Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The quickening

Ever since I got my 3G phone a month ago, I have not read a book cover to cover. I usually read at least a book a week, but with easy access to Facebook and my Twitter feed, with a constant barrage of articles and videos directly related to my interests, the time I usually set aside for reading is devoted to these other things. I have also been spending an inordinate amount of time looking for work and focusing more on my music. It's funny how busy I've been, considering my unemployed state. Who has time for work?!

It is fitting, then, that the first book to engage me is a critique of the fast-paced culture we live in, Ad Nauseum: A Survivor's Guide to American Consumer Culture, edited by Carrie McLaren and Jason Torchinsky. Last night, while playing with my son, listening to the Cubs-Reds game/debacle, and compulsively checking Facebook, I read the following, in an article entitled "A Slow Creeping Brain Death:"

"... [P]eople are more likely to be mindless when constantly barraged with meaningless messages designed to exploit their attention. In other words, they are more likely to be mindless in a media-and-marketing-saturated culture."

The article says that the more experiences one has, the more likely one is to classify and stereotype. For example, a person is more likely to daydream and take shortcuts to complete a task at work because the familiar environment encourages this type of act-first, think-later-if-at-all mentality. But your mind works more acutely on a vacation, hence this feeling of being more alive and in the moment, because the unfamiliarity of the environment prevents your brain from taking mental shortcuts.

Like a workplace environment, being constantly barraged by media forces the brain to filter out the meaningful from the meaningless. It's a survival mechanism. There's no way to absorb all the information that is coming in.

"As soon as humans are able to grasp the concept of advertising, they learn to discount certain messages and, eventually, to ignore them. In children this starts around second or third grade. By the time kids reach adulthood, they've mastered the art of tuning out."

This necessity to filter out a constant stream of information is changing the way we think and speak. It is dumbing us down. The article says that MTV cannot show a three and a half minute long video. It's too long. Television and newspaper news stories are getting shorter and shorter. And never being away from a media outlet makes most people feel naked and alone when they are absent.

I love music and sports as much as the next guy, but I make a daily, conscientious effort to break away from the slipstream. It's a little easier for me. I don't have cable television and only have Internet access through my phone. When I am walking outside, I never listen to headphones. I have an MP3 player that I haven't used in years. I would rather listen to bird song and other environmental sounds (like oncoming traffic).

I feel the tug of opposite urges. One side of me, the journalist/academic/consumer, craves information. My mind moves quickly and I love to take it all in and mull over facts and data. When I go to baseball games, I keep score and now, when listening to the Cubs, I follow the statistics on an gamecast. I'm a Twitter and Facebook addict fan. I love keeping up with my friends through their photos and updates, and the Twitter users I follow are aligned with topics I like, so I get lots of links to stories, web sites, apps, and, yes, advertising, that I'm interested in.

But unlike, say, the average high school student, I have a ceiling. When I've had enough, my body tells me. I get a headache. I feel a quickening of my thoughts, akin to the physical feeling I get when I fly. I don't know if anybody else ever feels this, but every time I fly, for a few moments, sometimes minutes, I get a feeling of how fast I am going, as if my body is telling me, "Hey! You're hurtling through the air at incredible speeds right now!!!"

When this non-flight quickening feeling comes on, I turn off the radio, close the laptop, shut off the phone, and close the magazine. I've been known to sit in the dark and just stare out into space, doing nothing. In these moments, I think of my childhood neighbor's dad, a Vietnam War battle-scarred veteran, who would sit almost nightly, for hours at a time, in the dark, quietly, on his front porch drinking beer.

There's an easy correlation to make with war and the modern information age. While it is not fair to compare the horror and trauma of war with advertising, the body's response to both is similar. In war, soldier's learn to shut out the horror as a coping mechanism. We do the same with advertising.

Balance is key to keeping your wits and being informed, aware, and alive in these times. I have a love of nature and exercise, and time spent running, hiking, or even just playing with my son, frees my mind to think critically and to stretch my imagination. And these media free times are an everyday component of my life. I spend at least two hours a day completely unplugged, unlike most people, who are plugged in ALL THE TIME! They are doing damage to their brains and, in my opinion, missing out on all that life has to offer. Woe to those who walk around staring at their cell phones all the time. Put your phone away and look at the world, the REAL WORLD (not the fake MTV show). Nothing is so important that it can't wait.

I need to take my own advice. That shiny new toy -- my 3G phone -- a devil-in-disguise --has contributed to my month-long absence from the involving, mind-expanding, archaic practice of reading literature. And now I'm blogging about it, the ultimate hypocrisy, throwing another pebble in the slipstream. But if you're reading this sentence, you're attention span is doing just fine. The ones who need to heed my advice, even if they started reading this, have most likely moved on to something else.

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