As of late I have noted that many people I admire are encouraging us to fast from a technology dominated lifestyle. In recent news, the Pope and Italian bishops are encouraging youth to give up IPods, Facebook, and other technology for Lent. Chuck Colson gives the same encouragement in today’s Breakpoint article, telling us to “take a technology sabbath.” And my pastor has given up Facebook for Lent. That I am reading Maggie Jackson’s new book, Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, a probing study of our collective attention deficit disorder caused by digital technology, is, perhaps, a divine propinquity: God is trying to get my attention.
To provide punctuation to these “coincidences,” last night I was reading a short story by Charles Dickens entitled ‘The Wreck of the Golden Mary,” and an old sea captain, lost at sea with crew and passengers, has these thoughts: “O, what a thing it is, in a time of danger and in the presence of death, the shining of a face upon a face! I have heard it broached that orders should be given in great new ships by electric telegraph. I admire machinery as much as any man, and am as thankful to it as any man can be for what it does for us. But it will never be a substitute for the face of a man, with his soul in it, encouraging another man to be brave and true. Never try it for that. It will break down like a straw.” Like Jackson, like Colson, like the bishops and my pastor, all of this drives home the way in which our technology can reduce intimate, human contact, how we need to see a human face.
I can remember, of course, when all this was different. I had no computer at home. I had no cell phone. I had no IPod or PDA. And TV, while it provided a distraction, a bit of entertainment, was not omnipresent. And yet it’s difficult to summon up the feel of that era. Imagine: If you wanted to know what someone was doing, you called them on the phone or went to see them, and besides, did you really want to know what they were doing all the time, or what they were thinking? I never gave it a second thought --- then. What did I care what my friend was doing after dinner? Nowadays, we know a lot more about a lot less. We read blogs and Facebook pages and monitor Twitter feeds and text messages so we won’t miss anything. That’s anything. This need to be connected is a compulsive thing, really, the need to check in, to see what is happening. But the fact is, we were perfectly content, perhaps more content, when we weren’t so connected.
This hyper-connectivity is a compulsion for both introverts and extroverts. Introverts, who prefer their own thoughts to the chatter of people, can pick who they interact with and when and on what level. They can think before they speak. Extroverts can cultivate networks of “friends,” something which energizes them. And yet both find themselves dehumanized by superficial contacts, perhaps even driven by the sense that they can control their relationships by removing someone from their friend list, or ignoring them for a time, or just saying things online that they’d never have the nerve to say in person. Step back from it for a moment, a long moment, and you see at once how silly and yet how damaging it can be. And yet most people don’t even know what’s happening to them.
Maggie Jackson believes we are either in the twilight of culture or one on the cusp of a renaissance of attention. She says that “Twilight cultures begin to show a preference for veneer and form, not depth and content; a stubborn blindness to the consequences of actions, from the leadership on down. In other words, an epidemic erosion of attention is a sure sign of an impending dark age.” I don’t know if she’s right, but I do know that technology has not made us better or happier people, that it’s becoming amazingly difficult to have an undistracted conversation or, for that matter, moment with anyone, that we can live as families in one house and yet carry on most of our life in a virtual reality divorced of place: we can be anybody, anywhere, at any time in the netherworld of cyberspace.
I’ve said it before: I’m no Luddite. As the captain said, I admire machinery as much as any man, but no machine can substitute for the human face, the peril and promise of real, tangible places filled with real, live people.
One of the many interviews that Jackson did for her book was one with an undertaker, Tom Lynch, who told her countless examples of how people don’t want to face the physicality of death --- one more indication of how we are preferring our own reality, a virtual one where we don’t have to face death, to a real and physical world. Lynch read Jackson a quote from poet Robert Pogue Harrison, who noted that we must choose “an allegiance --- either to the post-human, the virtual and the synthetic, or to the earth, the real and the dead in their humic densities.”
I’ll take the earth, the real and, yes, the dead. Dirt, mud, rain, sun, and people, washed and unwashed, liberal and conservative, winsome and weird. That’s the right stuff. Now, if I can just wean myself from the press of the machine.
[Stay tuned: Ten Ways to Overcome Our Attention Deficit. Coming Soon]