Happy New Year! Now Be Quiet

“The future will present itself with unimaginable ruthlessness.” – Michelangelo Antonioni

This new year, I kicked things off by completely razor-shaving my head at the strike of midnight, updating my facebook profile pic for the first time since 2005 while simultaneously adopting the timeline, then scribbling out a jumbled mess of resolutions, one of them being to blog at least once a week in 2012, and so here I am, barely making it in time.

Ever since, I’ve been inundated: Should my blog have ‘a focus’? Should my blog use a ‘certain vernacular’? . . . Should my blog start with a predictable entry about blogging or about something random or absurd? . . . Should my blog use conventional capitalization? Should my blog integrate multimedia directly and / or indirectly and if so to what degree? Should my blog adhere to a certain font and aesthetic? . . . Should my blog interface through Blogger or WordPress or Tumblr or something else? . . . Should my blog ‘get personal’? Should my blog ‘be literary’? Should my blog ‘have self-awareness’? . . . And so on.

Such is the anxiety of influence, all these pseudo-conflicts swirling around in my (now-bald) head . . . but then a thought-provoking sequence of events silenced it all: I found myself with a couple of hours to kill in a parked car a few days ago and instinctively reached for my phone of average intelligence to check on various social feeds, etc. The first thing I encountered was an article reposted by a novelist entitled “Humans have the need to read” by Random House UK chief executive Gail Rebuck, which I took in between text message and email alerts, fully aware of the irony, on my phone.

The article riffs on some brain-scan research conducted by psychologists from Washington University who determined that “[deep] readers mentally simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative,” thus altering our mental wiring and creating new neural pathways. This is undoubtedly also true, biochemically speaking, of people watching feature-length films or playing MMORPGs or listening to concept albums and so on – any situation that prompts voluntary subordination to a storytelling structure – but there’s something unique at the heart of book-reading: they require focus, solitude, silence, and reflection, all of which are increasingly endangered mind-states. “If reading were to decline significantly, it would change the very nature of our species,” Rebuck asserts. “If we, in the future, are no longer wired for solitary reflection and creative thought, we will be diminished.” Sadly, the process is already well underway – various scientific studies are discovering a significant decrease in empathy amongst younger generations in contemporary tech-oriented western cultures.

Keith Oatley, a psychologist and author, created a microcosm of this unsettling antisocial trend through a simple experiment: he compared a group of students who read a Chekhov short story to a control group of students who read only a brief, non-literary synopsis of the same story. After measuring certain characteristics of all their personalities – like “extraversion, conscientiousness, and agreeableness” – before and afterward, he realized that “if you read fiction, what you get good at understanding is what goes on between people,” and observed that people who read acquire a greater capacity for empathy. In other words, people actually learn how to relate to other people better through the process of sustained reading.

This was enough for me to stop the pointillistic perusing of friends’ updates, turn off my phone, and open the neglected book that I received for the holidays – David Lipsky’s Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace – where I encountered, right there on the first random page I opened, pretty much a direct response to the sediments stirred up in me by the article: “I think a lot of people feel – not overwhelmed by the amount of stuff they have to do – but overwhelmed by the number of choices they have, and by the number of discrete, different things that come at them. And, since they’re part of numerous systems, also by the number of small, insistent tugs on them, from a number of different systems and directions. Whether that’s qualitatively different than the way life was for let’s say our parents or our grandparents, I’m not sure. But I sorta think so. At least in some – in terms of the way it feels on your nerve endings.” Now keep in mind DFW said this in early 1996, and then imagine what an updated version might sound like . . .

So maybe the empathy decrease in today’s youth is a nerve ending issue, so to speak . . . an issue of overstimulation: it’s all just too much, and we’re starting to short-circuit a little bit. After all, we didn’t biochemically evolve in a way that could neurally anticipate the amounts of data and information and content and noise we’re currently dealing with, but here we are, dealing with it.

And hopefully we’ll get better at dealing with it, not worse, but only time will tell. If our pharmaceutical death-rate statistics are any indicator, however, it doesn’t look good.

The important thing seems to be to start quieting the noise, to start strategically eliminating the distractions, and to start regaining a certain sense of control . . . or, as DFW put it a couple of pages later (since I continued to resist the lure of my phone) while discussing the key to his work process: “The writer is willing to cut off, cut himself off from certain stuff, and develop . . . and just, and think really hard.”

In a cross-referential and paradoxical kind of way, I guess this indirect dialogue between my facebook feed and the book I’m reading helped me realize that the more you refuse to do, the more you actually can do: focus is saying no, and then saying yes. In that order. And it’s our only way to really navigate from here on out.

Or hopefully it’s at least enough to help me push out a blog entry each week.

Either way, “technology throws up as many solutions as it does challenges,” Rebuck echoes optimistically, “and for every door it closes, another opens.” And with that, a less sinister Antonioni quote eclipses the epigraph: “It won’t be all that hard to transform us into new men better adapted to new technologies.”

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