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 nicely executed short story that 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.