News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: Driven to Distraction (1)

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Driven to Distraction (1)

What does it mean to be distracted? Are we as Americans more distracted than people from other countries or perhaps than others in different times and places? What does it mean if we are distracted?

On a recent radio show I heard someone talk about Americans being distracted. The person making these remarks appeared somewhat skeptical of the view that Americans are distracted--voiced perhaps by pundits and other intellectuals of the public sphere.

The speaker seemed to want to counter an assumed view that Americans are becoming more distracted in their daily lives. What remained unquestioned in the speaker's talk was what it means to be distracted.

Note the passive voice construction already used here. The view under discussion assumes that something or other is distracting us, distracting you, me, from what is or should be the most important thing in life perhaps. That is, we are the passive victims of forces or apparatuses that divert or move our proper focus from a proper goal or objective. And, of course, we all know what that most important thing is, right?

What is doing the distracting? Certainly, again, the assumption--the unspoken answer ("You must get it don't you see, or you will be deemed illiterate, dumb, or just plain stupid, don't you see?") is that modern culture, especially the variety of entertainment venues, distracts me. I am pictured here as a passive imbiber of stuff out there that is meant to grab my attention. This stuff includes everything from TV to the Internet to various other media. It is meant to make me look at it, take note of it, and perhaps understand it.

Leaving aside numerous assumptions about a passive viewer somehow influenced unconsciously by outside sources, one thing that demands immediate question might be: what would prove that I am distracted or not? or that the majority or even a minority of the public is distracted?

And what does it mean to be distracted? In its apparently most obvious sense, distraction is where I am diverted from looking at something I need to be looking at and instead look at something else. My attention is drawn for whatever reason to something else than what I should focus on.

The analogy to seeing is obvious here. I say obvious but it also seems right to say that it could be otherwise. The image of the seeing eye--the eye that sees all seems right in our culture that focuses on the image. But the mind is not an all-seeing eye, or at least it does not seem that is anything else but a metaphor, right?

Given the vast resources to flood our environment with images and sensory input meant for the sense of sight, it is perhaps inevitable that when we describe being distracted we use the analogy with sight. So--this line of thought goes--when I am distracted in my thoughts I am thinking or pondering a thought or idea when I should be focused or concentrating on another, more important thought. I should be looking elsewhere, concentrating on a single point or visual image that will by pointing me in the right direction. It might even be that I should be seeing the picture--like a movie or maybe a painting of what it is that the world should be or look like.

This last remark seems very interesting. I could go in several directions here, but I want to get at this picture of a picture, so to speak. I say picture of a picture because the thought that we should see reality as a film or picture is itself a picture of what supposedly should or should not be. I feel as though I am looking into one of those pictures that depicts a mirror reflecting a mirror reflecting a mirror and so on to infinity.

What I want to question is whether the image of an image is indeed inevitable--that is, is it somehow a fact about thought and the way we think and see reality really all about seeing images and pictures inside pictures?

And I still want to look at what it might mean to be distracted--what that might mean, whether it matters, and the perhaps many different ways it could matter.

And, of course, the question remains: are we distracted?

Driven to distraction (2)

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