If you can stay focused, my topic today is the various assaults on America’s declining powers of concentration. Where was I? Oh yes, according to my theory, everything in modern life is subversive of people’s ability to focus on the subject at hand. This is a huge problem.
With its relentless onslaught of diversions, we live in the United States of Now. And who among us has the mental powers to keep anything straight while information constantly streams in now? Here in America, it’s go, go, go and stop, stop, stop. Just the facts, ma’am. Can you hold? I have a call on another line. You know the score? This just in. My cell phone’s ringing. Here’s a new score. You have e-mail. Text me now. Tweet, Tweet.
That last is not a canary loose in the sentence — that would be another diversion and I am trying to hold your interest here — it is a reference to Twitter, the new curse upon us.
As if TV commercials did not break our concentration at every turn, as if we do not have to watch 60 minutes of football in three hours, as if e-mail has not become a tyrant, as if cell phones haven’t become security blankets, as if young people aren’t furiously exercising their thumbs on Blackberrys, as if these young people will not develop such outsize thumbs that the human race will come to resemble lobsters in a few generations, as if some dogs don’t now have blogs that are more popular than my blog, despite all of this, now there is Twitter.
Sorry for that last paragraph. It was a test. If you are still with me, there is hope for the world.
Where was I? Concerning the decline to our national powers of concentration, Twitter piles immediacy on top of immediacy with its "Tweets" — the short messages of no more than 140 characters that are its hallmark. But what is Twitter? According to its own Web site, "Twitter is a service for friends, family and co-workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?" Actually, I am doing nothing exciting. I am writing this column. Sometimes I scratch my nose. Other times I take a stroll and look out the window at that little patch of blue that imprisoned editorial writers call the sky.
I do not want to be disturbed at the moment and I feel no need to be hyper-connected to my friends. Chances are that they are not doing anything exciting either. They are my friends, after all, and we were attracted by our mutual regard for dullness. I certainly can’t imagine Tweeting them to find out what excitement they are likely not to be having.
I gather that this attitude makes me some sort of freak. A recent New York Times story described how various TV anchors and personalities Tweet their fans constantly with vapid if mercifully brief observations. Me, me, Tweet, Tweet.
To my mind, this is the self-absorbed and distracted society that gave us Helicopter Parents who can’t leave their kids alone morphing into Helicopter Friends who can’t leave their pals alone. If you ask me, these Tweets are about as desirable as toots.
The English poet William Wordsworth once wrote: "The world is too much with us; late and soon, /Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;/ Little we see in Nature that is ours …" And Wordsworth didn’t even have an iPhone! Ah well, it’s a free country. People can be twits. They can be distracted as they like and, in their happily unfocused state, they can latch on to political propaganda so that they won’t have to concentrate on thinking things through beyond the limit of 140 characters. Their friends have to be Tweeted, after all.
But I can’t help thinking that this seemingly benign amusement is the symptom of a bigger, more fundamental problem. Our national motto is fast becoming: "Attention Deficit Disorder — It’s Not Just for Kids Anymore." Everything in the culture is now designed to cultivate minds like butterflies that flit from one subject to another and always alight softly.
I am not even sure there’s a remedy, short of adding Ritalin to the water supply along with fluoride so that people will be able to concentrate enough to smile and show their nice teeth. I suppose we could also recruit old-school nuns to visit malls and rap the knuckles of teenagers who are not paying attention.
Where was I? Oh yes, this is how the world ends — not with a bang but a Twitter.
(Reg Henry is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. E-mail rhenry(at)post-gazette.com. For more stories visit scrippsnews.com)