Win Bassett passes along this terrific essay by Rebecca Solnit on how fragmented and distracted our communications technology and the habits it induces have made our experience of life. If I quoted my favorite passages, I would end up quoting the entire essay, which I cannot do. Let me just say that if you like this below, you really should read the whole thing. I kept nodding my head while reading, saying, “Yes, that’s exactly how it is.” Excerpt:

The real point about the slow food movement was often missed. It wasn’t food. It was about doing something from scratch, with pleasure, all the way through, in the old methodical way we used to do things. That didn’t merely produce better food; it produced a better relationship to materials, processes and labour, notably your own, before the spoon reached your mouth. It produced pleasure in production as well as consumption. It made whole what is broken.

Some of the young have taken up gardening and knitting and a host of other things that involve working with their hands, making things from scratch, and often doing things the old way. It is a slow everything movement in need of a manifesto that would explain what vinyl records and homemade bread have in common. We won’t overthrow corporations by knitting – but understanding the pleasures of knitting or weeding or making pickles might articulate the value of that world outside electronic chatter and distraction, and inside a more stately sense of time. (Of course, for a lot of people this impulse has been sublimated by cooking shows: watching the preparation of food that you will never taste by celebrities you will never meet, a fate that makes Tantalus’ seem rich.)

There are also places where human contact and continuity of experience hasn’t been so ruined. I visit New Orleans regularly, where the old leisurely enjoyment of mingling with strangers in the street and public venues – where music is often live and people dance to it, not just listen to it sitting down, where people sit by preference out front and greet strangers with endearments – forms a dramatic contrast with the Bay Area where contact with strangers is likely to be met (at least among the white middle class) with a puzzled and slightly pained expression that seems to say you’ve made a mistake. If you’re even heard, since earphones – they still look to me like some sort of medical equipment, an IV drip for noise – are ubiquitous, so that on college campuses, say, finding someone who can lend you an ear isn’t easy. The young are disappearing down the rabbit hole of total immersion in the networked world, and struggling to get out of it.

Getting out of it is about slowness, and about finding alternatives to the alienation that accompanies a sweater knitted by a machine in a sweatshop in a country you know nothing about, or jam made by a giant corporation that has terrible environmental and labour practices and might be tied to the death of honeybees or the poisoning of farmworkers. It’s an attempt to put the world back together again, in its materials but also its time and labour. It’s both laughably small and heroically ambitious.

I agree with this! But am I going to do anything about it in my own life? It’s hard to see that I will (he says, fatalistically). The power of this technology is all but irresistible. Not long ago, I sat at a dinner, and noticed that a younger person at our table would check her e-mail on her smart phone with some regularity. At first I assumed she must be a doctor or some sort of professional on call, but I finally figured out that no, she just dropped out of the conversation when she got bored, and sought a more interesting conversation. I thought at the time, “How unbelievably rude!” But then I thought about how I completely understood the temptation. I myself had to work hard in some group conversations, around the dinner table and otherwise, not to reach into my pocket and pull out the mobile phone just to see if something more interesting was happening somewhere else. I only stopped myself because that seemed to be an etiquette boundary I had to force myself not to cross. I notice that people 30 and under don’t have these scruples. I once observed a teenage visitor who spent the entire time at my house texting instead of talking to the rest of us gathered here.

It was incredible. But this is the way of the world now. And as someone who experiences the interruption of the flow of information as a spasm of anxiety, I am scarcely in a position to judge anybody else.

 

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