Technology is commanding our attention in infinite, insurmountable loops. A country trip off-grid helped me escape.
For twenty-eight days this winter I lived on the grounds of an old estate down in central Virginia, next to a town called — terrifyingly — Lynchburg, making good on a residency I had been offered by the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. I had done other residencies before, and knew in order to eke out maximum productivity, internet disconnection was nonnegotiable. And so it began, the day after the election: my month without the internet.
It felt like a cop-out—like I wasn’t allowed to escape the “real world” so easily. But the quieter my mind became, and the deeper I went into my own work, the more I realized how my always-on, always-connected state had rendered me largely useless.
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” wrote Blaise Pascal. Did any of us remember how to sit quietly, alone, without a phone in hand? I certainly didn’t. By the time the curtain closed on act one of our political tragedy, if there was action to be taken, I was in no state to take it. I had long since lost control of my attention.
I want my attention back.
That was the first thought I had the morning after the election. I woke. The crushing weight of a new reality reimposed itself on my mind. And then: I want my attention back.
I walked Brooklyn. At best, everyone was funereal. At worst, in tears, inconsolable. It’s impossible to overstate just how dour the world felt at that moment (and continues to feel in more surreal and horrifying ways since).
The entire city — country? world? — had been infected by a terminal disease, the prime vector of which was memes. As I made my way to the rat-maze of Penn Station to board an eight-hour Amtrak train headed for Virginia, the faces continued to flash by and I couldn’t help but think: When was the last time any of us had control of our attentions?
In “Gravity and Grace,” Simone Weil writes, “Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love.” Then is the lack of attention the opposite? Does it presuppose fear and hate?
It had been a long time since my attention was mine. As the feelings of that day — of that eight-hour train ride past an America that suddenly felt very foreign — spread into the next and the next, I tried to think back to when my attention was something I could manipulate confidently. I couldn’t remember.
Was it pre-Snapchat or Instagram Stories? Before everything was filtered through a real-time performance? Pre-vlogs? Before palatable young white guys who say “bruh” with alarming frequency spun daily monologues into Sony HD cams for audiences of millions? Before every meal and outfit had to be posed, captured, and #tagged. Or pre-Grinder and pre-Tinder? When fantasies born on the crucible of YouPorn (or is it PornHub?) weren’t so easy to make real, nightly?
Was I being too hard on technology? Were we all? Technology is such an easy scapegoat. But it feels so right to point our fingers — It must have been the fake news. It must have been Facebook. It must have been Twitter. It must have been Reddit forums.
It was none of these things. It was all of these things. Whatever it was, it robbed us of our attention and, with that, our compassion. But the network never meant to harm us. Hell, it was made by a gaggle of geeks in rooms without windows in the suburbs of Geneva. That’s either the most endearing image, or the most creepy.
Regardless, down in Virginia, on a repurposed plantation: I want my attention back. The thought wouldn’t let go.
Continue reading at the source, Backchannel.