One neednt believe in miracles to experience them. But one must be present for them Jonathan Safran Foer Photograph: Emily Berl/ Getty Images Portrait
Psychologists who examine empathy and compassion are finding that, unlike our almost instantaneous responses to physical pain, it takes time for the brain to see the psychological and moral dimensions of a situation. Simply put, the more distracted we become, and the more emphasis we place on speed at the cost of depth redefining text from what fills the hundreds of pages of a fiction, to a line of words and emoticons on a phones screen the less likely and able we are to care. Thats not even a statement about the relative worth of the contents of a fiction and a text, only about the time we spend with each.
We know that texting while driving is more dangerous than driving drunk. You wont risk killing anyone if you use your phone while eating a snack, or having a dialogue, or waiting on a bench, which means you will allow yourself to be distracted. Everyone wants his parents, or friends, or partners undivided attention even if many of us , especially children, are get are applied to far less. Simone Weil wrote that attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity. By this definition, our relationships to the world, and to one another, and to ourselves, are becoming increasingly miserly.
Novels demand many things of readers, but the most obvious is attention. I can do any number of other activities while watching a TV reveal or listening to music, and I can carry on a conversation with a friend while at an art gallery, but reading a novel demands putting everything else aside. To read a book is to devote oneself to the book. Novels always trafficking in human empathy, always bringing the other closer, always ask us to transcend our perspectives, but isnt that attention, itself, a generous act? Generous toward ourselves?
My father was not present for his childrens births it was customary, then, for men to be in the waiting room. I witnessed my sons being born. My experience was richer, deeper, more memorable and fulfilling than my fathers. Being physically present allowed me to be emotionally present.
We think of technologies as wielders of information and manipulators of matter. Google, we all know, is in the business as they put it of organising and making accessible the worlds info. Other technologies are more earthy the car propels us over land at speeds our legs cannot reach, and the bomb allows us to kill many adversaries in ways our bare hands cannot.
But technologies are not only effective at attaining or thwarting the aims of those who encounter them, but are affective. Technology is not strictly technological. I love you the same I love you issuing from the same person with the same honesty and depth will resonate differently over the phone than in a handwritten letter, than in a text message. The tone and rhythm of voice craft the words, as does the texture and colour of stationery, as does the glowing typeface of the text chosen by our mobile phone manufacturer. We love our Macs more than our PCs because Apple was more interested in harnessing and inflecting the affective resonances of its technology and in restricting a smaller coterie of upper-class to guard and guide these affects so as to create a distinctive ecosystem. We find ourselves played with smartphones in a manner that is we never did with the functional handle of a traditional landline phone because, whereas the first telephone devised by engineers supposing in functional terms, the phones in our pockets nowadays are always built in dialogue with marketers who have carefully noted how colour and curve, brightness and texture, heft and size make us feel.
We consumers forget that technology always plugs into and creates certain affects, the building blocks of emotions, as well as full-blown emotional experiences. We forget this, but successful companies do not. They remember and profit staggeringly. We forget at the expense of who we are.
Most of our communication technologies began as substitutes for an impossible activity. We couldnt always watch one another face to face, so the phone made it possible to keep in touch at a distance. One is not always home, so the answering machine made a message possible without the person or persons being near their phone. Online communication originated as a substitute for telephonic communication, which was considered, for whatever reasons, too burdensome or inconvenient. And then texting, which facilitated yet faster and more mobile messaging. These inventions were not created to be improvements on face-to-face communication, but a declension of acceptable, if lessened, substitutes for it.
But then a funny thing happened: we began to opt the diminished replaces. Its easier to make a phone call than to stimulate the effort to see someone in person. Leaving a message on someones machine is easier than having a phone conversation you can say what you need to say without a answer; its easier to check in without becoming entangled. So we began calling when we knew no one would pick up. Shooting off an email is easier still, because one can further conceal behind the is a lack of vocal intonation, and of course theres no chance of accidentally catching person. With texting, the high expectations for articulateness is further reduced, and the other shell is offered to hide in. Each step forward has constructed it easier simply a little to avoid the emotional work of being present, to convey datum rather than humanity.
The problem with accepting with preferring lessened replaces is that, over day, we too become diminished replaces. People who become used to saying little become used to feeling little. Or simply feeling whats been designed and sold to us to feel.
The novel has never stood in such stark opposition to the culture that surrounds it. A book is the opposite of Facebook: it requires us to be less connected. It is the opposite of Google: not only inefficient, but at its best, useless. Screens offer a apparently endless supply of information, but the true value of the page is not what it allows us to know, but how it allows us to be known.
Like so many people I know, Ive been concerned that telephones and the internet have, in subtle ways, attained life less rich, provided bright pleasures at the expense of deep ones, have distracted me, made concentration more difficult, led me to be elsewhere far too often. Ive received myself checking email while giving my children a bath, jumping over to the internet when a sentence or notion doesnt gone effortlessly in my write, searching for tint on a beautiful springtime day so I can see the screen of my phone. Have you?
Have you found yourself putting loved ones on hold so you could click over to a call from an unidentified number? Have you found yourself conflating aloneness with loneliness? Have you find your relationship to distraction reversing: what was once a annoyance is now attempted?
Do you want to click over to the other call, want to have an email to have to respond to, want even crave the ping of an incoming, inconsequential message?
Isnt it possible that technology, in the forms in which it has entered our everyday lives, has decreased us? And isnt it possible that its getting worse? Almost all new technology causes alarm in its early days, and humen generally adapt to it. So perhaps no resistance is necessary. But if it were, where would it come from, and what would it look like?
With each generation, it becomes harder to imagine a future that resembles the present. My grandparents hoped I would have a better life than they did: free of war and starvation, comfortably situated in a place that felt like home. But what futures would I dismiss out of hand for my grandchildren? That their clothes will be fabricated every morning on 3D printers? That they will communicate without speaking or moving? Merely someone with no imagination, and no anchor in reality, would deny the possibility that they will live forever. Its possible that many reading these terms will never die.
Lets assume, though, that we all have a defined number of days to indent the world with our faiths, to find and generate the beauty that merely a finite existence allows for, to wrestle with the question of purpose and wrestle with our answers. We often use technology to save period, but increasingly, it either takes the saved time along with it, or builds the saved period less present, intimate and rich. I worry that the closer the world gets to our fingertips, the further it gets from our hearts. Its not an either/ or situation being anti-technology is perhaps the only thing more foolish than being unquestioningly pro-technology but a question of balance that our lives hang upon.
One day, nanomachines will see weaknesses in our hearts long before any symptoms would bring us to a doctor. And other nanomachines will repair our hearts without our feeling any pain, losing any time or spending any fund. But it will only feel like a miracle if we are still capable of feeling miracles which is to say, if our hearts are worth saving.
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