Saturday, July 26, 2008

A retro(per)spective -

The good people at ALdaily really tweaked the curiosity with this one -
Every new gadget is, wrote T.S. Eliot, “Filled with fancies and empty of meaning / Tumid apathy with no concentration.” T.S. Eliot? Who’s he?...

Well, Eliot is one of my favourite writers, not just for his poetry (which can be very dense and somewhat depressing) but his prose as well. So the combination of the quote from "Burnt Norton" with "every new gadget" did not quite ring true and I had to go looking.

From the third stanza of "Burnt Norton -
...Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
That blows before and after time,
Wind in and out of unwholesome lungs
Time before and time after.
Eructation of unhealthy souls
Into the faded air, the torpid
Driven on the wind that sweeps the gloomy hills of London,
Hampstead and Clerkenwell, Campden and Putney,
Highgate, Primrose and Ludgate. Not here
Not here the darkness, in this twittering world.

It reads almost like he was describing an accountant... quelle horreur!! The actual article that pinged the quotation was this from timesonlne
I was – the irony! – trying to read a book called Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age by Maggie Jackson. Crushed in my train, I had become the embodiment of T S Eliot’s great summary of the modern predicament: “Distracted from distraction by distraction”. This is, you might think, a pretty standard, vaguely comic vignette of modern life – man harassed by self-inflicted technology. And so it is. We’re all distracted, we’re all interrupted. How foolish we are! But, listen carefully, it’s killing me and it’s killing you.

David Meyer is professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. In 1995 his son was killed by a distracted driver who ran a red light. Meyer’s speciality was attention: how we focus on one thing rather than another. Attention is the golden key to the mystery of human consciousness; it might one day tell us how we make the world in our heads. Attention comes naturally to us; attending to what matters is how we survive and define ourselves.

The opposite of attention is distraction, an unnatural condition and one that, as Meyer discovered in 1995, kills. Now he is convinced that chronic, long-term distraction is as dangerous as cigarette smoking. In particular, there is the great myth of multitasking. No human being, he says, can effectively write an e-mail and speak on the telephone. Both activities use language and the language channel in the brain can’t cope. Multitaskers fool themselves by rapidly switching attention and, as a result, their output deteriorates.

I read on and a separate line of thought started with this -
Meyer tells me that he sees part of his job as warning as many people as possible of the dangers of the distracted world we are creating. Other voices, particularly in America, have joined the chorus of dismay. Jackson’s book warns of a new Dark Age: “As our attentional skills are squandered, we are plunging into a culture of mistrust, skimming and a dehumanising merger between man and machine.”

Mark Bauerlein, professor of English at Emory University in Atlanta, has just written The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardises Our Future. He portrays a bibliophobic generation of teens, incapable of sustaining concentration long enough to read a book. And learning a poem by heart just strikes them as dumb.

In an influential essay in The Atlantic magazine, Nicholas Carr asks: “Is Google making us stupid?” Carr, a chronic distractee like the rest of us, noticed that he was finding it increasingly difficult to immerse himself in a book or a long article – “The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.”

Instead he now Googles his way though life, scanning and skimming, not pausing to think, to absorb. He feels himself being hollowed out by “the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self – evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the ‘instantly available’”.

And at that point the thread of the idea - Meyer through Bauerlein to Carr - began to get scary. I work with two other accountants in a small office of a medium sized manufacturing firm. I am nominally "Cost Accountant" but despite that I spend a good 80% of my time on financial accounting (yes, there is a difference). The others, and my boss, are all under 35; all are "very technically savvy"; all are looking for the latest in "gadgets" - skype phones are almost passe, and the latest rage is just a bit more expensive than can be hidden inside of "General Expenses".

That is the background, so far not scary. Where it does get scary is the approach to problems - the reconciliation that doesn't work or the cost centre that has blown out over the past three months, or the sudden decline in margin on a product. The boss is a great fan (and reputed "expert") in a dbase access system called "Hyperion". To me it has its uses, for my boss it is the only way to "find things out". So he spends several hours fine-tuning his analysis, preparing summaries; I sit down with a listing and (interruptions aside - I have a real difficulty concentrating!) work my way through the data.

That difference in approach is the scary bit. The thought of applying concentration and logic to form understanding is quite foreign. The idea that one misplaced transaction may not be human error but indicative of a deeper systemic failing is an incomprehensible heresy!
Bauerlein is 49. As a child, he says, he learnt about the Vietnam war from Walter Cronkite, the great television news anchor of the time. Now teenagers just go to their laptops on coming home from school and sink into their online cocoon. But this isn’t the informational paradise dreamt of by Bill Gates and Google: 90% of sites visited by teenagers are social networks. They are immersed not in knowledge but in “gossip and social banter”.

“They don’t,” says Bauerlein, “grow up.” They are “living off the thrill of peer attention. Meanwhile, their intellects refuse the cultural and civic inheritance that has made us what we are now”.

The hyper-connectivity of the young is bewildering. Jackson tells me that one study looked at five years of e-mail activity of a 24-year-old. He was found to have connections with 11.7m people. Most of these connections would be pretty threadbare. But that, in a way, is the point. All internet connections are threadbare. They lack the complexity and depth of real-world interactions. This is concealed by the language.

Think too, of the "Personal life support systems" that are de rigeur in today's world. Who can walk the streets without personally selected musical accompaniament? Who can be seen in public without at least once demonstrating their social importance - or business importance - by receiving a cell-phone call?

TF might remember when I drew his attention to Wordsworth - "we have no time to stop and stare" - TF, here is another to put in the mind...
Time and the bell have buried the day,
The black cloud carries the sun away.
Will the sunflower turn to us, will the clematis
Stray down, bend to us; tendril and spray
Clutch and cling?

and -
...Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still. Shrieking voices
Scolding, mocking, or merely chattering,
Always assail them. The Word in the desert
Is most attacked by voices of temptation,
The crying shadow in the funeral dance,
The loud lament of the disconsolate chimera.

The detail of the pattern is movement,
As in the figure of the ten stairs.
Desire itself is movement
Not in itself desirable;
Love is itself unmoving,
Only the cause and end of movement,
Timeless, and undesiring
Except in the aspect of time
Caught in the form of limitation
Between un-being and being.
Sudden in a shaft of sunlight
Even while the dust moves
There rises the hidden laughter
Of children in the foliage
Quick now, here, now, always—
Ridiculous the waste sad time
Stretching before and after.


T. F. Stern said...

I listened to a talk given by Douglas Callister in which he explained the need to establish a deep and complete familiarity with the best and greatest books ever written in order to prepare our minds in such a way as to be prepared to meet those people who are worth knowing and being around. If you think about it, that is similar to the words offered in your article. How unfortunate for so many folks that their time is spent in pursuit of trivial communications which neither build good communication skills or provoke deep meaningful thoughts.

In this regard I treasure our differences, even when our positions are so different as to appear hostile.

The probligo said...

TF, that is something of a mouthful.

This is way off the line of my post, but it raises a question which I might tackle at some time soon. Is there any person who can say "I can not agree with anything that you say." or the parallel "I disagree with everything that you say"? No more so, I suspect than any thinking person can say "I agree with everything you say". Now I know that you hear that one frequently, but I mean it in a far wider, more universal sense.

Dave Justus said...

Doesn't the very fact that this same problem, (i.e. modern life is too trivial and distracting for 'real' experience), has been expressed for almost a hundred years refute the hystericism here?

I expect that when most of us long for a simpler time, it is the time of T.S. Eliot, with only the occassional landline, rather then a cell phone, and nice secretaries and dictated memo's rather then hastily typed email. With the daily newspaper in the morning with coffee rather then checking the blogs and websites while standing in line for an espresso. We long for Eliot's 'soulless' time, and our children will probably long for ours.

At the same time, I certainly don't long for the Victorian age Eliot presumably misses. I think being able to make phone calls to family and friends, to travel by air, and watch television and listen to radio are all pretty darn neat thing. I certainly like the material comforts that we have now, not to mention the numerous social improvements and advances in medicine.

People have always longed for a simpler time, and always been convinced that the world is going to heck in a handbasket. Usually their nostagalgia is as uninformed as their prognostication.

The probligo said...

For me, Dave, it is not the technology that is the problem.

It lies in two parts -

First and more critical is the insatiable need for immediate and "remote" social contact of any kind replacing the far more satisfying (for me at least) time spent with perhaps two or three people with no time pressure. To that end TF expressed it well... "How unfortunate for so many folks that their time is spent in pursuit of trivial communications which neither build good communication skills or provoke deep meaningful thoughts. "

You hit the nail as well - "with only the occassional landline, rather then a cell phone, and nice secretaries and dictated memo's rather then hastily typed email.". Personally, I have seen the office degenerate from a community where a two minute walk (at most) and a face-to-face conversation has been replaced by a two hour exchange of emails. The more "unpleasant" the problem requiring solution the less likely that those concerned will meet face-to-face.

The idea of "neat" might be satisfying as an immediate consolation to personal cravings for those with trivial personalities.

The idea of sitting across a table with three or four people for a couple of hours discussing matters of "importance" over a glass or three of wine brings far greater satisfaction.

The second part is best expressed by a saying that I came across some thirty years back. I have forgotten whose idea this was but it comes from a very highly respected American executive of the '70s. His message to his (one) secretary when leaving the office...

"I only want to be contacted for matters of life or death. If it is life then it can wait a bit longer. If death, it is too late already."

If I leave the office for lunch, I do not want to take the office with me. I carry a cellphone (bat-phone) at the insistence of my wife. I very rarely use it. I think twice in the past six months.

That is not to say that our technology does not have its uses, or that the ability for us to converse with the immediacy that we have is a bad thing.

It should not replace (as it is) face-to-face personal contact.

Dave Justus said...

Like I said, your ideal was T.S. Eliot's nightmare...

The probligo said...

Well, I treasure the ability to meet, greet and speak to in person. Communication at a distance - as we are now - is a very poor and distant second best.

There is no communication of emotion, of intonation, even emphasis by means of font change does not satisfactorily communicate meaning or intent.

Your world and welcome to it Dave, when you can satisfy all your social needs from a keyboard. You need not even get your feet wet stepping outside the door. Why come out of the bottle even? (Subtle reference to BNW there).

The probligo said...

Oh, and here was me thinking that Eliot's nightmare was (following from the first quote I gave) -
Descend lower, descend only
Into the world of perpetual solitude,
World not world, but that which is not world,
Internal darkness, deprivation
And destitution of all property,
Desiccation of the world of sense,
Evacuation of the world of fancy,
Inoperancy of the world of spirit;
This is the one way, and the other
Is the same, not in movement
But abstention from movement; while the world moves
In appetency, on its metalled ways
Of time past and time future.

A "world of perpetual solitude" is, in my mind, exactly what is passed over as "social contact" through the internet.

Similarly, "dessication of the world of sense"... What senses are opened on the 'net? None, I suggest.

As too "evacuation of the world of fancy" - the world is "presented" as fact, as other people's imagination; the idea of fancy (as in imagined or fictional) is satisfied without any effort. There is no "fancy"; it is sucked out of the dessicated shell of the individual.

That is Eliot's nightmare. That is the nightmare that led me to BNW's bottles in my last comment.

So, my ideal is Eliot's nightmare? I don't think that is so for a second.