Memorial Day has become meaningless for most Americans. Admit it – it’s a stretch to remember those who have died in our nation’s service. We shouldn’t, however, be too hard on Americans. They’re the product of a system designed to make paying attention darned near impossible. Inattention poses one of the most significant challenges for making sense of our modern world today. The solution is simple – but it’s a stretch.
Memorial Day was inaugurated after the Civil War during a period of dazzling technology advancements, a “communications revolution,” writes historian Daniel Walker Howe.1 We were conquering “the first enemy,” distance.2 Samuel Morse had invented the telegraph in 1849. But by the 1870s, six hundred and fifty thousand miles of wire and thirty thousand miles of submarine cable had been laid. A message could be sent from London to Bombay and back in as little as four minutes.3 Speed was everything.
But Neil Postman said these technologies came at a considerable cost best summed up by Henry David Thoreau: “We are in a great haste to construct a telegraph from Maine to Texas. But Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”4 Today, we’ve advanced from the telegraph to telephones to television to Twitter. Yet we’re being pumped with “information (at a very rapid rate) which answered no question we had asked… or leads to any meaningful action or reflection or analysis,” Postman noted.5 This breeds inattention. Right now, for example, some of you are drifting because this blog has already required more than a minute of your attention. Quite a stretch, huh?
That’s exactly what you ought to feel. Attention comes from the Latin words ad and tendere, meaning to “stretch toward,” implying effort and intention.6 It is “deep, sustained, perceptive attention” that forms “the building block of intimacy, wisdom, and cultural progress,” writes Maggie Jackson in her book Distracted.7 Christians have long argued for paying attention, since it is necessary to see the ought-is-can-will code embedded in reality. This code isn’t a neon billboard in Times Square; rather it’s evident in the warp and woof of life – but people have to stretch to see it. When a civilization wearies of this exercise, notes Thomas Cahill, a confidence in an order or universal code is lost, and without such anchors, people begin to return to an era of shadows and fear.8
Attention is also critical to developing our conscience, researchers are discovering.9 In order to put back the stolen cookie, you must attend to your uneasy feelings, your actions, connect them to transcendent truths, and then make the right response. Interestingly, the code and conscience make up the Judeo-Christian equation for how people flourish. Yet it only produces flourishing with people who pay attention to it, or stretch toward it.
This is how our modern technologies undermine human flourishing. There is a natural human inclination toward the shiny and the bright – whatever’s eye-catching in our environment. It’s normal. In the Judeo-Christian definition of reality, friendship with God and cultivating creation were designed to be shiny and bright. We cultivated by communicating, which is by nature an interruption of attention. Interruption initially wasn’t a problem, since up until recent times, communication was conducted through technologies that were polite – waiting until you were ready to pay attention. The posted notes on the town square. The courier coming to your door. The letter in your box.
The last two centuries have changed all that. Consider television. On average, both children and adults look away from a TV up to one hundred and fifty times an hour. Television wins by continually interrupting your attention with the shiny and the bright. “Push and pull, back and forth, television is in essence an interruption machine, the most powerful attention slicer yet invented,” writes Maggie Jackson.10 Well, maybe. Text messaging and Twitter have to be right up there. The result, however, is indisputable. When the TV is on, children ages one to three exhibit the characteristics of attention-deficit syndrome. When adults continually twitter and text, they exhibit less ability to stretch and pay attention to important yet complex truths. In fact, many “no longer accept the possibility of assembling a complete picture of reality,” writes literary critic Sven Birkerts. Now that’s a problem faith communities cannot ignore.
New technologies always promise to do something for us but never mention what they’ll undo wrote Neil Postman.11 I was reminded of what is being undone two weekends ago. I had just driven my mother from Florida to Michigan. At her summer home are stacks of family photo albums, dating back to the 1920s. You see picnics and parties and people sitting together in kitchens enjoying extended conversations – before the age of TV. They aren’t bolting to answer a text message. And there’s more eye contact. People knew how to convey a complex thought. In one picture, however, taken in 1960, the change begins. People are no longer facing one another. The TV is on. Conversation is coming to an end.
Teens describe text messaging and Twitter as more enjoyable than face-to-face visits or phone calls. “Personally, I like talking to a lot of people at a time,” a Pittsburgh-area teen told researchers. “It kind of keeps you busy. It’s kind of boring just talking to one person cause then like… you can’t talk to anyone else.”12 Bummer. Paying attention to one person or one holiday is a stretch that few Americans can make. It’s why Memorial Day has become meaningless for most. It’s also why the reality has become meaningless.
When people can no longer pay attention, they cannot see the patterns making sense of life. If they can’t pay attention long enough to see the ought-is-can-will rhythm embedded in reality, it’s unlikely the gospel of creation-fall-redemption-restoration is going to grab them. It’s a stretch. You’re probably pooped out right now for example, having just slogged your way through nine hundred and eighty-eight words. Relax, it’s a holiday! Pull out a family album and try stretching this way. Or if you’re really tuckered out, watch Barry Levinson’s Avalon and see why paying attention is darned near impossible today. Perhaps you’ll become part of the solution – but it’ll stretch you.
1 Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 5.
2 This term originated with the French historian Fernand Braudel in The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, trans. Sian Reynolds (London, UK: Fontana, 1976), p. 355.
3 Tom Standage, The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-Line Pioneers (New York, NY: Walker Publishing Company, 1998), pp. 25, 102.
4 The Bigelow Papers,” Poetical Works of James Russell Lowell, ed. Marjorie Kaufman (Boston, MA: 1978), p. 18; Henry David Thoreau, Walden intro. Norman Holmes Pearson (New York, NY: 1964), p. 42.
5 Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York, NY: Viking Penguin, 1985), pp. 68-69.
6 Oxford English Dictionary, vol. 1 (Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1989), p. 765.
7 Maggie Jackson, Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age (New York, NY, Prometheus, 2008), p. 13.
8 Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe (New York, NY: Nan A. Talese, Doubleday, 1995), p. 181.
9 As reported in Jackson, Distracted, pp. 23-24.
10 Jackson, Distracted, p. 72.
11 Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York, NY: Random House, 1993), p.5
12 Bonka Boneva et al., “Teenage Communication in the Instant Messaging Era,” in Computers, Phones, and the Internet: Domesticating Information Technology, ed. Robert Kraut, Malcolm Bryin, and Sara Kiesler (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 201-218.