Did I hear this term somewhere? Or did it spring from my own brain? If it did, it’s because I’m afflicted. A victim of electronic distraction. Call it addiction if you must. It may not be terminal but I wonder. How often do I resist the beeping, humming, ringing, burping sounds of my “devices,” or the new email fluttering onto my screen? I interrupt my writing or anything else I am doing. Just a quick glimpse, I tell myself, and my nervous system spills out a few endorphins as a reward.
Excitement – the hook. Excitement in the morning, excitement during a meal, excitement after midnight. My IPad, IPhone, IPod, Kindle, IMac (no product placement intended) have a promise in store all day long, to be gobbled up like popcorn. Electronic fast food. Everything fast, fast, fast. Speed and multitasking are the genies of this age of distraction. It doesn’t matter that fast is la grande illusion. One click on a link from a friend –oh, it’s one of those French cat videos on YouTube! Wait, this is hilarious. Cat doing the m√©nage? Too good to be true. What else? Cat as philosopher! Who’s behind this? A little research can’t hurt, can it? Who did the music on that? Oh, there’s Shostakovich, that bumpy little waltz that Pina Bausch used in one of her pieces: a long line of dancers swinging their butts with seductive smiles. Hm, that waltz also came up in a Netflix movie I rented a week ago – what was that movie again? No idea. Didn’t Scene4 also use it for a recent opening page? Let me look that up…
Maybe I should call myself lucky that I am only affected by a handful of devices and not (yet?) infected by the bug of video games, online poker, a new app per day, or the need to read a dozen online newspapers and news blogs to know what’s really going on. The more sources of information, the more excitement, the more an unfortunate side-effect of the drug kicks in: guilt. Lack-of-information guilt, Facebook guilt, dragging-my-email-feet guilt -- all cumulating in the worst, most damning guilt: wasting-my-time-with-electronics.
I don’t have to go paranoid with brain research here -- parents and doctors kvetching about the next generation of kids with brains quite different from theirs. Multitasking, speed-addicted, split-image, split-personality brains. Orwell is waving hello. I can’t imagine a more potent weapon to put people out of civic or social commission through brain clutter, information flooding (Google Glasses), constant entertainment, instant gratification. And instant forgetting.
Let the future worry about itself. Right now, I worry about what the electronic distraction is doing to culture, my culture. Where has it gone, the culture caf√© of the past, the intellectual center where everyone (certainly my friends) would gather to see, read, and discuss what was relevant at the moment. I remember there was a consensus, everyone reading the same authors not because they were bestsellers but because they were artistically and existentially necessary. Proust, Primo Levi, Nabokov’s Lolita, Virginia Woolf. It was unthinkable to miss out on films by Bergman, Visconti, Fellini, Godard… And even on television, everyone would rush home in time to see certain shows – Upstairs Downstairs, The Singing Detective, Smiley’s People. I think the last time I visited this caf√© the TV was tuned to The Sopranos, 6 Feet Under, Prime Suspect– before people split up into either Sex and the City or Queer as Folk and The L-Word.
Now, each one of my friends sees different movies, if they still go to the movies at all and don’t prefer to wait for the Netflix release, or sit at their computer binge-streaming TV series from the past they just discovered, years later. How do you talk about Homeland with friends who are just getting into Season I and others who are already comparing the series to its Israeli original, Prisoners of War, with 24 episodes available only on Hulu Plus or on multi-region players accepting European-format DVDs. Even our different electronic equipment divides us.
It’s even more fragmented when it comes to who reads what right now. How many of my friends read up on Hannah Arendt to discuss how deadly wrong she was about Eichmann? Who has been reading Erik Larson’s weak account of Hitler’s Berlin, In the Garden of Beasts, and could discuss the comparison with Edmund de Waal’s history of a Jewish family’s rise and fall, The Hare with Amber Eyes?
These gatherings and discussions aren’t happening or are isolated incidents of virtual simultaneity you can’t count on. If you want a moment of cultural cohesion it takes a lot of organizing. You don’t get it from FB “sharing” and “friending” and “commenting” and “liking.” Our cafeteria of the electronic age has way too many temptations, turning us into separate, more or less isolated, busy little tribes – tribes of often no more than one or two, each one with singular, odd passions. French cats, flash mobs, mangas inspired by Gertrude Stein, posting customer reviews of everything bought on Amazon, revisiting tennis legends, collecting urban legends, comparing every existing version of Vissi d’arte on YouTube. Passions that can be puzzling because who else understands the method to the madness? There’s just no time, no time to share, no time to spare because, wait, that was my IPhone chirping. A text message. Hold on.