Monday July 26th, 2010

Nuclear Bombs and iPhones

mushroomAndrew Seal expresses irritation at the Gary Shteyngart essay I linked to last week, in which Shteyngart bemoaned the effect of social media and other technology on his readerly attention span. Seal writes:

I think a number of American writers—New Yorkers, mostly—have either decided or come to some unspoken and maybe half-conscious consensus that the societal changes being brought about by social media are as encompassing and as threatening to the fundamentals of something which used to be called human nature as the threat of nuclear war was in the 1950s. [. . .] In both cases, what is being described as a threat is a putatively immersive environment—in the 1950s, the fear of nuclear war; today, the distraction of social media—which is pushing humanity (seemingly as a species, although in real terms the most threatened are the most advanced societies) toward a point of crisis where what has been driven into latency or rarity—in the 1950s, the “dignity of man” or, articulated in more practical terms, the feeling of agency and choice; today, attention, which is often articulated again in practical terms either as genuine connectedness with other people or the ability to read dense works of literature—might in fact become irrecoverably lost.

Later, he adds:

For what is Shteyngart saying, really? That he checks his iPhone too often? He says, “I don’t know how to read anymore. I can only read 20 or 30 words at a time before taking out my iPhone and caressing it and snuggling with it.” May I suggest that before he had an iPhone, like most readers, his mind might have wandered momentarily every “20 or 30 words”—not to an iPhone screen, of course, but to some “interior” distraction? Do iPhones and the like really produce distraction, or do they just give a single physical destination for it?

I left a comment underneath the post, but I’ve continued thinking about it and figured I would bring the issue here, in case anyone wishes to join in. On the one hand, I don’t like to pass judgment about large cultural shifts when the upshot is simply Things Used To Be Better. Partly this is because a great many things, in fact, used to be worse, and partly because I too often feel like a grumpy 86-year-old when I’m 50 years younger than that. But on the other, larger hand, I don’t think it’s just grumpiness that might cause someone to be alarmed by the potential effects of social media. There are many of those potential effects (not all of them bad, of course), but the focus for Shteyngart and Seal is attention span.

What surprises me is how quickly Seal equates interior distractions and iPhones before moving on. Shteyngart and others might sometimes overstate the peril of the human soul, but I think Seal’s post understates the nature of the shift represented by social technologies. Picture yourself sitting somewhere—and it doesn’t have to be idyllic; let’s say a crowded coffee shop in the middle of Manhattan—and you feel an “interior distraction.” The distraction originates, presumably, in some thought or subtle sensory perception of your own. (If someone, say, stepped on your foot or spilled a hot drink on you or started shouting to all the gathered customers about Jesus, that would be an external distraction.) You follow the distraction to its conclusion and return to your book or other work.

The iPhone, I hope we can agree, is an external distraction, and I think immediately of two traits that therefore make it distinct: It’s an intrusion created and controlled by someone else, rather than by your own thought process, however random that process might be; and it easily leads to other distractions. Seal doesn’t appear interested in distinguishing between internal and external distractions. (I realize his thoughts could be elaborated on to dispel this notion.) To me—and maybe this is where 36 actually is very old these days; I’m not sure of Seal’s age, but I think he’s a bit younger—distinguishing between them is crucial. And what deepens that difference is that our external distractions are now fully portable. A call on the iPhone could easily lead to an hour or several of texting or surfing the web on the same device. When Seal writes that Shteyngart’s mind might have “wandered momentarily” before iPhones, he ignores the fact that our wanderings are constant now, almost never momentary.

This does not mean that humanity is doomed. But it does mean something. To see much younger generations use their cell phones, Facebook, et al., is to see people who do have a different relationship to reading and writing. I find that hard to ignore, whatever its consequences—perhaps those consequences will end up being thoroughly beneficial, but my inner octogenarian seriously doubts that. In any case, it’s fair to say that it’s an issue worth exploring. Even Seal’s analogy—the nuclear age—gives me pause. Is it possible to say that the creation and proliferation of nuclear weapons did nothing to collective human psychology and behavior?