Shock and Fluff In The Age of Distraction

A writer’s conundrum

Tristan Harris is right. We are currently “engulfed in an arms race to the bottom of our brain stem to capture our attention.”

Think of that little timer counting down the seconds on Netflix or YouTube as you’re reaching the end of an episode. Or compare both the noise level and the speed at which scenes are switched in a modern-day documentary, with one filmed, say, before the 1990s. It’s enough to cause one vertigo and often feels like some two-bit swindler is trying to hypnotize you so he can steal your wallet.

And what about the news? now forced to shock its distracted audience with hyperbole: ‘STOCK MARKET PLUMMETS!’ ‘CARNAGE IN CAIRO!’ ‘MONSTER STORM ENGULFS GULF COAST!,’ ‘MAYHEM IN MINNEAPOLIS!’

When the news is finally delivered, it’s as anticlimactic as masturbating, even on a good day, they say.

Are people simply becoming dopamine junkies? Like porn, needing an increasingly higher dose after each hit?

This scourge has also infected the work of other writers, bloggers, and editorialists. If they wish to gain and audience they must perfect the art of screaming and stirring outrage and peddling snake oil instead of meaningful content. Moreover, they must adapt to a culture whose attention span is now shorter than a sneeze.

No one in this world has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the masses. — H.L. Mencken

As an artist who approaches his craft like a Michelin Star-winning chef, I refuse to sully my work with shock or fluff. Especially fluff! I also refuse to compress complex, meaningful ideas into fast food for the brain. Not surprisingly, my work withers mostly unread.

I come from a land of siestas, meriendas, and sobremesas… lazy naps, midafternoon grazing, and endless after-meal conversations with loved ones and friends, so have always wondered why Americans are in such a rush. It doesn’t seem like they’re getting much done. Not lately, anyway. In fact, in their frenzy, they’re not only crashing against each other but toppling everything around them, like, say, the entire planet.

It’s not enough to be busy; so are ants. The question is: what are we busy about? — Henry David Thoreau

In ‘Lazy: A Manifesto,’ Tim Kreider writes that “if you live in America in the 21st century, you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: ‘Busy!’ ‘So busy.’ ‘Crazy Busy.’ It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint. And the stock response is a kind of congratulation: ‘That’s a good problem to have,’ or ‘Better than the opposite.’

“Even children are busy now,” laments Kreider, “scheduled down to the half hour with enrichment classes, tutorials, and extracurricular activities. At the end of the day, they come home as tired as grownups, which seems not just sad but hateful. I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter. The busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness: Obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.”

Is that what it is? A sense of meaninglessness, existential dread, and emptiness? People needing distractions to avoid confronting their misery?

Wounds don’t heal in the dark and skeletons don’t simply vanish through neglect. At least not mine. In fact, they get angrier. They only way to appease them is by bringing them out of the closet and engaging them in deep, focused conversation. Which is what I try to do with my work, hoping to help others deal with the thorniest dilemmas of human existence so they can heal.

But this takes time and cannot possibly be delivered in a 5-point listicle or quick-read book. Chances are you’ve read more than one and soon forgot all the magic recipes and instant formulas. Case in point, Americans spend over 11 billion dollars per year on self-help and personal development stuff yet live in the unhappiest place in the world… wtf!?

Because it’s the land of the quick-fix and the magic pill. Where instead of wrestling with the underlying causes of despair, people numb them with drugs and distractions. It doesn’t take a genius to realize it’s not working.

One of my most read articles on Medium, for example, is ‘The Meaning of Life.’ I figured that in a country hungry for meaning, the least I could do was offer a remedy and a way forward.

Like most other forums, Medium is now compelled to post the time it will take a reader to get all the way through. God forbid it’s longer than 6 minutes because most readers will ignore it. ‘Busy!’ ‘So busy.’ ‘Crazy Busy.’ Who has more than 6 minutes to spare nowadays?

Mine is 7 minutes long (sorry), and although now read by over five hundred people, the average time devoted to the article by each person has been 1 min 5 sec. Really? Speed-reading through the meaning of life?

“A writer has power over distraction and fragmentation, said author Saul Bellow, “and out of distressing unrest — even from the edge of chaos — he can bring unity and carry us into a state of intransitive attention. People hunger for this.”

That may be the case in Europe, or in my country, Mr. Bellow, but in America — the land of the microwave, the 3-minute cake, the quick-pass, “quickie,” and life in the fast lane — people hunger for instant gratification.

A man’s constant escapism into busyness is the greatest source of his unhappiness, suggested Danish philosopher Kierkegaard, a sentiment echoed by Blaise Pascal who said that the sole cause of man’s anguish is that he does not know how to sit quietly in his room.

For the longest time, I’ve been trying to invite people to sit quietly and take time to work through the toughest afflictions of the modern world, and together, figure a way out of their despairing lives.

Alas, refusing to use shock and fluff, my tireless work goes mostly ignored and the despair never ends.


Congratulations! You made it all the way to the end and I only stole 5 minutes of your precious time.


Related Reflections:

Do You Have a Minute?

Time Out!

The Unhappiest Place in the World

 

Author: returntothetree

www.thefourthsaros.com/about

3 thoughts on “Shock and Fluff In The Age of Distraction”

  1. Years ago I was studying journalism and I remember our instructor cautioning us not to write long stories because people no longer had the time or the attention span to read through long tales. He encouraged us to hone our ability to “keep it succinct”. Twitter only allows 140 characters – which, as you point out, is symptomatic of these times. I live in Canada. I was born in rural Newfoundland where I spent my childhood. My hubby was born and raised in the Toronto area. He is very much addicted to clock watching. At any rate, I just wonder if it’s a country versus city kind of thing being as I find most people who grew up in rural areas much more relaxed than city folk. Just a thought.

    I enjoyed reading your post. It was well worth the five minutes!

    Like

    1. Firstly, you deserve a prize for endurance. Withstanding even 5 minutes of my blathering rants is not for the faint of heart.

      I strive to be as succint as possible, but refuse to consider readers as incapable of digesting anything longer than a page. Moreover, I do not see them as mindless junkies who can only digest Twinkies and Wonder Bread. While I recognize that my work, like wholesome bread, is hard to digest, I know it is more nutritious and will remain in people’s consciousness for the rest of their lives. That, at least, is my fervent hope.

      I agree with you that a rural existence serves as an antidote for frenzy, but I’m afraid the virus is spilling beyond the big city. The Western imperative of growth for the sake of growth is making everyone jump into the hamster wheel and run as fast as they can.

      Like

  2. I think you deserve a prize for not giving in to the pressure to “keep it short”. And let’s face it some topics are very troublesome and require a lot more time, if we are to treat them with any semblance of the fairness and thoroughness they deserve – which is why I dislike t.v. news with the 2 minute sound bites that’s akin to showing the very tip of the iceberg without ever disclosing the massive berg beneath it. Another thing that bugs me is the “dumbing down” of news stories. I mean, how insulting is that? Ugh!

    We all find time for the things that are important to us. For me that means reading a wide variety of sources. I love WordPress for that reason, so many interesting people with interesting things to say. It’s awesome.

    We are living in ever-changing times, and sometimes not for the better. It’s true, the rat race seems to be catching more and more people up in the quickly turning wheel. I am not a fan of that life style.

    Keep up the good work. Your post is interesting and well written. I would gladly spend much more than five minutes on your stuff – keep ’em coming!

    Like

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