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Being There June 4, 2009

Posted by The Typist in Bloggers, cryptical envelopment, New Orleans, NOLA, Toulouse Street.
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By way of Twitter, direct from the online site of New York Magazine, which I began reading on my Blackberry but finished on my desktop while a mail and file search absorbed my laptop, which never the less managed to chime and pop up ghost summaries of emails as the Blackberry pulsed to warn me of my next meeting, and topped like a cherry on a sundae with a picture pulled via Google from Flikr, comes this interesting article on what digital multitasking is doing to our minds.

I defy you (as the author does in his opening paragraphs) to read it all the way through, online, without stopping to wonder if someone has answered that email or topped your clever comment on Facebook. ——————————— Sorry, I had to stop and check the chime on my Blackberry, reserved for certain important messages. I’m back. I swear.

These are our Modern Times. We live in a world in which The Man has figured out how to speed up the virtual assembly line, and if we wish to maintain the lives we have grown accustomed to–pay the mortgage, educate the children, enjoy our few pleasures–we have no choice but to deal.

Our modern times–if we were to remake the classic film Modern Times today it would be a single, fixed shot of the eyes of Chaplin, the story told by scenes on his computer screen reflected onto the spectacles of our modern anti-hero, the only real movement would be by his eyes. Perhaps his hand would rise up to touch his Bluetooth headset or push his glasses back up his sweaty nose, but nothing more. We would tell the entire story of our modern times projected a few small pieces of glass to one man, alone, flashing by in a fragmentary mosaic. (Cue score of Koyaanisqatsi.)

Pistolette , who found this article, is rightly concerned with how this is all impacting us. I have not gone fully offline in a long time, but I used to envy a woman I shared an office with once who would take a week off every summer and go to a secluded cabin sans husband and children with a big stack of books. That seems idyllic to me.

I don’t worry too much about how all of this obsessive multi-tasking and media overload is impacting me. I work with a scattered team at work and having a rich set of channels to manage that life–email, instant messaging, wireless phones–seems to help enormously. It does require that I shut down some channels when I really need to focus. I moan that the firewall blocks Facebook and Twitter but its probably for the best.

I feel scatterbrained lately but that has much more to do with stress unrelated to my online life. Most people in New Orleans seem more scattered than people elsewhere, but living here where It’s After the End of the World seems to have that effect on people. It is not caused by a rich digital life but by the stress on the streets, in our daily life, not precisely post-traumatic because the emergency never seems to completely end.

In this one central piece of my wired life on Toulouse Street, the serendipity of the moment often informs what I write, and that is why this one paragraph in the long article jumped out at me. Read it and judge for yourself, but I think I will continue to both walk the streets of my city as well as wander the virtual channels of the Internet, drinking it all in and waiting for the intuitive flash of that bright moment in which we know our doom.

The prophets of total attentional meltdown sometimes invoke, as an example of the great culture we’re going to lose as we succumb to e-thinking, the canonical French juggernaut Marcel Proust. And indeed, at seven volumes, several thousand pages, and 1.5 million words, À la Recherche du Temps Perdu is in many ways the anti-Twitter. (It would take, by the way, exactly 68,636 tweets to reproduce.) It’s important to remember, however, that the most famous moment in all of Proust, the moment that launches the entire monumental project, is a moment of pure distraction: when the narrator, Marcel, eats a spoonful of tea-soaked madeleine and finds himself instantly transported back to the world of his childhood. Proust makes it clear that conscious focus could never have yielded such profound magic: Marcel has to abandon the constraints of what he calls “voluntary memory”—the kind of narrow, purpose-driven attention that Adderall, say, might have allowed him to harness—in order to get to the deeper truths available only by distraction. That famous cookie is a kind of hyperlink: a little blip that launches an associative cascade of a million other subjects. This sort of free-associative wandering is essential to the creative process; one moment of judicious unmindfulness can inspire thousands of hours of mindfulness.

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