Sunday, July 20, 2008

Distraction on a High Wire

In The Sunday Times I write about the culture of distraction and the hollowed out self. Also I celebrate Man on Wire, a wonderful documentary movie.
The picture is of Split Rock in the Joshua Tree Desert, whose resemblance to a surfacing whale has, until now, gone unnoticed.


  1. I enjoyed your article, despite having to stop numerous times. For the past five years, the kids have been the biggest distraction in my life, easily beating my Blackberry. They have me up since 7.30 and haven't given me a moment. It's going to be a long day. I can still read a book and always have one or two on the go, but instead of a couple of days, it can now take me a couple of weeks to finish one. In a desperate effort to keep my mind nourished, I skim newspapers, periodicals, the web, with this vague notion in my head that I can cheat - fast food instead of a home cooked meal.

  2. I'd guess this tendency to monkey mind is innate in us so one question is whether Westerners are especially prone to it. Perhaps our understanding of what it means to be individual, our sense of "inner space", as this has evolved over the past few hundred years lies behind it. You could say that for the West, our experience of being individual has been a great strength - restlessness breeding innovation, exploration, enquiry - but also as we know see the same thing is a serious weakness.

    Perhaps other cultures have been better at understanding that concentration and awareness - mindfulness - have to be taught, cultivated and practised, paradoxically by playing down our me-me-me individuality. That's not easy when our current messy thinking allows sensory bombardment for profit at every turn because we have no limits on what can be owned by the corporation, not just material goods but ideas, privacy, genes, neurons.

    Modern technology simply turbo-charges what is already there. Besides, you're only talking about a subset of computing; some computing tasks require immense concentration. Maybe your profs and pundits are seeing the trees but not the wood.

  3. The great journalist, as perceptive as ever, spots the uncanny similarities between a journey to Wakefield and the Joshua Tree Desert

  4. You might view it as far to simplistic Bryan, but do you not feel that you have gone some way to answering here, your own questions, posed earlier this month on the current knifing epidemic?
    If we are mature adults, at or near pensionable age, then we have been living for over 50 years under the yolk of the language of distraction started, surely, with the flickering B/W television set (no, not radio).
    Add to that simple but pervasive box of wires, the distant memory of the Gameboy (which I noticed languishing in our attic the other day), and it's far more sophisticated spawn that came later, along with the cell phone, and those bits of plastic wizardry alone would have been enough to produce the alienation that we now see all around us.
    To that mix we must now append paperless books, sat-nav (personal & in-car), internet/email on-the-move, cushioned headphones (keep that sound in there!), music & TV on mobile and, the new looming horror, 'phones at 35,000 feet.
    Then consider the lives of the lost generation, the so-called dispossessed (although they seem to possess all or most of the above, but have been dispossessed of the care and love that would make them complete), and is it surprising that if they are in a gang of like minded and similarly disfigured kids, and trouble starts (or they start it), that it requires very little thought (none, I would suggest) to reach into your designer jeans (that is, jeans designed by somebody) and pull out a blade and thrust it forward in a horizontal position. I see a link.

  5. the next chapter in the eternal quest for spiritual meaning. Doesn't Thoreau and Eliot suggest it isn't a new issue but an older one in fashionable clothing?
    I don't attempt anything more complicated on a train journey than watch the passing scenery - no choice. I don't have the mobile gadgets - often I think I must be the only sane person around (probably a first sign of madness, I'm told).

    very enjoyable article, Mr. A. I was only interrupted once.

  6. I just read it straight through and it's a great article, Bryan; one of your best. My only distraction (and he's still there) is the very cute chipmunk hopping about on the grass outside the window.

    Anyone who writes for a living -- or anyone who does anything requiring a deeper level of thought, research, and the ability to make connections -- knows how to focus. I'm quite sure you do, too. When you wrote this piece, you weren't doing it on the train. I predict you had all your mobile devices (except a laptop) turned off. You didn't let your concentration get interrupted. You tuned out distractions.

    Of my two kids, one has learned how to do that and the other has not. The one who has (my 14 year old son), does use the Internet, but it's often to acquire knowledge. He reads novels on there, the Koran, keys to deciphering hieroglyphs, etc. He has Facebook, but doesn't spend more time there than the distracting nature of it requires. My daughter spends too much time there and has also been saying lately that she fears she's developed ADD (at the advanced age of 19).

    So perhaps it's not just the technology, but the people who use it, determining distractibility.

  7. One of your best articles Appleyard. We are 100% unaware.

    The Buddhists call the practice Mindfulness. Try Vipassana meditation.