Michael A. Stusser on the dangers of a wildly overstimulated brain in our modern culture of constant media consumption.
A few weeks ago a friend of mine sent me one of those smartypants TED videos featuring some brainiac who babbles over a slide show for eighteen minutes or less on how he or she is more accomplished in a field of expertise than I’ll ever be. Case in point: Louie Schwartzberg. Lou is an award-winning cinematographer who has spent the last thirty years shooting time-lapse photography in rain forests all over the world. The clips in his presentation were breathtaking. You know the scene: dewdrops slide down flower petals in the mist, monarch butterflies softly land on mossy pads, and the sunlight glimmers through the clouds floating past the canopy overhead, completing the circle of life.
After viewing this slo-mo masterpiece, did I contemplate for a moment the stunning splendor of science? Did I join Earth First! and begin to defend our precious and limited resources? Did I make a pledge to kick-start my own artistic acumen and bring it to the ignorant masses? No. Instead, I closed the YouTube window, saw a red circle with the number four on my inbox, clicked that icon, and moved on to the next thing. The impulse running through my wildly overstimulated brain was simply, “What’s next?”
This Louie character had wallowed in a muddy Peruvian bog for three decades to bring me closer to God or creation or nature or enlightenment, and I had left his vision behind for a cat video. And not Cat Stevens, either. (That would have almost justified the jump…) A blind cat flailing at a hair dryer. What’s NEXT? How ’bout a straitjacket?
Today’s Tweeting, Yelping, Flickring, Foursquaring, TripAdvising mentality generates such a carnivorous hunger for stimulation and instant gratification that, no matter how much storytelling, love, humor, philosophy, music, contemplative content, 3-D imagery, or wisdom we shove into our systems, it still leaves us wanting.
Posts and links and apps and texts—ew—and memes and mashups and tweets and tags and viral vids and blogs—eww—and pics and FAILs and eVites—ewww—are flying at us so fast we no longer give them the due respect they might very well deserve. It’s been called Digital Distraction or Modern Multitasking Madness, but a better moniker might be Frenzied Facebooking Feed Fragmentation. It’s one thing to get momentarily distracted from your tea leaves by a hummingbird at the window. Angry Birds on your lap while driving the minivan and perusing your network posts is a far more dangerous endeavor.
Our perennial Googling is like an insane speed round in the game show of existence. “Tammy, for a grand prize of one billion dollars, tell me the first thing that pops into your head, and relate that thing to five other completely random things—and you win!” There’s nothing wrong with instant access to entire volumes of work. It’s very cool, in fact, that the entire Library of Congress is at our fingertips. But just because you can download War and Peace onto your Kindle in four seconds doesn’t mean you should only spend five minutes reading it. We need to stretch—to explore deep concepts, as well as kitty porn. Yet not only do we demand instant access, we also insist that every resulting experience be three minutes or less.
Forget listening to Martin Luther King’s entire “I Have a Dream” speech. We’ve got no time for that! Luckily, we can just fast-forward to the twenty-two-minute mark where MLK says the famous catchphrase. And speaking of famous heroes reduced to soundbites, the History Channel has compiled mini-clips from the twenty-five best biography movies ever. Who is not going to waste five and a half minutes on that?
Sadly, our smartphones, laptops, and tablets have weakened our natural intelligence (and sense of direction) and, worse, left us with no stamina. My recent history lesson on the Middle East can easily be found in my search history. It began with a Google search of “Arab Spring,” then it jumped to women and the Arab Spring and to a few pictures I’m not proud of. After that it went to an amazing 9/11-conspiracy video, holiday-shopping ideas on Amazon, and the Qaddafi death video. Lesson complete! I’ve consumed and then dismissed so many links, posts, videos, and songs in the last few years that I’ve become numb to the true experience of the artist, the artistic process, or how to absorb information and knowledge into my life. Watching a DVD of the Dalai Lama’s teachings, I actually paused during his opening remarks to skip to the bonus scenes in the menu! What the hell was I looking for? A gag reel? I guess the “chapters” on enlightenment, emptiness, and compassion didn’t hold anything for me, which is exactly the point!
There’s a movement afoot to “get lost.” People are going to extreme measures just to get out of cell-tower distance and/or remove themselves from the web—taking up sailing or outermost hiking or going on NLS (No Longer Surfing) retreats. Running away from civilization seems a bit extreme when it might be easier to simply turn off your PDA for a few hours. But either way, it takes discipline—every day—to put down the iPhone and step away from the data, even for just a while. Another way into mindfulness is to absorb yourself fully in to a particular topic (i.e., single-tasking)—Sanskrit or yoga or scrapbooking or making shortbread cookies—and then, instead of moving on to the next thing, stay with the moment at hand.
Last week I interviewed a lovely singer/songwriter named Star Anna on a podcast I co-host in Seattle. Star chatted about her inspirations, her struggles, and her day job (at a doggy daycare), and then sang a few songs from her new album. That afternoon I went home, bought her album on iTunes, and cranked the thing nonstop. (The band rocks like T. P. and the Heartbreakers on steroids!) The next day I decided to support my local indie record store and got her second CD, and then I downloaded her debut album. Within three days, I’d gone through her entire body of work and, once again, paused only long enough to ask myself the question: What’s next? This young woman had spent the last decade painstakingly mining nuggets from her life, crafting songs, blistering fingers, developing a unique style of music, sleeping in crappy motels, and playing coffeehouses and dive bars to support herself. In forty-eight hours, I’d consumed her entire catalog, devoured the contents, and, still ravenous, wanted more. What’s next? How about taking five minutes to read the lyrics?
For those of you who are not geriatric (i.e., you were born after 1964), I will now regale you with a tale from 1977. There was once a very original and highly anticipated movie called Star Wars. It blew audiences away with its futuristic vision, Zen philosophy, fast action, and damn fine acting. After breaking every box office record, fans of the film (and that was pretty much everyone on the planet at the time) waited three years for the sequel. Three long years. No one demanded Tweets from the director, behind-the-scenes teasers, or videoblogs from stars on set. After The Empire Strikes Back smashed more box office records, we waited another three years for the final chapter in this epic trilogy! And it was FUN to wait! As the anticipation grew, people shared their hopes for their favorite characters, brainstormed upcoming plotlines, and rehashed all the great scenes from the previous films. Point being, patience is a virtue! Good things do come to those who wait! Nine-hundred-year-old Yoda said it best: “Control, control. You must learn control.”