In favor of distraction
May 30, 2009
Arielle Ford was in the air, heading towards Las Vegas while she read my book (and ‘highlighted much of it’ she said in an email – she likes it. She really likes it!). Her husband, sitting next to her, kept poking her in the side while he read a recent New York magazine article by Sam Anderson entitled “The Benefits of Distraction and Overstimulation”. She was amazed at the parallels in my book with his article. It was a funny moment of synchronicity as they soared the Western skies.
Naturally curious, I googled Sam’s article to see what similarities I might find. His article was distinctly hilarious, giving our collective worry about distraction a new spin. Never snarky (I hate snarky), always pithy (I love pithy), his article hits the nail on the head.
Maybe there is some neurological benefit to all this connectivity. (Grossly absent in his argumentation about the younger generation is the fact that, until around age twenty, people in general have higher cognitive abilities than our sagging middle-aged brains, but who am I to be a wet blanket at his party?) Perhaps, his article suggests, we can positively alter our brain’s wiring through technology after all.
My issue with our hyperconnected world is what gets lost in the translation. We text, ping, upload and download with abandon. But how much time do we waste in the process? Is a superhuman brain truly desirable? To what end?
His article is balanced (because he gives my camp ample play), yet critical of too much outcry over technological advances and their damage it might inflict on our tender brains. Technophobes have always dampened the spirits of those who enjoy its benefits. After all, he rightly paraphrases Socrates, the greatest orator who ever lived, as saying the written word was scandalous for its ‘memory-destroying properties’ because, well, it was a recording of wisdom and not the wisdom itself.
In my mind, writing is an organized system lending structure to thought, but it is not the thoughts themselves. Without drifting too far into epistimology, I would note that our pleasure systems have altered dramatically. We have moved from a visual society to an oral society to a visual one again. Before we could speak, we painted pictures on cave walls. Then came speech and the value of oration. We later developed a vastly distributed writing system with more visual stimuli (Greek statues, tablets and monuments come to mind). Auditory pleasures remained through music and a common delivery system called radio. Then, taking a leap through the centuries came the prominence of the visual medium again through television and now YouTube.
Each generation deals with its own level of distraction. Whatever triggers it is rather immaterial – what is important is how we manage the distractions as they come. I favor mindful living over filling the mind with senseless chatter.
What’s your take?