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.

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 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

 

The Role of The Artist in Times of Crisis

Of all human beings living through these trying times, it is the artist who has no right to be silent.

As a writer, I’ve been asking myself what my role must be amid the current Covid-19 pandemic. This question has become more pressing after reading this rallying cry from poet Toni Morrison:

This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.

The bravery of doctors, nurses, delivery workers, grocery store clerks, and all the other heroes who are placing themselves at great risk to tend to our needs is laying a heavy burden on my shoulders. It feels as if I were sitting on a witness stand, sometime in the future, and being asked by the next generation to give testimony of what I did to contribute to the healing.

The death sentence would be fitting if I was discovered to have done little else than write for personal gain, self-promotion, or simply hacked away to churn gobs of online fluff to increase my follower count. Prior to facing the firing squad, the torture rack would be additionally deserved were I found to have taken advantage of people’s current state of fear, uncertainty and vulnerability to drive traffic to my content by means of clickbait, deceitful promises, or sensationalist headlines.

On the other hand, working on myself right now would not only be selfish, but outright contemptible. About the only useful and honorable self-improvement task I can think of at present is figuring out what part I’ve played in the mess the world is in, and then getting to work to clean it up.

“The man who is self-absorbed in his own feelings and committed only to personal growth is not a candidate for heroism,” wrote Sam Keen in ‘Fire in the Belly.’ “Men must be full of thunder and lightning,’ he added, “not dispassionate spectators or cynics.”

Author Upton Sinclair harnessed the thunder and lightning of his talent to blow the lid off the harsh conditions and exploited lives of immigrants working in Chicago’s meat-packing industry in the early 1900s. His book, ‘The Jungle,’ was one of the first works of fiction to lead directly to national legislation that eventually created the Food and Drug Administration.

Rachel Carson refused to be a dispassionate spectator to the ravaging effects on the environment from the indiscriminate use of DDT and penned her famous book ‘Silent Spring’ that spurred the modern environmental movement and led to the establishment of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1970.

Photojournalist Jacob Ris documented life in the slums of New York City in the 1890s to expose the upper class to the squalid conditions under which their poorer neighbors lived. The Library of Congress included ‘How the Other Half Lives’ in its list of books that shaped America, noting that after its publication and public outcry over conditions among the immigrants living in tenements on the Lower East Side, sewers, plumbing, and trash collection were instated in the neighborhood.

The travails of migrants during the Great Depression chronicled by John Steinbeck in ‘Grapes of Wrath,’ ignited a movement in Congress to pass laws benefiting farm workers. When Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize in 1962, the committee specifically cited his influential novel as the reason for the award.

And that’s precisely what artists do, says Kurt Vonnegut Jr. “First, they admit they can’t straighten out the whole universe, and second, they make at least one little part of it exactly as it should be.”

“Literature has the same impact as a match lit in the middle of a field in the middle of the night. The match illuminates relatively little, but it enables us to see how much darkness surrounds it.” — William Faulkner

With so many fires raging across the world right now, it is easy for writers to default to self-doubt, despair or cynicism, thinking they are unfit for the task or that there is little their words can do to change things. I bet Sinclair, Carson, Ris, and Steinbeck felt the same at some point during their heroic journey. But they kept at it, bravely lighting their matches and exposing the darkness until they finally ignited a wildfire.

As I writer, I want to earn my place in this pantheon of master pyromaniacs; these fire-breathing, thunderous titans of art! Or at least, I hope to rise to the level of seven-year old Benjamin Ball who single-handedly, with simple words and a big heart, gave sea-turtles a fighting chance by convincing the CEO of L.L. Bean to replace plastic straws for paper at every store-café across the country. For while I doubt I’ll be confronted by future generations demanding to know what I did with my creative talent during the current crisis, I do know this: soon enough, I’ll have to confront myself with the question: “How did you help heal the world?” and I want to make damn sure I have a noble answer when that time comes.

Of all human beings living through these trying times, it is the artist who has no right to be silent.