Staff Editorial, Week 5: Shock and awe of the mind

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Shock and awe.

It’s a military term that refers to the strategy of using overwhelming force to rapidly dominate an enemy. It should also refer to the strategy of trying to obtain and hold someone’s attention for a few minutes.

In an interview with Wired magazine, Maggie Jackson, author of ‘Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age,’ said that people switch tasks an average of every three minutes during the workday.

The implications of such a statement are staggering. As journalists we often lament the recent death sighs of traditional journalism without paying attention to the broader consequences of a hyper-distracted society.

It isn’t merely news that must be short, snappy and ultimately distilled into ultra-simplistic packets of spoon-fed information (even when that information is too complex to justify such a treatment). Our entertainment, education and even our relationships are governed and limited by our micromanaged lives.

We are witnessing the death of originality.

‘YouTube’ is a wonderful Web site, but why is it that sneezing pandas and laughing infants tend to generate more buzz than the thousands of more creative, thought-provoking videos? When any depth of thought is discouraged by time constraints, it seems as though the things that appeal to us most are those that are most superficial.

Take a look at the No. 1 movie at the box office this week, ‘He’s Just Not That Into You.’ The entire two-hour movie is devoted to one simple theme: breakups. ‘Paul Blart: Mall Cop,’ a movie about nothing more than a fat security guard, has remained in the top five since its release more than three weeks ago.

Repackaged and recycled, these ideas will continue to be exploited by the entertainment industry until people can learn to sit down and focus on something cerebral for more than an hour at a time. It can be rewarding to sit and try to wrap one’s mind around something that seems just out of reach, rather than requiring a message to pierce our skulls with the speed of a lightning bolt and the force of an atomic bomb.

Perhaps we are simply a bit out of practice.

But ‘He’s Just Not That Into You’ may have one interesting point. It glosses over the ubiquitous and impersonal use of technology for social interaction. It is disturbingly common to observe groups of people at social gatherings focused on text messaging other individuals who are not even present, a behavior that would have been considered abhorrent a short time ago.

We now have the power to send thoughts across the globe at the speed of light with a few flicks of our fingers, yet we are losing the ability to cherish thoughtful, personal moments.

Our educational system is not immune, either. Memorize facts, spit them out onto a Scantron and don’t even bother with retention. Online classes and even online universities are allowing us to fit intellectual pursuits into our busy schedules. But what are we really busy with? Simply the next diversion. Everything has a priority over everything else.

We can inherit the entire library of human knowledge from the Internet, but that would only serve to homogenize our minds. The only way we can learn to formulate original thought is by taking the time to interact with both other people and, more importantly, ourselves.

That is not to say that deriving pleasure from base, instinctual entertainment is some sort of cardinal sin, that sending a text message should be socially outlawed or that no one should take an online class to get rid of a pesky general education requirement.

The problem is our attention deficiencies are becoming severe enough to exclude everything else, like a myopia of the mind.

Hopefully, we will quickly adapt to our new technologies and learn to take time for deep thought and careful reflection. If we do not, Jackson’s predictions will come true. Our lack of creativity will throw us into a new dark age.