A Nation Distracted
What we risk by being so unfocused and how to start paying better attention
image by Gluekit / www.gluekit.com
The following is part of a series of articles on why people are so distracted, and what they can do about it. For more, read The Focused Life.
I am alone inside a glass booth, enveloped in a swirling storm of dialogue snippets, data shards, and clashing story lines. This is a play, for an audience of one. Within the booth is a café table, two chairs, a fake daisy in a vase, and a Mac computer. Over a soundtrack of clinking dishes, I hear two hushed voices, talking as if at another table. A man and a woman are meeting secretly, worried their spouses are having a cyber-affair. The Mac comes to life and unfurls an instant message chat: the virtual whispers of the cyber-lovers. I listen and read, as the two couples simultaneously, online and offline, debate whether cyber-love is real, whether harm has been done. The parallel scripts wash over me, clashing and overlapping, competing for my gaze and for my ear.
I listen twice and then try the next booth, and the next. There are six plays in all, each no more than 12 minutes long, told by and through computers. This experimental theater, on display in the soaring atrium of a college library in upstate New York, is equal parts video game, amusement park ride, and high-tech storytelling. It sends you hurtling into worlds where you are asked to fix what you can’t see, decide what you don’t understand, relate to those you can’t fully trust. The narratives are fragmented. The experience is disorienting. This is not how we live. Or is it?
We can tap into 50 million websites, 2.5 million books in print, 75 million blogs, and other snowstorms of information, but we increasingly seek knowledge in Google searches and Yahoo! headlines that we gulp on the run. We can contact millions of people around the globe, yet we increasingly connect with even our most intimate friends and family via instant messaging and fleeting meetings that are rescheduled a half dozen times, then when they do occur are punctuated by pings, beeps, and multitasking.
Amid the glittering promise of our new technologies and the wondrous potential of our scientific gains, we are nurturing a culture of social diffusion, intellectual fragmentation, and sensory detachment. In this new world, something is amiss. And that something is attention.
Attention is “the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought,” wrote psychologist and philosopher William James in 1890. “It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state which in French is called distraction.”
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