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Cracker Barrel: Distraction

“In or around June 1995 human character changed again. Or rather, it began to undergo a metamorphosis that is still not complete, but is profound — and troubling, not least because it is hardly noted. When I think about, say, 1995, or whenever the last moment was before most of us were on the Internet and had mobile phones, it seems like a hundred years ago. Letters came once a day, predictably, in the hands of the postal carrier. News came in three flavors — radio, television, print — and at appointed hours. Some of us even had a newspaper delivered every morning.”

So begins a recent essay in the London Review of Books by Rebecca Solnit, an American writer interested in how technological changes affect human consciousness. Not long ago, she notes, those mail and newspaper deliveries punctuated the day like church bells. You listened to the news when it was broadcast, and time passed in fairly large units, not in milliseconds and constant updates.

Since most everyone listened to the same news sources, discussions of current events occurred under the overarching sky of the same general reality. Today we’re free to pick our way among hundreds of competing blogs and information processors, to find a slant that suits our preconceptions. We can fill our heads with entertaining diatribes by well-paid radio, TV and Internet pundits before lamenting with like-minded friends about how dysfunctional and disjointed politics has become.

In that simpler time, writes Solnit, “Phones were wired to the wall or if they were cordless, they were still housebound. The sound quality was usually good. On them people had long, deep conversations of a sort almost unknown today, now that phones are used while driving, while shopping, while walking in front of cars against the light and into fountains. The general assumption was that when you were on the phone that’s all you were.”

But little by little, all of that changed, culminating in today’s commonly heard cell phone cry: “You’re breaking up!” Letters have morphed into emails, which at first seemed almost magical, splicing together the intimacy of thoughtful reflection with the speed of telegraphs, but which have since devolved into texting and slowly turned into semiliterate group chatter.

Obviously, many good things have come about with the new technologies. Social changes can now evolve more quickly, and with the involvement of millions of citizens. Facebook helps far-flung families stay in touch, and may help reconnect old friends. Brain-numbing math calculations are now accomplished in the blink of an eye. Messages flash across continents and oceans at the speed of light. Smart phones and tablets connect their users to a prodigious stockpile of information 24/7. And yet ...

“Nearly everyone I know,” says Solnit, “feels that some quality of concentration they once possessed has been destroyed. Reading books has become hard; the mind keeps wanting to shift from whatever it is paying attention to to pay attention to something else. A restlessness has seized hold of many of us, a sense that we should be doing something else, no matter what we are doing, or doing at least two things at once, or going to check some other medium ... Time no longer comes in large, focused blocks, but in fragments and shards. We’re shattered. We’re breaking up.”

It’s hard, now, to be with someone else wholly, uninterruptedly, and it’s hard to be truly alone. The fine art of doing nothing in particular, also known as thinking, or musing, or introspecting, is now regarded as a void, to be filled up with sounds and other entertainments.

Now we call it multitasking. It used to be called distraction.

Copyright 2013 by Craig Nagel