“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them - that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” Lao Tzu
In the beginning
The parable of the Good Samaritan in the Christian tradition tells the story of a wounded man who receives help from a stranger, a stranger who goes above and beyond for a man he does not know and who will not owe him anything in return. The significance of this story is inexhaustible, and it has been used as an instrument by Christian communities to preach the power of beneficence; a trait that has been mainly packaged to serve an allegorical function. Although this story is ecclesiastically volcanic, underneath it is a quality, a quality whose truth we hold to be self-evident: the power of attention.
The abundance of choices in modern life diminishes focus to the extent that much of what is consumed is rarely retained. The modern world has been engineered to exacerbate our proclivity for distraction, a feat that is accomplished in part by top-class entertainment and in other ways by the onslaught of ads that literally pop up on our screens.
The onslaught of attention in the modern world expresses a very old and true fact: life is bivalent, it gives with one hand, and it takes with another. In the case of the 21st century, we seem to be given more than we can take. However, receiving something also implies losing something, and in this scenario, what has been disrupted and disengaged is our most prized and scarce possession: attention.
In 1977, Nobel prize winner Herbert Simon wrote: “Information consumes attention, hence a wealth of information produces a poverty of attention.” This prediction symbolizes the harm that large-scale distraction can inflict on the quality of our lives when we are bombarded by sensory data from all directions. The wisdom of our parents turns out to be true: too much of everything is bad for us. Just as excessive food intake can, in some cases, lead to gluttony, a constant diet of large-scale information will lead to an impoverished mind.
The cost of distraction manifests itself in multiple ways, but perhaps the most direct implication is how it affects us as individuals. Parents are too consumed to notice their children, teenagers are engrossed in their phones as a substitute for life, and lovers are texting on a date. The problem of distraction has metastasized to affect us both uniquely and globally.
Attention is a crucial element in human development, to the extent that newborn children have died due to a lack of it, with touch being the critical factor. It is such a vital resource that companies resort to creating Maslow-pyramid-type schemes to garner it from us. The finitude of attention is one reason why the distraction-laden 21st century is insidious, despite the prosperity and technological sophistication we enjoy.
Criticism of technology has always been a part of our culture. Ted Kaczsynsyki’s 1995 manifesto, “Industrial Society and its Future,” is one such example where he begins with the statement: “The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster to the human race” . Despite the pessimistic tone (and general barbarism by the author) there are signs that technology comes packaged with its own set of problems.
David Foster Wallace in his 1990 argumentative essay “E Unibus Pluram” identified that the average American has a preternatural preoccupation with television watching and identifies the source of this preoccupation viz.:
“Television’s minute-by-minute appeal is that it engages without demanding. One can rest while undergoing simulation. Receive without giving. In this respect, television resembles other things mothers call “special treats” – e.g., candy, liquor – treats that are basically fine and fun in small amounts but bad for us in large amounts and really bad for us if consumed as any kind of nutritive staple” .
Despite the vast differences between the authors (temperamentally and otherwise) one can't help but conclude that the positive aspects of technology cannot be separated from the negative. They are inextricably linked, like a braid or the symbol of the caduceus in the medical arts.
Digesting the cow
One of the things that unites us as a species are events that have a universal quality, events that have been characterized as the Human Condition. “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum pluto,” said the Roman playwright Terrence: nothing human is alien to me.
This phenomenon, aka life, contains within it the tragedies and serendipitous wonders that we all encounter – experiences that on average, can be overwhelming, from dealing with acne during puberty to the demands of adult life. Life is challenging and most of it necessitates consistent effort day in and day out. As a consequence of this, there arises a need for relaxation, a need that is supplied to us in very high doses.
As a function of its definition, distraction is anything that takes a person's attention away from what they are trying to do. A battle between meaning and expediency, one that the former seldom wins.
A huge problem with the reliance on technology as a solution to the difficulty of life lies in the addictiveness that the process spurs. This addictive process is a cycle where one moves from the downward slope of liking the activity a little-too-much, to downright needing it. Technology's "evil," following Kafka's assertion that evil is whatever distracts, is twofold: (a) its ability to seize focus effortlessly and collectively, and (b) its role as a relief from the very problems it causes. The result of both (a) and (b) is a form of engagement that is phylic.
The primary source of distraction is emotions—they guide attention, and the less one is attentive to their emotions, the more these emotions will unconsciously steer us. An unguided missile is a very dangerous one. These emotions are manipulated and influenced by sophisticated and enjoyable multi-modal mediums, making modern life feel like a boa constrictor swallowing a cow.
Part of the allure of the game of chess lies in its nature as a bounded game with specific rules. In the midst of its finitude, there exists an infinite amount of possibilities—inexhaustible options that do not overwhelm the player but rather contribute to the creative expression of tactics and strategies within the game. Distraction, on the other hand, operates in the opposite manner. It takes our most prized resource and moves in more ways than we know what to do with, a process that leads to the humorously-named yet not-so-amusing state: frazzled.
Not all who wander are lost
If we consider how the anxiety stemming from a large and intimidating item on our to-do list can prevent us from approaching it, we can liken the anxiety-induced paralysis to the to-do list that encompasses our entire life—a list with a yet-to-be-revealed deadline, where the consequence is, quite literally, our existence. This predicament is certainly understandable.
Life involves suffering, there is no doubt about that, and our continual encounter with the unknown can generate anxiety. Yet, anxiety is, in many ways, the ticket to living. It is the price we pay for the beauty and profundity that is existence. Birth, death, and everything in between contribute to the adventure of our lives, each having its own individual meaning.
We perceive the world through the palette of our values; the elements we prioritize the most shape and direct our perception and actions. It is therefore crucial for us to establish a hierarchy of values, one that condenses the vastness of life into a set of actionable plans.
Words like sacrifice, work, and faith have lost their currency in the modern world, as instant gratification often overshadows the value of these concepts with its immediacy. But the yearning for something more unites us, a collective need for a task or goal that is greater than ourselves, one in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
To work is to sacrifice the present for the future, and to work properly is to take a leap of faith. It involves having faith in a situation and in oneself, the ability to see layers of potential that may not be immediately here but are ultimately there.
Meaning is a very private and subjective experience. It is a quiet joy that reveals itself in moments of true engagement and attention: the birth of a child, a revelation of love, the song from a choir, the deep sense of engagement and joy that is derived from work.
The capacity to pay attention and to connect with the mystical oneness that connects us all is a process rather than a destination. It's not something one attains overnight; it requires showing up day in and day out. It involves understanding that we are not the center of the universe but rather individual centers, each with an immeasurable impact when actively participating in the machinery of life.
Psychologists have suggested various methods of curbing distraction, often referred to as “mindfulness.” While these approaches are beneficial and hold great value, the ultimate antidote to distraction lies in the ongoing dialogue we have with ourselves. The self, identified by Rene Descartes in his famous phrase “I think, therefore I Am,” is what defines us as individuals.
Modern life is a wonder to behold, the structures that surround us are a testament to human ingenuity. Despite its high demand for attention, we must consistently remind ourselves that the situation is changeable, but we cannot force the river to alter its course.
- Theodore Kaczynski, “Industrial Society and its Future,” The New York Times, p.1
- Wallace, David Foster, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” Review of Contemporary Fiction, p.14