The Cost of Distraction: What Kurt Vonnegut Knew

“The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal.”

So begins the late Kurt Vonnegut’s 1961 short story, “Harrison Bergeron.” In 2009, Chandler Tuttle released a 25 minute film version of the story titled 2081, and you can watch the trailer at the end of this post.

Vonnegut goes on to describe the conditions of this equality:

They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.

This government enforced equality was achieved by imposing prosthetic technologies on those who were above average; these prosthetics, however, were designed not to enhance, but to diminish.  So, for example, ballerinas who might otherwise rise above their peers in grace, elegance and beauty,

were burdened with sashweights and bags of birdshot, and their faces were masked, so that no one, seeing a free and graceful gesture or a pretty face, would feel like something the cat drug in.

Then there were those of above average intelligence like the title character’s father, George Bergeron.

[He] had a little mental handicap radio in his ear. He was required by law to wear it at all times. It was tuned to a government transmitter. Every twenty seconds or so, the transmitter would send out some sharp noise to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains.

Whenever George began to formulate a complex idea, which often involved questioning the status quo, a sharp, piercing noise would shoot in his ear distracting him and derailing his train of thought.  Sometimes the noise was like a siren going off, other times “like somebody hitting a milk bottle with a ball peen hammer.”  Regular and incessant, the distraction overwhelmed and undermined natural intelligence.

George’s son, Harrison Bergeron possessed gifts and abilities that rendered him an especially potent threat to the regime of equality.  Because of this he was taken away and locked up by the authorities when he was fourteen.  Midway through the story, however, as George and his wife Hazel watch encumbered ballerinas dancing on television, a news bulletin interrupts the performance.  A ballerina takes over from a stuttering  announcer to read the bulletin.

“Harrison Bergeron, age fourteen,” she said in a grackle squawk, “has just escaped from jail, where he was held on suspicion of plotting to overthrow the government. He is a genius and an athlete, is under-handicapped, and should be regarded as extremely dangerous.”

Shortly thereafter, Harrison, whose debilitating prosthetics made him look “like a walking junkyard,” bursts into the building.  He effortlessly rips off the multiple “handicaps” that had been attached to his body in an unsuccessful effort to equalize his prodigious strength and ability.  He then proclaims himself emperor, declaring to the wonder-struck onlookers, “Now watch me become what I can become!”

Having been joined by a beautiful ballerina who came forward to be his empress, they dance.  They dance majestically and preternaturally breaking not only “the laws of the land,” but “the law of gravity and the laws of motion as well.”  And while they danced so high they kissed the ceiling,

Diana Moon Glampers, the Handicapper General, came into the studio with a double-barreled ten-gauge shotgun. She fired twice, and the Emperor and the Empress were dead before they hit the floor.

And just like that, equality is restored.

“Harrison Bergeron” is a tightly woven, exquisitely executed short story.  It can be read from a number of perspectives yielding insights that can be variously applied to political, economic, or cultural circumstances.  As I read it, the story shares a certain sensibility with both Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World.  It has been noted by, among others Huxley himself, that Brave New World pictures a more likely image of the future because it is not posited on a heavy-handed totalitarianism.  It is, rather, a freely embraced dystopia.  I want to suggest that, in “Harrison Bergeron,” Vonnegut offered us an Orwellian adumbration of one particular dimension of our Internet soaked world that has in fact emerged along a more Huxleyian trajectory.

Consider the manner in which the advantages of the intellectually gifted are equalized in Vonnegut’s story — distraction, regular and constant distraction.  The story provides a vivid and disturbing image of the consequences of perpetual distraction.

We’ve noted more than a few critics who have been pointing to the costly consequences of living with the perpetual distractions created by the very nature of the Internet and the ubiquity of portable tools which allow us to be always connected, always accessible.   Recently a group of neuroscientists made news by taking a trip into the Utah wilderness to disconnect long enough to appreciate the mental costs of constant connectivity and the perpetual distraction that comes with it.

In the world of 2081 imagined by Vonnegut, the distracting technology  is ruthlessly imposed by a government agency.  We, however, have more or less happily assimilated ourselves to a way of life that provides us with regular and constant distraction.  We have done so because we tend to see our tools as enhancements.  They promise, and often provide, pleasure, comfort, efficiency, and productivity.  What’s more, our distractions are not nearly so jarring as those that afflict the characters in “Harrison Bergeron”; in fact, our distractions can often be quite pleasant.

But might they also be inhibiting the development of our fullest potential?  Are we trading away certain real and important pleasures and possibilities?  Have we adopted technologies that in their democratizing power, also engender mediocrity? Do our perpetual distractions constitute a serious impairment of our cognitive abilities?  Can we learn to use our tools in a way that mitigates the costs?

These are just a few of the questions suggested by “Harrison Bergeron.”  Our future, at least in part, may hinge on the answers.

182 thoughts on “The Cost of Distraction: What Kurt Vonnegut Knew

    1. Movie ? Far as I know, the one movie based on his story ( full, at least ) was ” Slaughterhouse Five “, and it sank without a whimper, much as Vonnegut would have had it.

  1. Excellent post.
    I do chafe at the distracting tendencies of the internet. My book reviews on my blog tend to be between 1200-1500 words long – but apparently this is a self-inlicted handicap, as the cursory, distracting nature of the internet means that nobody is willing to engage with longer, more time-consuming pieces.

    Maybe this explains why nobody reads my blog.

    Or maybe it’s just rubbish.
    http://tomcatintheredroom.wordpress.com/

  2. I’ve read Kurt Vonnegut and some of his short stories really stuck with me. I missed this particular one though. Chilling – and your analogies have given me something to think about. Great post.

  3. I’ve been meaning to pick up some Vonnegut to enhance my collection, but I haven’t come across this story yet. I’m currently re-reading Brave New World, so I’m definitely in that dystopian frame of mind. What a great suggestion…

  4. Soon as I read the headline on Freshly Pressed, I knew it was about “Harrison Bergeron.” This is easily my favorite Vonnegut story, although I always thought it was less about distraction and more about political correctness — the idea that no one should be better than anyone else — but good art is always open to interpretation. The bottom line, I think, is that Vonnegut nailed it. I miss him.

    1. I agree, it naturally suggests a more political reading, but like you said, good art invites multiple interpretations and applications.

      I’m glad Vonnegut fans have so far found this to be a helpful reading.

  5. I loved this story. Great insight about distraction. I never thought about this story in that light.

    I just spent a weekend away from all technology except my son’s handheld game system and a pay phone. I came away refreshed and ready to deal with the world. I noticed that I am my most creative on long car rides.

  6. Of course I forgot about logging in and clicked on this post first, haha

    Super interesting interpretation of the story… Glad I read it in highschool, haha. It’s a scary point. I’ve seen people who can’t seem to live without referencing some app or gadget for what they should do next- where to go, what to do, and eat. It seems that it makes people less adventurous- now that we can background check everything, we stay away from the unknown. Less adventure, less first-hand discoveries? maybe…

      1. The difference between existing and living is taking risks – Margaret Mead
        Always considered her to be a contemporary of Vonnegut

  7. Insightful article. It’s interesting since I am submitting a novel to publishers right now and my agent tells me the feedback is that the beginning has to be more ACTIVE because today’s readers get distracted too easily. But instead of feeling disgruntled to others, I find this article useful to myself since the internet is the #1 reason I’m delaying the revisions that need to be done. Thanks for this thoughtful piece.

  8. You are a very talented individual. Glad I found your blog. This article was excellent. Watched the trailer — very chilling. I will now have to go look for both the story and the movie. Should I say thanks for the distraction?

    1. Thanks for the kind words. Fortunately, the story and the movie are quite short, so if they are a distraction, at least they won’t distract you for too long from more important work!

      By the way, the first mention of the story on the blog is linked to a site were you can read the whole thing.

  9. Wow- Harrison Bergeron is one of my favorite Vonnegut stories, but I never really thought about it like that. I mean- we all know the internet is distracting, but I’ve never thought about it as handicapping.

    Great post!

  10. I totally agree. I do believe everyone is sidetracked by their computers that their work at their workplace suffers, their life suffers, etc. Gladly, you are correct! I wrote a blog about it…

    evelyngarone.com

  11. Wow. Congrats on making the WP Featured Page. This was one of the best blog entries I have read this year… no hyperbole. It describes my existence almost perfectly. Kudos.

  12. It should be noted, however, that I am reading this post while I am SUPPOSED to be doing my Business Calculus homework. =)

  13. I’ve never really thought about it this way, thank you for the fresh approach.

    I think it’s a really interesting idea that what we use for “convenience” and “expediency” perhaps really only stunt our abilities. We can only go as far as our technology will allow us to go, and those boundaries are set by those who design the technologies. And, I would argue, anyone who tries to go above and beyond these limits to be someone truly amazing are usually shot down out of the sky before they cause too much of a stir. It’s about conforming, rather than excelling.

    And, I will admit, I am a huge sucker for it, too. That’s the tough part. I ENJOY all of these limits, because they make me FEEL as though I am accomplishing and achieving more than what would be possible without this technology. So, I feel ‘better’ somehow. Sadly, I’m not sure if I would know how to express myself without that technology and without those limits…

    Anyway. Interesting!

  14. In ‘Slapstick No More’ Vonnegut described a future where the Chinese had taken over the world, made themselves 3 inches tall but 3 tons heavy, abolishing gravity at certain times of the day so that everyone else was left helpless up in the air while they bustled around building cars. It could happen!

  15. Philosopher Charles Taylor from McGill University has a lot to say on this very subject of humanity being unfulfilled by the promises of modernity. Our reliance on instrumental reasoning that has developed since the so-called “Enlightenment” period has left us looking to things and processes for happiness instead of valuing human creativity and the person as a whole rather than what one can do for someone else. “Malaise of Modernity” sums up Taylor’s larger work “Sources of the Self” both of which are vital in our understanding of what it means to be human.

    1. Taylor has for some time now been a significant influence on my thinking, always just below the surface. Thanks for drawing attention to his work. I’ve not read “Malaise of Modernity,” but I’ll be sure to look it up.

  16. Fantastic post. Kurt is my favorite author, I have always enjoyed his unique views. I liked your take on this short story – I have to say that I probably agree with you. I sit at a computer all day, and I think it definetely might be mind altering…

  17. I remember reading this. And every time I bring it up I refer to the ballerinas. And no one knows what I’m talking about. So glad to know I didn’t dream it.

  18. If you think the internet is bad try watching the normal four hours of TV each and every day that most Americans do. At least on the computer we can interact and express opinions and ideas and even make money. The TV has no such powers.

  19. A wonderfully thought-provoking post. I like how you tied Vonnegut’s vision in his story with the capability of modern technology to distract us. Blogs and website can be distracting… but they can be tools of learning as well. I’ve come to think Internet in a similar way as I do with TV: there are well-written, insightful, and entertaining things out there — but you have to sort through a lot of junk to find them. I have to wonder if cell phones (talking, messaging, games, etc.) are more distracting… so many people stare down at tiny screens while the world whizzes by.

    1. True. There is definitely a good deal of quality material, the challenge is in finding it and using it in productive ways. I definitely think the cell phone is a chief component of our culture of distraction.

  20. Interesting take: I have always seen it as an extremification of “equality of outcome” as exemplified in e.g. the politics of my native Sweden in my youth. (In all fairness, I have not read the story since my teens.)

    You are quite right about distractions, however—and, at least on the Internet, many of them drive me so out of my mind that I have to take counter-measures to even be able to read a text. There are pages out there which I simply and literally cannot read because of the constant distractions through various movements—or, rather, would not be able to read, unless I used Flash- and image-blockers.

    Whether e.g. portable devices posts such a distraction, needs to post such a distraction, and whether the government has anything to do with it, there I am less certain.

    1. I think the key is to take, as you say, active counter-measures which will mitigate some of the worst habits we could form.

      And no, I don’t think the government has anything like the role Vonnegut ascribes to it in this story, it is thrown into this just as we are.

  21. Serious-minded individuals, the ones who matter, get on with important things. The remainder of the people, the ones that do not matter, spend their time with distractions. What is your problem?

      1. Aaaw shucks…
        Vonnegut in Breakfast of Champions:
        Guy asks ” what is the meaning of life ” and the reply is
        ” to be the eyes,and the ears and the conscience, of the Creator of the Universe, you fool ”
        Easy, Mr. Michael !

  22. Mediocrity by way of overstimulation. I can see it. We are so flooded with information that we barely have time to process any of it. Brilliant post.

    Gotta go check my email.

  23. Absolutely brilliant post. I agree; we’ve handicapped ourselves a bit by constantly inundating ourselves with trivial information and relying too heavily on electronic tools for relatively simple tasks. I’m reminded almost daily of this dependence on technology by people who cannot spell or do basic math without the aid of spell-check and a calculator (respectively).

  24. similar lines of thought

    easily one of the best blogs i read on wordpress

    distracted … but willingly else would be depressed coz of losing everything i made and everything i stood for

    thanx for distraction

    adding a link of this post on one of mine

    hope you would allow

    and congrats

  25. Thanks for this very thoughtful post. I read quite a quantity of Vonnegut in the ’70s, but never hear dof this story. I’ll have to go look for it.

    Meanwhile, I appreciate your ability to go from the interrupting effects of the ‘ball-peen-hammer-on-the-milk-bottle’ in the story, to the constant and now ever-present interruptions of the internet and its related services and devices, to our own brains. We can’t seem to get far away from the distractions much less the noise.

    Check out http://onesquareinch.org/ which is the efforts to establish quiet zones in national parks.

  26. A fantastic post, congratulations on a job well done. Thank you for reminding me of an eccentric genius who made me laugh out loud with his comic insights and rethink everyday platitudes he lampooned. His wit and humour accompanied my growth from boy to man. Kurt always went to and for the ‘heart’ of things. A sad loss to the planet now that he is gone.
    :)

  27. We’re all dependent. I’m dependent on hot water for my bathing. Before there was cold water. Hot seems better. It’s a comfort, but I wouldn’t die without it. Nor would I die without a cell phone. You can call these things we have distractions. They certainly can be. They aren’t always. We are connected. Perhaps tweets from the Jonas Brothers are trivial. Yet look at how they were used to organize protests in the last Iranian election. Look at what blogs have done to media. To the dissemination of information. When smart phones are everywhere information is everywhere. Education is everywhere. Imagine preloaded ipads in Africa, In Gaza. Imagine software that will take a child from multiplication tables to multivariable calculus.

    I absolutely do not agree. Harrison Bergeron is a favorite. It speaks to conformity and to political and social correctness. If you actually took the time to research the vast literature regarding the impact of “the very nature of the Internet and the ubiquity of portable tools which allow us to be always connected, always accessible,” you’d come across the rampant individualism spawned by our ownership of facebook pages, linkedin accounts, and other individual internet personas.

    You say distraction. I say a portable encyclopedia. A portable education. A virtual tree of knowledge. Please explain to me how our intellectual capacity is negatively impacted by unrestricted access to information? I think the fact that 75% of this article dedicates itself to retelling K.V.’s story is testament to the sparse nature of the end point.

    1. Ian, thanks for the comment. You’ll note that I never questioned the benefits that come to us from the technologies that tend to inculcate a certain distractedness. I’m glad that you won’t die without your cell phone. Happily, neither will I. Media can be put to good use as you note, and to trivial use or worse. There has also been good deal of attention paid to the way media shape our sensibilities, our way of thinking, perhaps even the way our brains are “wired,” regardless of the “use” to which it is put. Marhall McLuhan, Harold Innis, Walter Ong, Neil Postman, Friedrich Kittler, to name a few, have written persuasively to my mind on this point. You may have already read and engaged their arguments and found them wanting. I certainly can’t improve on them.

      I do agree that HB is geared toward more political concerns. I only suggest that it also serves as an illustration of the power of distraction. It is by constant distraction that the intellectually gifted are neutralized. I confess I don’t quite follow what I am supposed to understand if I took the time to research, etc. I’m guessing you take the “rampant individualism spawned” by the tools you list to be an unalloyed good. Frankly, I’m not so sure.

      The portable education is wonderful if it used and it in fact leads to understanding and wisdom. If so, you will not find me standing in the way.

  28. This morning I was bemoaning my tendency to click on every random link I receive instead of focusing on the important things.

    Even now I’m supposed to be printing out directions for the Treetops Adventure Park we are taking the kids to this morning.

    I am contemplating a 5 hour flight tomorrow and chafing at the fact that I won’t be online (and my battery won’t last) for the whole flight.

    And suddenly I get it why I struggle to realise my “true potential”. Too much static being beamed into my brain by the demeritocracy.

    Thank you for the insight, now if only I could focus on the implications!

  29. I think the sensational man made elements in life have gotten so big that it is addictive enough to really hook our attention very hard. People would try to remove their gadgets for month would find themselves twisting and turning, gnashing their teeth and moaning with agony. And when I was a kid in the seventies this notion of being that wacked out because of technological depravation would not have made sense to me in the least.

  30. Great post. Vonnegut is one of my heros. I have ordered everything I could get my hands on from him and not one time have I not found his work to be enjoyable. The man is an Alchemist of human thought.

  31. i remember reading that story and being incredibly moved by it – and have remembered it many times, as i watch excellence being marked down in favour of making sure everyone is equal. We should all have equal opportunity, and be equal under the law – but we are not the same.

  32. at some point, artists are or have to become de facto loners; they have to stop drinking the kool-aid, or they’ll drown, they’ll be inundated, they’ll lose their voice. turn off the cell phone. it is a rebellious act. look at salinger, van gogh. famous recluses through history. exposure is a double edged sword.

  33. “Hazel had a perfectly average intelligence, which meant she couldn’t think about anything except in short bursts.” This is how I feel a lot of the time with the endless distractions provided by the iphone, the laptop and tabbed browsing. There’s never a dull moment when every fleeting thought can be googled and followed through to it’s not-so-logical conclusion (e.g. going to look up opening hours of the local swimming pool can result in an hour-long surfing session which sees you looking up recipes for banana nut bread).
    On another note, Veonnegut’s story brings to mind the ‘tall poppy syndrome’ that has been widely noted in Australia. While it may seem like a futuristic dystopia for the high-flying and achievement-oriented United States, cutting high achievers down to size has unfortunately been a reality for a long time in Australia.
    Great read.
    http://wordfodder.wordpress.com

  34. Thanks for posting this. Growing up my dad had a bunch of Kurt’s books and I finally got around to reading them. Read Slaughterhouse 5 a couple weeks ago and am reading Galapagos right now. I had not heard of 2081, nor Harrison Bergeron. I will seek them both out.

  35. Funny, I logged on to update my own blog and found myself here….interesting. While not a big Vonnegut fan, I found your blog about this story to be most intriguing. Enough so that I may just search out a copy of it to read for myself. Thanks and congrats on being “fresh pressed”.

  36. This is a wonderful consideration and I think a fair examination of the times. I have considered this story ever since reading it in school and the society it could very well prophetically describe. Thanks for the post.

  37. There is the concept of choice to consider whether one allows distractions to dominate or to usurp the ability to focus and concentrate. Unfortunately our innate human herd-like tendency presses us to not miss out somehow by eschewing commonplace technologies which “keep us connected” and which handicap us by enmeshing us in a constraint. Those who achieve excellence in any field do so by removing themselves from that cloying and soothing technologic dependency, but do use available technologies when it supports their purpose. Choosing to distance, when distance is required, and involvement when if fulfills a need is amatter of constant and vigilant choice.
    Thanks for prodding me to think about theses things. Great post! G

  38. You write quite well. I’ve read a book that suggests the internet destroys the mind’s capability of long, deep focus.

    Everything is instant gratification.

  39. We had to read this story when I was in High School, and it always stuck with me. I had forgotten the name, so thank you for posting this!
    It’s interesting (and a little disturbing) how you pointed out that today’s society is distracting themselves to the point of not being able to think. It does seem like lately the idea of thinking for oneself has dropped by the wayside and we just retweet, share, and repost things that others came up with.

  40. I’d been attempting to respond to each of the comments, but that has gotten, well, a little distracting!

    Thanks to all of you who have been adding your insights, anecdotes, criticism, and otherwise enriching this thread.

    1. Easy, Mr. Michael,
      You let loose something that the person considered the real alter-ego of Vonnegut, Kilgore Trout, would have had the first and last word ! Jus Jokin
      Keep it up !

  41. Great post. From the invention of radio to now, it seems that the rate of distraction – or at least the availability of technology to allow distraction – has increased exponentially and there doesn’t seem to be any slowing of it. Then again, without some of that same technology, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to read your post and give the issue some thought. Hmmm.

  42. Distraction is an issue to consider when our society is bombarded by information in every corner, but I think there is another side of distraction that provides a positive impact on problem solving. When engaged in deep contemplation about solving a particular problem, one becomes entrenched in the logic of that problem and is unable to circumnavigate the issue. Often, this requires taking a break, thinking in a different way, or switching the cognitive gears, so to speak. When doing another activity, the problem is still brooding in the back of the mind, and there may be a certain part of the current “distraction” that sparks a new perspective or a new solution to the previous problem. So, in this viewpoint, there is an art to knowing how to and when to distract oneself. This idea in partly inspired by Arthur Koestler’s The Act of Creation, in which he states that discovery is the intersection of two thought matrices, or logic patters- ways of thinking about a concept. When these structures merge, new perspectives are brought to each domain.

    This theoretical inquiry into distraction does not try to give merit to the flashing “winner” advertisements at the top of web pages, but it does offer a commentary on wikepedia style browsing of information in which one topic blends to the next by way of a hyperlinked network forming an organic intellectual experience. All of this happening against the backdrop of an initial purpose of solving a problem. However, if there is no deep intellectual problem, then this maze of distractions could indeed end up wasting time and transforming humans into unproductive button clickers.

    1. Absolutely, an excellent point. I would not disagree in the least. Your comment reminds me of Deleuze’s contention that the rhizome is a better metaphor for knowledge than the tree. Connections, insights, intuitions are often created by serendipitous associations. Polanyi on the process of scientific discovery likewise resonates here, I think. For my part, I sometimes tend to think of this blog as a kind of choral space, following Greg Ulmer, in which ideas accumulate, sometimes in tension, until certain patterns begin to emerge, etc.

      The key is in your last line. The benefit of a fortuitous and generative distraction assumes a background of thought that we need to work hard to create and preserve.

      Many thanks for the thoughtful comment.

      1. Wow, this exchange between you and Nicholas really takes the cake. Like most others,I guess,I shall have to read it several times over, to make out where the tail is, and perhaps more pertinently, where the head is !
        More strength to you both…

  43. Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” predicted much of what goes on today. The seashells in the ears of Bradbury’s characters deliver a constant flow of media. Books are burned because people disagree and might fight, resulting in thoughts becoming politically corrected into sound bites. Interactive reality television with irrelevant entertainment, and ever present war are part of Bradbury’s dystopia–one where one is discouraged from ever getting upset, but people keep committing suicide. Bradbury failed in seeing the change in women and how they see themselves, but much of the rest hits home in 2010.

  44. Wonderful post and enjoyed the clip at the end. The film promises to stay true to the story. I remember reading (unfortunately, not who wrote it, sorry) a blog about how the constant distractions of email and the superficial nature of internet data was creating a learning environment where “deep reading” and “deep understanding” were being lost with a focus on superficial understanding. Basically, a loss of critical thinking skills seems imminent according to the writer. Again, Vonnegut’s prescience in “Harrison Bergeron” shows his sensitivity to modern culture. The irony of reading this on the internet is not lost on me. Thanks for the post.

  45. Always liked that story. My own take – and everyone is entitled to their particular interpretation of the work – is that Vonnegut was warning about the purposeful dumbing down of the public by politicians to better manipulate the electorate to vote against their own self-interests in favor of those of the ruling class. Applies equally in any democracy.

  46. Two of my (many) favorite quotes by Vonnegut…

    “I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center.”

    And…

    “Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae.”

    http://www.ASofM.wordpress.com

  47. Excellent post and assessment. Perhaps with insight like this floating around, an awareness of the encumbering prosthetic “distractions” our ubiquitous technology has the propensity to become can spread. Then, with hope we can be sure to channel our technology into intellectually-enhancing prosthetics that they also have the capability to be. Two cents.

  48. Entwined with distractibility at the root of the problem is our society’s growing acceptance of mediocrity, both in our work and in our relationships. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers and need to call one another to task more often for the good of all.

    Excellent post.

  49. Thank you for the post. I am glad it was featured so I could find it.

    While technology offers us many opportunities for distraction, obsession, compulsion and stupidity always find pools to play in.

    The enforcement of mediocrity is a different issue. When we realize beauty we are freed from limitations, expectations. It is always personal and intimate and shocking. I don’t mean anything spiritual or religious nevertheless it is profound and altering.

    To be distracted one needs to ask, from what are we distracting ourselves? Is there something we should be doing?

  50. Thank you for opening up the dialogue on the topic of Vonnegut’s story. Recently I heard a pundit claim, on television, that this generation of children will be the least educated. That’s one way to reinforce mediocrity. We are like little monkeys with our shiny objects.

    Excellent blog.

  51. Vonnegut was my favorite author when I was younger; I got sent home from 6th grade with a note from my teacher telling my mother that I should not be allowed to read the book I was reading, which was “Breakfast of Champions”. My mother wrote back that a 6th grader reading any book of that caliber should be encouraged, not censored. That teacher wanted to put shackles on my mind. I went on to read all of Vonnegut’s books, still have them all, 40 years later. Thank you for reminding me of “Harrison Bergeron” and for writing so finely about it.

    1. When you were younger ? No sweat. You are young today too.. More power to your Mom, posthumously or otherwise.
      Got to dust the Vonnegut books with me, 40 years on as you say, and discover what’s still with me. Cheers !

  52. Ok, I’m making it official — worry over the negative intellectual effects of the internet is now an entry on my list of emergent zeitgeists. As a high school teacher, I, perhaps, heard the rumblings sooner than many, but this concern has been popping up everywhere in the last year or so — and not without reason. I have come close to despair many times over my student’s resistance to deep thinking, analysis, synthesis, and complaints about “too many words.” However, a part of my brain suspects that this may be an age-old complaint of teachers.

    As a reader and reviewer, I have also noticed an increase in more disjointed forms of storytelling — and these trends can be found in movies as well. Although I am not suggesting that it was, necessarily, a conscious choice, what these forms have in common is that, for the writer, they help find a way around deep synthesis of the ideas. If any is going to happen, it is mostly left to the reader to construct it. In my more despairing moments, I consider this yet another sign of an impending dark age.

    HOWEVER, (and it’s a big, important however) I think we may be vastly underestimating our brains! Our neuron networks’ ability to make connections is a living demonstration of infinity — one which is up to the challenge of the internet. (Think of “global consciousness” in a slightly different, more specific way.)

    We’re in a messy transition phase, for sure, but the expansion of our access to intellectual input may provide experience more on a par with our brain’s capabilities. Who knows what global/universal insights await us once the sleeping (unused) parts of our brains are called to service? I think it’s important not to forget that this is at least a hopeful possibility.

    An equal danger, I believe, is that the notion that constant distracting input is destroying our ability to link ideas and thus reap the joy of insight from complex ideas becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy in our culture. One post alluded to this when it mentioned that some publishers already believe only microbursts of action are saleable, and that this is shaping their publication choices — this process is the real source of mediocrity! It would be very sad if the self-fulfilled prophecy was based on a false premise!

    I could go on at length about this (the media, for example, and its instant mirroring of unexamined notions has a lot to answer for) but since I already have (gone on at length, that is)I’ll just end by saying that we need to be careful not to be too enchanted with the possibility of uploading our guilt to larger social forces or to conflate small personal resonances (I am often distracted from my original purpose by my technology, and in terms of my immediate goals, this is bad)with larger truths (this is bad for the human race and the future of knowledge) before we ask an important question — why might this not be true?

    1. Many thanks for this comment, and sorry I didn’t reply earlier. I’ve taught a good deal of high school, so I empathize with much of what you describe. Not being a neuroscientist, I can’t speak to your hopefulness about our brain’s ability to adapt and perhaps emerge out of this transition phase with new and previously unimagined capabilities, but I suspect that is the critical issue. Also, thanks for the reminder of our own agency in all of this and the important question with which you closed your very helpful comment. That is an important distinction (personal resonances/larger truths) to keep in mind when contemplating all manner of issues.

      1. I return the thanks to you for initiating an engaging conversation on this interesting subject and providing me with a focus for my thoughts on the matter, which forced me to organize them in order to communicate. A worthy distraction!

        One more post-impression :>), and returning briefly to the dark side: assuming we do manage to integrate our technology intellectually, and thus develop new hereto unknown cerebral abilities, what happens if/when the power goes out? (I keep asking myself this question, in a cultural sense, whenever the “e-book” controversy arises.)Never mind an elephant, this is the leviathan in the room! Even more than we are now, we’d be an extraordinarily vulnerable society!

        thanks again — I will follow your future blog posts with interest

  53. reading when we’re supposed to be writing, writing when we’re supposed to be reading, watching when we’re supposed to be experiencing, thinking when we’re supposed to be acting. Distracted is the new bored. Inactivity and boredom breed apathy. Apathy kills.

  54. I’m sorry to say i am too distracted to read your article could you please edit it to some bullet points, then i might be able to grasp some of your insights. Wait a minute, I’ll turn the TV off, put my smartphone on vibe and close down the FB and see if I can focus… where’s that link again?

  55. I go back and read Harrison Bergeron now and then to remind me of Why. I first read it when I was eleven or twelve and didn’t understand it, but every time I’m in that world again, for those precious few pages, I understand a little more about this world, and the virtues of inequality. And there has never been a better time to expose this sincere reality to the world of the distracted – Earth, circa 2010.

  56. There’s an incredible amount of intelligence that goes into creating modern technologies and the intellectual use that is made of all this technology.
    And all the while the people in power in our society have managed for the last 10 years to get away with the most blatant and extreme corrupt deception, which just gets ignored by this seemingly intellectually advanced society.

    Proliferation of gadgets and mental distractions are effective tools in keeping us from noticing the elephant in the room.
    Instantaneous spread of information should be the result of all this technology, but constant distracting entertainment as well as instanteous spread of misinforming propaganda outbalances that advantage.

  57. Is that why I am required to wear a bag over my head and place marbles in my mouth?
    Well…everyone seems to already know I have trouble thinking clearly and let’s not discuss my writing so I can stop using the nom de plume Billy Pilgrim.

    …”so it goes!”

  58. Excellent post! call me “conspiracy theory” but from the time we allowed television into our lives, as a culture we “dumbed-down” And now we can carry our own little “distraction” devices with us everywhere. Take time to sit and “imagine”…

  59. It’s an interesting view of the internet. I suppose it can be seen as a distraction, but I also think that it mostly depends on how you use it. If you only ever use the computer to check your Facebook or Twitter accounts, it could definitely hinder your potential. Still, at the same time, if you use the computer to keep up with the news and participate in discussions of recent issues, the internet can also help you grow as a person.

  60. You are completely wrong.
    The distraction in Harrison Bergeron is imposed by an external authority. The internet is a free and willing decision that each person makes.
    You might as well complain that marriage or parenthood or retreating to the Utah wilderness is a distraction.
    And obviously there is the irony of posting on the internet about how the internet is a distraction.
    It’s like when people complain about TV. I am so grateful to TV during my youth. I grew up in an extremely poor rural part of the USA. The only cultural outlet available was PBS, where I saw Baryshnikov and Twila Tharpe in their glorious primes. There were actual college course shown at 6:00 a.m., before I caught the bus to school.
    No, the internet is not a distraction. It’s a choice.

  61. First, thanks for introducing me to this story. I was not aware of it and feel lucky to get introduced.
    Second, the post is very intriguing. Not that I completely agree but there is something in saying that we are becoming too connected and without noticing embracing always interrupted way of life.

  62. Good essay. I think I’ll pick up Kurt Vonnegut – I’ve always like uoptian/dystopian fiction!

    Was afraid of spoilers when I was reading your post, heh!

  63. In my experience people have a natural reaction to technology and all things unatural. It seems that technology abuses us after a while because it can suck you in way too deeply. People say I can throw my TV away and will maybe, but they never do, they are hooked, their behavior becomes automatic rather than from the self, because the self gets lost eventually. People seem less neurotic and then we see someone who seems neurotic. If they only knew it, the neurotic person is often the one who has greater mental health than the one who has lost themselves in a routine of mind numbing madness!!! In our messed up state we do things we would never normally do. We allow ourselves to feel a lack of connection with others. Absolutely insane, but how many people can say they are really really liked and loved by anyone if they are being honest with themselves. So that my friend is a sad price to pay for the comfort and pleasures of electronics. Now if we could realize the potential for addiction we might diet ourselves a bit more. I find nothing more depressing than a lame coffee shop where everyone is alone on a lap top and drinking coffee which (I know I’m being negative) is also bad for you when you could be drinking tea. Coffee causes ulcers, heart burn, head aches and more. Done with my rant and I feel like renting Tron all of a sudden.

  64. Spent this summer without internet access. I realized that I had let too many potential friendships die during my time at university, due to the fact that I would add people on Facebook and then forget about them over time.

    I did this to myself, retreating into the foxhole that is modern technology during my teenage years, preferring the anonymity of the internet to real life interactions. Old habits are indeed hard to break.

    Distraction is fun but I think, like many things, people tend to take it too far.

  65. Thanks for the post.

    I read the short story when it was new. I didn’t understand then the concept that everyone must be in competition with everyone else, all the time, or that legislation was an appropriate response to perceived inequalities, or that appropriate legislation would be to reduce everyone to some arbitrarily low common denominator. THe notion of distraction as a handicap was just strange; the only time I got distracted was when I was required to do something and I wanted to do something else.

    I reread it about 25 years later, shortly after the honors program at my daughter’s school was scraped. The state legislature cut support for honors programs from the budget, in part, because they were of benefit to too few students. This reading I realized what Vonnegut was saying about the politics of “equality”. Some of the rhetoric surrounding the cuts had included the phrase “level the playing field.” “Affirmative action” was another bit of legislation in the news at the time. I applied the law of unintended consequences and could see how, from the very best of intentions, toxic circimstances ensue.

    Because of this post I read it again. At long last I comprehend what Vonnegut was saying about distraction as handicap. I’m required for work to carry a Blackberry (it vibrates,) to keep my Outlook email open (it has a popup and a chime so I’ll know I have mail,) and to be logged into an instant messenger program (it flashes _and_ chimes when someone wants me.) My work is assigned using an internet-based systemI share an office with five other prople, each with a telephone (no distinctiuon among ring tones) and most with a cell phone. For the first time in more than 20 years I’m finding myself taking work that requires more than a few minutes attention away with me; I get more done on the subway than I can manage at work.

    I don’t have a television or a cell phone at home, but I do have a computer. The first thing I do in the morning is turn it on to check the news and weather — and open an online game to send my troops out to forage for food so they won’t starve while I’m at work. The last thing I do before I go to bed is to check my personal email. It’s taken at least half an hour of reading time out of my day.

  66. Michael, I went and read ‘Harrison Bergeron’. I can’t honestly say it is a wonderful story, but it is cetainly thought-provoking. I would love to study it in an English class. (I’m slowly working on my BA, major in English). I can just imagine the kind of debate and discussion this story would generate!

  67. My take on HB was that it was rather the inverse of Atlas Shrugged — a short story in which the capabilities of the minority are suppressed by the dominance of the majority which isn’t bad because everybody loves Equality, right?

    Anyway, for what it’s worth, Vonnegut’s (full novel) Player Piano seems to me to have been a more accurate view into the dystopia we’re actively heading into. It’s an easy weekend read that will probably hit home for anybody with an Individual Contributor role as an engineer or software developer.

  68. Why not give a more thoughtful comparison of the types of distractions in Vonnegut’s story with the types of distractions in our connected culture? As it stands, this curt blog post seems to be part of the problem it vaguely hints at. Intentional or not, the post is merely retweet/like bait that will probably increase the blog’s pagerank. Even the NY Times article it fires a link at (and attempts no thoughtful analysis of), reports the indulgences of men on vacation, and lacks scientific rigor.

    1. Chris, thanks for the comment. I can’t argue with anyone who seeks more analysis and more rigor. I can only say that this is a personal blog, and not a scholarly journal. Length constraints (conventional if not physical) tend to preclude the kind of depth that has its place in journals and books. If the post was merely suggestive, that was by design. In one sense, I’m not trying to do anyone’s thinking for them. In this particular case, I sought only to suggest that a detail in the story could serve as an interesting and compelling illustration, one that I haven’t seen made elsewhere, of a problem that has been thoroughly commented on and analyzed in a variety of other places (some of which I point to in the links). Likewise with the Times story, it is just that, a newspaper story, not the scientists write up of their findings.

      Now I would be thrilled if the thread became a space for people to add to depth and analysis (as many have) and I would welcome your further comments toward that end. For example, how would you present a more thoughtful comparison of the types of distraction in the story and those we experience?

      Thanks again.

  69. This is one of the first Junior Great stories I share with my G/T students at the beginning of the year. It’s no big surprise as to how much they end up really appreciating Vonnegut’s story and empathizing with Harrison. I actually obtained a copy of “2081” via one of my regular educational resources… I guessed it would be cheesy, and unable to convey the dystopian genre: Boy, was I shocked! The video was 99% true to the story; the acting and cinematography were exceptional as well, especially Julie Hagerty as Hazel Bergeron.
    I can’t wait until the start of the next school year to share these gems with my next batch of students!

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