“Books have always been time machines, in a sense. Today, their time-machine powers are even more obvious – and even more inspiring. They can transport us to a pre-internet frame of mind.” – Michael Harris
It’s really a bit frightening how quickly the widespread use of the internet, for everything from business to education to socializing, has taken over almost everybody’s life. Even those who were reluctant to embrace it have been sucked into the vortex by more and more businesses and social contacts who expect everyone to be digitally available if we want to maintain any sort of professional or personal relationship.
I have a few friends who didn’t use the internet, or even texting, until recent months. I confess it was often difficult to stay in touch with them until they finally did cave, because it meant scheduling a phone time, or writing and mailing– imagine!– postal letters. I’m sure I must have communicated the same subtle pressure to them that I once sensed from others who wanted me to have an always-on cell phone back in the late 1990’s.
The funny thing is, I don’t feel any closer to those friends now that they finally are available digitally. It’s a bit less frustrating to reach them sometimes, but whatever time I might save in being able to reach them instantly via text or email is lost to other (usually digital) tasks. Immediacy, I’ve found, does not automatically make for a tighter bond. In fact, I would argue that in some cases it weakens it.
Here we all are, in this brave new world, and more than a few of us are starting to question how we got here and whether we took a wrong turn somewhere. Michael Harris, who is quoted above, refers in his work to our current state of “continuous partial attention,” and that phrase certainly describes the way many of my hours are spent.
But as Harris points out, books belong to an earlier era. It’s not easy to give a book only partial attention, unless it’s an audio book. Even then, unless I’m doing something truly mindless with my hands, I find myself replaying the last couple of minutes more often than I care to admit, having lost the thread amid distractions. Somewhere awhile back I started spending more time with print books, and I found it a curious combination of relaxing, absorbing, calming and stimulating all at the same time. Perhaps what I am experiencing is the (now) sadly rare occurrence of directing my full attention to one silent pursuit, not pulling myself in several directions.
Distractions have always been with us– just ask any school teacher, stay-at-home parent or busy executive. But then as now, the good old-fashioned book can whisk us away from everything, if only briefly, to another time and place– and a totally different state of mind.
Do you remember the pre-internet days? When, if you wanted to know something, you pulled out an encyclopedia or dictionary, or went to the library, or asked your father or mother? When, if you ran out of something after the stores were closed, and needed it soon, you borrowed it from a friend or neighbor instead of ordering it from Amazon? When you played board games, cards or croquet with friends, instead of online gaming with people you’ve never met face to face? When you gave to others through school, church and community groups instead of a Go Fund Me page? When your friends were people you hung around with on a regular basis in real life, and your conversations consisted of text-free spoken exchanges?
It’s a mistake, of course, to romanticize the past. The options described above were not without problems, and most of us appreciate the improved efficiency that we have learned to expect from computerized systems. Convenience and independence are valuable assets. But is it possible that we lost something valuable along the way?
The common denominator in most non-digital activity is real world contact with at least one other human. Robots, in the long run, leave much to be desired.
It’s interesting that reading, which we think of as a solitary pursuit, can re-set our brains to the not-so-long-ago world before there were microchips, when direct connection to others was woven into the fabric of daily activities. Next week’s post will be a follow up quote from Harris about that very paradox. This two-part post on the same topic, with consecutive quotes from the same author, is a first for this blog. After 1118 separate posts, I sometimes think there are very few “firsts” left here. But the two quotes from Harris seem designed to be considered together, so I decided to break my usual pattern.
Meanwhile, I invite you to join me in taking a break. Put aside the distractions and enter the time machine. Punch in any past, present or future dates you like — an author has been there before you, and will be your expert guide. If we end up in the same century, maybe I’ll see you there.