In age of distraction the SMS weighs heavier than the book
Are you scared and unarmed by mass communication? Jonathan Safran Foer is worried by his “always on” digital environment. He says “technology is diminishing us”. Foer says inattentiveness is morally wrong. ‘Simone Weil wrote that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity’,” says Foer. “By this definition, our relationships to the world, and to one another, and to ourselves, are becoming increasingly miserly.”
As with all adult fears it’s not long before children are mentioned: “Everyone wants his parent’s, or friend’s, or partner’s undivided attention – even if many of us, especially children, are getting used to far less.”
Paying attention in the modern age is so very hard, argues Foer. Our attentiveness is linked to the value we put on things. Our phones, the argument goes, have reduced human interaction to the point of meaningless. The technology has determined us.
He laments: ‘Each step “forward” has made it easier – just a little – to avoid the emotional work of being present, to convey information rather than humanity.”
But isn’t technology used to seek attention? Look at how many tweets are narcissistic, directed to show off the writer’s virtue on the back of whatever outrage can be found in the dust. The message is not about you; it’s about me.
We’ve been here before, of course.
Was Conrad Gessner right to warn about the “confusing and harmful” presence of too much information? He wrote that about the printing press in 1565.
A 1883 article in a New York medical journal said reading and schooling would “exhaust the children’s brains and nervous systems with complex and multiple studies, and ruin their bodies by protracted imprisonment”. Is education bad?
Before both of them Socrates bewailed writing: “This discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.”
Why can’t those pesky kids just be happy with learning from their elders?
Have you found yourself checking email at dinner, or skipping from book to screen, unable to focus? The closer the world gets to our fingertips, the more we stand to lose
Isn’t the real worry that education has been diminished to such an extent that we put stock in bite-sized data hits and exclaiming what we are not? If people don’t read weighty texts it’s not because of their tactile and reassuringly expensive gadgets – “…the phones in our pockets nowadays are always built in dialogue with marketers who have carefully noted how colour and curve, brightness and texture, heft and size make us feel,” he writes. It’s because they put less stock in reading a good book.
“I worry that the closer the world gets to our fingertips, the further it gets from our hearts,” he writes in words seemingly taken from a Victorian melodrama.
In 2005, CNN warned us that email was hurting the IQ “more than pot”. The July/August 2008 edition of The Atlantic asked: “Is Google making is Stoopid?”
The argument is always the same: humans are victims of technology.
Maybe it’s not about the internet, books, radios, TV, comic books, smart phones or whatever new technology the older generation sees as a threat. Maybe it’s just about education and the erosion of once weighty cultural authority that promised a path to the awe of understanding? Or maybe it’s just that the older we get the more resistant we are to new things that when distilled all rehash a timeless and basic human need: to communicate?