Distracted from distraction by distraction

The title is taken from the first of T. S. Eliot’s” Four Quartets,” Burnt Norton.  Here is a bit more context:

Neither plenitude nor vacancy.  Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
That blows before and after time,
Wind in and out of unwholesome lungs
Time before time and after.

Although these lines were first published near the middle of the last century, they unmistakably resonate with the present.  The problem of distraction facilitated and encouraged by Internet culture is among the chief targets of Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, the public reception of which has been noted in some previous posts.  The reviews keep coming in.  Todd Gitlin’s review, “The Uses of Half-True Alarms,” appeared in The New Republic on June 7th.  Gitlin is clearly hesitant to embrace Carr’s claims in their fullness, but one is left with the sense that he is largely sympathetic to Carr’s argument.

I was especially pleased to see Gitlin express the obvious rejoinder to a frequent criticism directed toward Carr and others who raise questions about our too often uncritical embrace of all things technological.   This criticism is on display, for example, in the opening paragraphs of Steven Pinker’s recent op-ed in the NY Times.  Pinker never mentions Carr or his recent book, but they are clearly in view.  In its most basic form, the criticism runs something like this:  “moral panic” (to use Pinker’s phrase) is present whenever a new technology comes on the scene, society has obviously survived those past technological developments thus the panic was misguided,  and hence we should not pay too much attention to those who are raising questions about new technologies today.

There are a number of problems with this line of reasoning, but after offering his own version of the argument, Gitlin to his credit aptly stated perhaps the most obvious one:

Carr would no doubt respond that a repeated alarm is not necessarily a false alarm, and he would be right.

In his review, Gitlin cites Eliot’s lines which Carr employs in The Shallows.  Interestingly, last night I had been reading Paul Johnson’s chapter on Eliot in his 2006 book Creators:  From Chaucer and Durer to Picasso and Disney.  With all the recent attention drawn to our lack of attention in mind, I was struck by the following passage:

Eliot always worked hard at whatever he was doing, being conscientious, and consumed with guilt if he was “lazy” (a rare state), and having moreover the priceless gift of concentrating.  He could set to work immediately, first thing in the morning, without any time-consuming preliminary fiddling or rituals.  If interrupted, he could refocus immediately and resume work.  The intensity with which he worked was almost frightening.

Eliot, as Johnson describes him, appears to be the stark antithesis of the Internet Man.  The concern of some is that men and women of Eliot’s prodigious talent and skills will be increasingly rare in a culture dominated by the habits and priorities of the Internet.  Time will tell of course.  Needless to say, men and women of that caliber are rare in any age.  Will they become extinct?  In my more hopeful moments, I think not.  Unfortunately, this minimal optimism — surely a few men and women of genius will still emerge — is another frequent line of response to Carr’s thesis.  It is not as if before the Internet most of us were reading Proust and honing our cello skills.  More likely, so the argument goes, we were wasting our time with that last invention to a spark “moral panic,” the television.  (This is, I suspect, true enough.  However, one wonders how different things would be if a prior generation had heeded warnings about that screen and its dangers.)

But here again I find the argument misguided.  Of course, all of us have never been all that we could be.  The use of this argument against Carr and the like is rather depressing.  The assumption seems to be, “No worries, we’ve always been mediocre and always will be.”  This may be true, but it is a symptom of some kind of cultural anemia that we now embrace this line of thinking in defense of our gadgets and our toys.  The question is not whether we have in the past made any better use of our time, the question is whether our tools and our social climate in general are more or less conducive to the pursuit of some kind of excellence, however halting the pursuit.  Johnson noted a certain guilt that Eliot experienced when he perceived himself to have failed to use his time well.  It is perhaps the general absence of such guilt in the Wireless Age that is most telling of our present ills.

5 thoughts on “Distracted from distraction by distraction

  1. My comment probably could be written as a response to a number of your recent posts, but with “distract-” thrice repeated in the title I thought this to be the most fitting one in particular.

    It is more the sharing of a recent experience on the topic of distraction than a direct comment on your post, but I was struck by this idea when reading Robert Frost’s “The Wood-Pile” a few days ago. My thoughts boil down to the concentration and single-mindedness of his meditation on the pile of wood versus the distraction of the one who had cut the wood and left it in neglect.


    The characteristic of focused attention is hardly unique to this poem by Frost, but I wonder how many people I know who could entertain similar thoughts. Not many I fear. I have only succeeded in being looked at or called some form of silly when I try to relate like observations to my peers.

    1. Seems now we are all, or most of us, like the one Frost describes “who lived in turning to fresh tasks.” Poetry may be an especially powerful antidote since it so often exhibits the kind of close attention you noted. We can’t all be poets, but reading poetry may help us learn to practice sustained attention when so much of our environment is now encouraging us to disperse our attention.

      Thanks for sharing that.

  2. Dear Michael,

    Thanks for this thoughtful discussion of a timely subject. Only last night I learned that even the police are now running stop lights and causing accidents, having been distracted by the computers in their cars.

    One antidote to distraction is the practice of Buddhist meditation, which not only strengthens concentration but also develops the power of choice. One learns how and where to place one’s mind. Meditative practice is not a panacea, but it can help those of us who use the Internet navigate its more dangerous pitfalls. T.S. Eliot was no stranger to Eastern meditative practices, and his image of “wind” passing in and out of “unwholesome lungs” resonates with meditative practice, which begins with awareness of the breath.

    I am adding your blog to my blogroll. Best wishes for your work.

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