The Horror of Distraction: 7 Thoughts on the War of the Pencil vs. the Computer

Have you ever felt that horror?  Sitting in the library, trying to read an actual book?  Yet there’s that uncanny sense that some other sinister presence is lurking just beside you, beckoning for your undivided attention?? Undivided — until the sharpened blade plunges into you . . . .

We are all struggling, that is, with the insistent hum of our nearby digital devices.  In fact, if you are reading this at all:  your only means of doing so in on a screen, being fed by endless lines filled with ones and zeroes.  This blog, which my publisher and agent insist is a vital piece of the puzzle for getting people to my actual paperback, The Hemingway Files, is part and parcel of the problem at hand:  How do we train our minds and hearts to PAY ATTENTION, for crying out loud??? (I will forsake, for the moment, the question of getting my college students to do that: I’m looking squarely in the mirror here.)

And speaking of bad habits — you know, the ones “forced” on me by the digital realm: I read an amazing and honest lament the other day from the excellent writer Phillip Yancey; a writer I admire and whose work I’ve read quite a lot of over the years.  His confessional reminded me of the famous beginning of Nick Carr’s book The Shallows, a book I often recommend but one that is abominated by some of the pro-tech crowd (Yes, that is a wild generalization!). I sure wish we could all simply admit, like Yancey, our own recent struggles with reading lengthy works, as dampered (or at least changed dramatically) by the digital. Maybe healing begins there. But see what I did there?  I framed the question in terms of a pathology:  the illness being caused by the digital.  I repent, here and now.

But here’s a claim:  I am certain that digital media have affected my own habits, in mostly negative ways. In fact, just this morning:  the cult classic Roadhouse intervened briefly into my life, because of this darned Al Gore-inspired contraption, the internet.  And here I am, forwarding yet another digital text promising a dose of dopamine for a brief 5-minute high.

Roadhouse, you say?  Yes, indeed: for in the digital realm, such schlock being taken very, very seriously is never far away;  there’s stuff like this:

So today, mid-morning, I was trying to work on a scholarly paper that must be finished by the time I leave for an important international conference next Wednesday (i.e. in the next 8 days).  Now mind you, I am mostly done and the paper is probably closer to completion than 90% of the other attendees of that conference.  But there I was, wrestling with late 19th-century developments in theodicy and the problem of animal suffering, while simultaneously being goaded by another colleague about several issues unrelated to this paper.  Despite my horror regarding digital intervention, we were jabbing back and forth over Facebook about distraction and the web; then suddenly he posted another thing about that deeply fascinating Patrick Swayze masterpiece Roadhouse (there may be some irony in that last sentence).  How dare he, you ask?  Well, I kept going back to FB, over and over, to watch the conversations on both digital technology and that absurd film — and a handful of other, also completely irresponsible conversations with a few other friends — develop, as it were.  So there’s that …

Yes, I’m making confessions.  Deep dark secrets; I am struggling with the very phenomena I wish to bash.  My head and my heart are at war — the lament of humans of all times and in all places, I suspect.  Perhaps, indeed, a meaningful anthropology:  humans are those creatures who say, “Do as I say, not as I do . . . .”

But as promised, I will make a few brief observations:  and I’d love to hear your own comments, as well…  So here goes:

#1: the problem is treated (not entirely unfairly) as a standard, point-counterpoint “culture wars” type of problem: a debate, to put it most crassly, between pro-technology vs. anti-technology.  The dreaded “binary” which many of us hate passionately.

#2:  Meanwhile: most readers use both computers and pencils; or these days, pens.   I know I do.  As for reading: many people have Kindles or other readers; I do not.  I like a book in my hand.  But I admit, most of my reading these days is on screens.  Students are roughly half and half, with many going for the cheaper ebooks.  And anywhere you go these days, you see things like this:  do they frighten you, at all??  If so: why?

#3:  There is evidence that today’s college students have alleviated abilities to read longer works.  Some of that is anecdotal, but some of the evidence is pretty hard and valid, I’m afraid.  But is that good or bad?  There are those nasty binary terms again.  I know many academics hate those sorts of questions, but I get them so often from parents it is not even funny.  Parents, in a nutshell, are WORRIED about the kinds of habits they perceive in their children.  Are digital technologies/ screens changing young people, socially, in negative ways?  Is my teenaged child under siege from unseen forces?  (Probably…!)

#4: This issue tends to be understood in a generational way, more or less.  So young people/ “millennials” are often labeled the victims of a culture gone haywire:  “what’s wrong with these kids today!??”  Many older people are deeply frightened by all this, as I mentioned.  And yet, ironically….

#5: Meanwhile: some of the most “addicted” to their smartphones, some studies suggest, are actually older folks/ retirees.  This may be partly due to the growing loneliness of our urban, postmodern culture — at least, according to some critics.  And especially for shut-in seniors.  Connection is missing; so they go to the internet.  And “addiction” itself is an intriguing new concept being used more and more about digital technologies — for better or for worse.  Many students tell me they “learned” their digital behaviors from their own parents!

#6: In addition: there is the so-called “sexual” aspect of the web & digital technologies — some of the unspoken phenomena of the web.  This element of desire is driving some of the most profitable parts of the web, but hardly anyone talks about it.  Maybe people like their privacy too much?  Because what happens in the Internet — stays in the Internet (except for browsing histories, which, we are now learning, are for sale to the highest bidder and probably are available to the NSA and other defense oriented types…).  Privacy is another thing we have only very recently thought much about …

Finally, and Most Importantly: #7You want to write?  You want to do real research??  Well, you better get busy training your own habits of attention: you know, the disciplines.  Like marathon running, reading Moby-Dick or The Brothers Karamazov doesn’t happen easily — not today, not ever.  But the training and the habits of people a hundred years ago were much better suited, it seems to me, for doing that kind of reading. (Conversely, today’s readers are a lot better at surfing the web and finding related materials on a topic than most readers in 1880!).  If you wish to become a serious reader, let alone writer, of long texts, one whose skills at analysis and recognition are superior to others of your same age, you will need to work very hard at it.  Put away the phone, turn off the bings of FB!  AND WE ARE ALL WRESTLING WITH THESE TEMPTATIONS!  So my resounding YES: we have agency over that 4-pound lump of gray matter we call the brain.  If you treat it well — it will treat you well.  Resistance is NOT futile!!!

Now: back to Facebook to see if I got some more “likes” for my pithy humor…