Jack Kerouac on Television

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“…You’ll see if you take a walk some night on a suburban street and pass house after house on both sides of the street each with the lamplight of living room, shining golden, and inside the little blue square of the television, each living family riveting its attention on probably one show; nobody talking; silence in the yards; dogs barking at you because you pass on human feet instead of on wheels….Only one thing I’ll say for the people watching television, the millions and millions of the One Eye: they’re not hurting anyone while they’re sitting in front of that Eye.  But neither was Japhy…his thoughts the only thoughts not electrified to the Master Switch.”

Jack Kerouac, Dharma Bums

Keep in mind that this excerpt comes from a book published in 1958.  Is it accurate?  Excessively biting? Unnecessary?

Either way, it makes you reflect about the state of our culture, even over half a century ago.

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A State of Distraction: Getting Back to Reality

In the previous post on State of Distraction, we looked at how cell phones distract us from self-reflection.  In this post, we examine how technology distracts us from fully engaging in reality, and how this affects our quality of life.  

 Giussani writes in Religious Sense about what makes our elementary human experience.  He argues that at the core of our humanity, the core of ourselves, lies a hunger for answering the ultimate questions.  Who are we?  What is our purpose?  What is the meaning of life?  These questions burn inside us, and to live a fulfilled life, we must devote ourselves to answering them.  Living fully requires that we are engaged with all aspects of our life–engaged in all aspects of reality.  “This includes everything–love, study, politics, money, even food and rest, excluding nothing, neither friendship, nor hope, nor pardon, nor anger, nor patience.  Within every single gesture lies a step towards our own destiny.”

To sum up the previous paragraph, in order to live a full life, we must be completely engaged with the reality of life.  In more modern language, we must be fully present in everything we do.   It’s easy to lose sight of this in 21st-century life.  For one, most of us live very busy lifestyles, constantly running from one activity to another.  However, I think we can still live rich, fulfilled lives while being busy.  A more eminent problem facing us is how we have become distracted from reality.  I would like to argue that the increasing presence and vividness of technology is causing us to lose sight of reality, leading to disengaged and unsatisfying lives.

This may seem a bit extreme at first, but let’s look at some specific examples.  Compare the video games of the 1980’s with those of today.  Ms. Pac-Man and Galaga were (and still are, in my opinion) a blast, but they consist of moving a pixilated figure around a 2-dimensional, black screen.  In modern games you navigate entire worlds, playing the part of well developed characters in vivid, often violent scenarios.  Television has progressed from a few black and white channels to thousands of channels in HD, containing movies and shows of any genre possible.  Entire seasons of new shows are being released on Netflix and Hulu, enabling the habit of binging on shows for hours at a time.  (Who doesn’t love a 3-hour marathon of 30 rock!)  Lastly, phones and tablets allow complete connectedness to the internet at all times.

You may wonder why this matters, what’s inherently wrong with these things? I’m not going to say that the progression of video games and television are evil.  But think about this; how long could you spend playing pong or Pac-Man, or watching shows on a 15-inch, box TV with basic cable channels?  I can’t picture myself being entertained by these things for very long. We would enjoy them for a while, then get bored and do something else–talk to family, read a book, take a walk outside, make some tea and think about things.  In other words, we would get back to living in reality.

            

The problem with entertainment technology today is that it has become so vivid and real that we don’t get bored.   We don’t realize that we’ve been staring at a screen, watching fake characters or moving a joystick for hours.  The distractions are so powerful and convenient that we choose to be spectators of an artificial reality instead of engaging in our own.  This causes us to lead only a partial life, one that leaves us feeling empty and longing, instead of fulfilled and satisfied.  I like to come back to how I feel after a marathon Call of Duty session.  My eyes are blurry, reality is a haze, and having a conversation is difficult.  Not to mention the underlying anger at having wasted hours of my life.

How does one get past this in the 21st century?  The answer is simple, yet putting it into practice will be the greatest challenge.  We need to start being present and living all aspects of our lives with sincere interest, as Giussani said in the opening quote.  It won’t be easy. But if we do this, we may rediscover humanity in the midst of our technological age.

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To be Lost or to be Cut Off: What do we do now?

I had this older professor in school who taught history, the kind of guy that contained the entire history of his field in his head in a way that was accurate but also sentimental, filled with the humanity of the place. He told history like a story, one both beautiful and heartbreaking, and never distorted the facts for the sake of the point he was making. Education mattered to him, but he had long since rejected the technology of his day. He had no cell phone and had never checked an e-mail in his life. The pace of communication in academia had accelerated in his forty years of teaching; he calmly ignored it, and everyone around him suffered the consequences (often to hilarious effect). The tech-savvy academic dean was in a constant state of frustration with him, recognizing his many talents and wishing he would just do the bare minimum.  

I always thought that my professor’s attitude towards technology was born not out of laziness but out of a clear distrust. He knew the old ways that worked and all he saw come from cell phones and computers was a distracted and boring humanity; people face deep in the glow of fake, artificial life walking around in a daze, disconnected from the real world and each other. Why would he participate in that world?

He has a point. I remember standing on a mountain looking at the stars and being filled up by it while my friend stood next to me, busy on his phone. He might have been doing something important, I don’t know, but I do know he missed something, and maybe in some way we all are. 

 On the other hand, my professor causes all sorts of extra work for those around him because of his unwillingness to live in the digital world. He wants to truly educate his students, but I think that to be a good educator is to present the material in a way that works for the students, not just the way that worked for the teacher, which requires an engagement with some technology, be it visual or auditory. 

The predicament here is relevant for all of us that see the great good and the great danger that technology presents to us and, frankly, how we often mishandle it. The internet can inform us and unite us in ways that are unprecedented and awe inspiring. To be blunt, though, we mostly use it for mindless games of flinging animals at boxes or even more mindless videos of dancing cats or naked actresses. Can we really call years of being glued to different sized screens a life? 

To completely disconnect like my professor is just as problematic. He can get away with it because of tenure and reputation, but for the rest of us, our jobs and connectivity with our family and friends requires the phones and internet. We don’t just want it; in some ways to live in this world, we need it. 

I suppose my point is that we have to face the balancing act that this world requires of us in order to live well. We cannot let the technology of today uproot us from reality: we need to be available for those moments when beauty can amaze and wound us, for authentic friendships and real experiences. We also cannot altogether reject the technology that is presented today, for it is part of our culture and can be the way in which we learn, grow, and interact with each other. To disconnect would mean that we cut ourselves off from the rest of society that is still deeply attached to the technological world. They are still part of us and I think without them life is less full. 

At this point the best we can do is face the problem and try to figure it all out together. As Adam Wayne in The Napoleon of Notting Hill boldly shouts: “It cannot last. Something must break this strange indifference, this strange dreamy egoism, this strange loneliness of millions in a crowd. Something must break it. Why should it not be you and I?”

-BH

A State of Distraction: Patience is a (Lost) Virtue

Patience is a (Lost) Virtue

This article is part one of a series that will be looking at the ways technology distracts us, and the effects of this constant distraction.

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Try and think of the last time you had to wait for something.  Maybe it was in line at the bank, at the doctor’s office, or the classic example of waiting–The DMV.  What did you do?  Stare at people awkwardly?  Take a nap? If you are like myself and most other Americans, you probably reflexively pulled out your phone.

Cell phones, especially smart phones, are perfectly designed for distraction.  We never leave the house without them, and they offer a pocket-sized window to the world of the internet, video games, and social media.  Whenever we get a minute alone with ourselves, we have been conditioned to pull out the iPhone, check up on Facebook, email, Twitter, etc.  I don’t own a smart phone, but the impulse is no different with me; I check voice mail, my calendar, and figure out who I should text to pass the time.

Is there something evil in the desire for distraction during moments of boredom?  I don’t think so.  However, there is value in the ability to be alone with yourself, with no external distractions. This time can be used for self reflection, to think about how you are feeling, about the choices you’ve made today, about your relationships and the direction life is heading.  If we allow the cell phone reflex to take over any time we have alone with our thoughts, then we will have no time left for self reflection.

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In the trial before his execution, Socrates famously told his accusers that “the life unexamined is not worth living.”  In our context, this means to me that if I don’t take time to think critically about my life, then my quality of life will certainly suffer.  Self-examination helps us know and develop who we are, what values we have, and whether our current path in life is consistent with those values.

I’m not suggesting that we all go toss our phones into the river.  However, I am suggesting that the next time you are waiting in line, put down the phone for five or ten minutes.  Spend this time in whatever sort of self-examination and reflection you choose. This is a very achievable goal, and I think it will have a definite positive impact on the internal richness of our lives.

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On Blind Acceptance

Picture this:  You meet an old friend to catch up over coffee.  The two of you have a good friendship and keep up with each other’s work and family life.  Your friend works for a pharmaceutical company, and she excitedly tells you (off the record) about a new pill under development.  The pill enhances all aspects of the human brain, she claims.  It makes you smarter, faster, more efficient, and harder working.  They haven’t released it yet, but she happens to have some samples and wants to share with you.

What’s your next move?  Of course you feel thrilled about its effects–who wouldn’t want to benefit from an immediate boost in mental ability.  Just think of the potentials: success in the workplace, great achievements, higher income, positions of power…

So do you take it?  It may be tempting.  Or do you first ask the next logical question–what are the side effects?  Your friend tells you that they don’t know yet, it’s still too early on in the trial process to determine.

Will you take the mystery pill anyways, thinking that the benefit outweighs the risks? Or do you approach it cautiously, waiting until they complete the study and analyze the long term effects?  Being a cautious, savvy consumer, you decide that taking an unknown pill is not worth the risks, and you tell your friend to let you know how the trials turn out first.

Let’s twist the scenario a little.  Instead of going through the standard rigorous safety trials, the pharmaceutical company releases the pill as an over-the-counter supplement.  They produce millions of bottles, touting this pill as the solution to all our problems.  The bottles fly off the shelves!  Within a few months, almost every American has started using it, enjoying the many benefits.  Within a year or two it has been adopted as a standard part of our culture, and yet no safety study was conducted– no one has put in the time or money to look at its effects.

In the first story, we took a cautious approach.   A rigorous system was in place to make sure the product was safe before being released to consumers.  In the latter scenario, there was no such system.  We blindly began consuming something that we knew very little about, with complete disregard for its effects on our health and society.

The latter scenario describes how we have embraced technology in the 21st century.  Technology has revolutionized how we communicate, how we work, how we learn; very few aspects of our lives have been unaffected by it.  The purpose of this blog is not to unilaterally condemn modern technology.  It would be short-sighted to ignore the many benefits of it, the many lives that have been improved or even saved by it.  The purpose of this blog is to perform the function that safety trials provide in medicine.  We must look critically at how technology affects us.  What are its side effects?  How are our lives being changed, both positively and negatively, by these products that we are consuming?  That is our purpose here, to turn a critical eye on the 21st century technological advances that have become so prevalent in our lives.