The art of distraction

By Ronald M. Horvath | Feb 18, 2010

It’s probably hard for most of us to imagine the crossroads in West Rockport as a communications hub. I wouldn’t have thought so myself and yet it seems to be the case.

“Driving distracted” is the new catchphrase for driving with your mind elsewhere. Sometimes it’s a cell phone glued to the side of one’s head. I see a lot of this as I sit at the stop light at routes 90 and 17 and watch the drivers go by, some straight, some turning, and far too many with the ubiquitous gadget stuck to one ear. With their eyes usually half glazed over they’re barely conscious of being in motion and are oblivious to being carried along in a ton of steel, plastic and potential death-dealing machine. I’m sitting in normal commuter traffic. God only knows where they really are.

Distraction has become a national obsession. No one must be allowed to just sit and do nothing. Admittedly I have the radio on in the car almost constantly (and have had for years). I eat breakfast -- an apple and a bag of bite-size cereal -- in the car on the way to work every day. It’s so habitual that I don’t feel “distracted.”

But I draw the line at using my cell phone, and not because I recognize the safety hazard more acutely than anyone else. I keep my phone turned off because I have no desire to be in constant contact with anyone.

That solitude is a valuable part of my life. What kind of person needs to be endlessly informing the outside world of their activity at any given moment? Who is so absolutely self-absorbed that they have to be constantly asserting their existence by babbling on and on about the rigors of their day, reporting their every move or mood swing? Has co-dependency risen to such a level that people are afraid to be alone with themselves, even for the duration of a Maine commute?

“No phone call is worth a person’s life,” said a woman on the TV, a mother who had lost her child to a driver more interested in talking than driving. Then why do some people seem to live on their phones? Some cling to those distant connections as though their lives depended on it and therefore endanger all lives within their path. Isn’t it strange that by trying to connect with one person at a distance we disconnect from those in our more immediate circumstances. George Packer of the New Yorker wrote about techno-obsession by describing “the sight of adults walking into traffic with their eyes glued to their iPhones.”

So, what exactly is it that these constant callers, these obsessive technophiles seek? Are they simply addicted to the individual attention they get by holding on to someone else’s attention beyond any actual need? Do they measure their own self-worth by how much they can monopolize that attention?

Perhaps it’s more complicated than that, or more subconscious. Can it be that the technology that brings us so much closer in contact is really a means by which we can hold each other at a safe distance (“hold” being the pertinent word)? Is the attraction that we can interact without being in actual contact, that we can be there without really being “there”?

In a sense the virtual world has invaded our human interactions to the point of defining them. Modern technology has given us a strange new world, an interconnected world where imagination has been made manifest. We can enjoy solitude without being alone. Our virtual selves travel, meet people we will never have to actually meet, join communities that will never congregate, make contact where no real contact is ever required. We can be wired to the whole world while becoming more isolated and alone than ever before. Actual human contact has been purged of all its intimacy, warmth and terror. Welcome to “The Matrix; the early years.”

So, if all our electronic devices, by which we connect to our own individual virtual worlds, are really just purposeful distractions from the real world, then how much of the here and now do we really inhabit? Less and less I would say. With each passing year, and each new gadget, there are new passageways to the virtual world. Our bodies can travel at the speed of sound in this modern age but our minds can travel at the speed of light.

Still, there is a price. Our individual consciousness, technologically enhanced, is spread more and more thinly over an expanding existence. Our presence, or at least our presence of mind, has been subdivided into parts too weak in themselves to support the whole. Our focus is lost as the fractured pieces fly outward in the centrifuge of divided demands for our attention. We cannot see where we are going physically because there is less and less of ourselves remaining where we are.

May Sarton once wrote that loneliness is the poverty of self, but solitude is the richness of self. I know that feeling. Every so often the noise of my routine gets the better of me. When the radio has nothing to offer me, when I’ve listened to my CDs too much for comfort, when there’s nothing I want from the outside world on the way home at day’s end, I will often jab a finger at the radio’s “off” switch, bringing an abrupt end to PBS, and plunge myself into silence.

Suddenly I’m aware of the engine’s soft hum and the drone of the tires, perhaps even the buzz of snow thrown against the undercarriage or the wind against the windshield as the Element and I rush through the winter air. Suddenly I am aware of where I am and, just maybe, of who I am.

And sometimes that’s all I need.

Ronald M. Horvath lives in Camden.

 

 

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