hobbies to make us inattentive. One Microsoft executive coined a term for this state, “continuous partial attention.” Or inattention. This drive is demonstrated most notably in the lives of the rich and famous and for the rest of us, our tremendous fascination with them. Pascal believed that this inherent, uncontrolled restlessness drove women and men toward wealth and worldly success, "That, in fact, is the main joy of being a king [insert rock star, CEO], because people are continually trying to divert him and procure him every kind of pleasure. A king is surrounded by people whose only thought is to divert him and stop him thinking about himself, because, king though he is, he becomes unhappy as soon as he thinks about himself."
I suspect that’s one reason we want to be distracted and twitchy. We're afraid we might have to come to deeper realizations. The problem is--and I say this as one who enjoys technology--that our minds, our hearts, and even our work, suffers.
So I've say Yes to tuning out and disconnecting regularly. It's amazing what happens when I engage deeper parts of my grey matter. I find that I can savor the truly substantive and beautiful elements of life, the ones I've often walked right by... while I'm checking the email on my iPhone.