Attention Deficit

Phone calls and message alerts at any moment; one learns to stop in the middle of anything — and worse, to expect to have to stop. After all, the social rule in the age of ubiquitous digital communication is determined by our new understanding that not only is everyone immediately accessible at any time, but what is more, everyone knows that everyone is so accessible. Gradually, we have been trained by this awareness to identify rudeness not with the person who feels free to interrupt others at any moment, as in earlier times, but rather with the person who neglects to check his messages and reply promptly. Hence, we feel obliged, almost as a matter of moral duty, to answer a call from any recognizable number, to check any message as soon as it arrives, and to reply as quickly as possible, lest we appear thoughtless or disrespectful in the eyes of…someone. Of the collective consciousness. Of ourselves.

Thus, like the school bell, only less predictably, these digital alerts and alarms artificially truncate all thought. Imagine one’s range of motion limited by a fence, like animals in a pasture. But now imagine that fence endlessly and arbitrarily shifting, narrowing, and springing up immediately in front of one’s step when one had, just moments before, imagined it to be far off. Consider the mental state of an animal so randomly and changeably constrained: increasingly skittish, anxious, unable to concentrate, the beast learns to treat every path of motion, every step, lightly and without full commitment, lest it be diverted from yet another goal, thwarted in yet another attempt at focused intentionality. In human intellectual and emotional terms, this is a condition of superficiality and immediacy in thought, feeling, and choice. Nothing important, nothing ultimate, nothing demanding the complete absorption of those sorts of activities that once gave human life its raison d’ĂȘtre and its profoundest rewards.

In the age before cell phones, cutting oneself off from interruptions for an extended period of time was relatively easy; now it has increasingly become almost impossible, in psychological terms. The problem is not merely that one can now be interrupted at any moment by anyone who wishes to contact you at any time, for any reason; rather, it is that we have internalized and habituated the anticipation of interruptions until, regardless of whether anyone contacts us or not, we are continuously, in body and mind, slightly on edge and jittery about the potential for interruption. In other words, we are permanently and ceaselessly distracted by the very existence of this sense of ubiquitous and permanent connectedness — until finally, most horribly of all, we are learning by force of habit to desire this distracted state with its inescapable lightness and superficiality of mind and deed.

Humans may indeed be political animals. But we also have a divine spark, which entails a natural craving for the mountaintop, the closed room, the slow solitude of our morning or evening routines. In short, we are at once both political animals and private spirits. Technology has effectively, spiritually, tilted the balance decisively toward the social and away from what was once thought to be our highest nature: the private thinker, tinkerer, investigator, or even, by extension, conversationalist.

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