"Attention," a voice began to call, and it was as though an oboe had suddenly become articulate. "Attention," it repeated in the same high, nasal monotone. "Attention."
One of my most favorite scenes in Western Lit is when Will Farnaby comes to after being shipwrecked on Aldous Huxley's Island. As Will regains consciousness, he hears voices calling "Attention! Attention!" "Here and now, boys, here and now.", shortly discovering that the voices are trained mynah birds freed by an old rajah to remind the Island dwellers to stay present and pay attention.
"But why did they teach him those things? Why 'Attention'? Why 'Here
"Well ..." She searched for the right words in which to explain the self-evident to this strange imbecile. "That's what you always forget, isn't it? I mean, you forget to pay attention to what's happening. And that's the same as not being here and now."
One of the major reasons that I draw and teach drawing is that it helps me, and others, to practice being present.
You may remember an amusing Harvard study from a couple of decades back describing Inattentional Blindness. In a nutshell, this phenomenon describes what happens when we are so distracted by our thoughts that we miss out on obviously noticeable facts presented before our very eyes and was identified years before Blackberries hit the market.
Even though I've read, watched and listened to almost all of the explanations and warnings of what smart phones do to our brains and experience, I have become addicted and distracted by the damned things, too. I am taking slow steps to address this because I hate how difficult it has become for me to read a book and to contend with a brain that behaves increasingly like a flea.
This is especially annoying after having read and taken to heart works from Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death, to Jaron Lanier's 10 Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, to Tristan Harris in The Social Dilemma, and so much more.
I was one of the last people I know to have purchased a smart phone. I put in a considerable amount of time at the MIT Media Lab, was an early blogger, and have taught online since 2011 so, obviously, I'm not a Luddite. I just found cell phone behavior to be highly annoying and the idea of carrying around a distracting device that removed people from their live environment and connections to be outright ignorant.
Then one day, I got lost. I was driving to a friend's new farm in the country, took a long wrong turn and had no idea where I was or how to find my way. The only place I could spot to pull over for directions was a dilapidated, rusting trailer at the end of a rutted, muddy drive. I did pull onto that property and was spared knocking on the door because the person living there came out to ask what I wanted. Directions. Directions that he did not know and could not give.
That's the moment I finally decided to buy an iPhone and I had one within the week. I wanted it for the GPS and emergencies. It's been a blessing and a curse and, frankly, a lot of little fun along the way. I love it. I hate it. And like any addiction, I want to use it, I don't want it to use me.
If you are suffering attention issues because, perhaps, of your smart phone, I highly recommend that you listen to Ezra Klein's interview with Johann Hari, the author of Stolen Focus: Why You Can't Pay Attention - and How to Think Deeply Again.
The podcast interview is interesting and enlightening but I've got the audiobook queued up to listen to next. Here's the New York Times review of the book from early this month. That's worth a read if you're on the fence.
I'm going for a walk now to see what I can pay attention to in the woods. Then I'm going to sit down to do a daily drawing, right after I check my phone.
"“The sensation of being alive in the early 21st century consisted of the sense that our ability to pay attention — to focus — was cracking and breaking,” writes Johann Hari in his new book, “Stolen Focus.” Later he says, “It felt like our civilization had been covered with itching powder and we spent our time twitching and twerking our minds, unable to simply give attention to things that matter.”
"Attention is the most precious resource we have — it’s the window through which we experience our lives. And for many of us, that window is fogging.
"The knee-jerk response is to blame ourselves. If our attention is waning, it’s because we’re too distractible. But if there’s a single thesis of “Stolen Focus,” it’s that we have a lot less control over our attention than we like to believe — and not just because the apps on our smartphones are cunningly designed." —Ezra Klein