Your Attention, Please

Not-so-long ago, the day began at first light and ended with nightfall.  People – Lincoln, perhaps – might stay up to read by candlelight or the glow of the hearth, but unless one had the money for many candles the day was tied to the length of the seasons.  Whale oil, kerosene, and gas lighting would eventually bring light to those who could afford it and these were soon superseded by the miracle of electric lighting.

And that didn’t get to everybody in the US until well into the 20th century.

Nevertheless, we’ve grown accustomed to a world where light is available 24/7 to those who want it.  We don’t think of it as unusual or ourselves as somehow special.

The same thing has happened with communications.  In Lincoln’s time, there was the book, the newspaper or magazine, and the arts which relied upon the human voice: theater, poetry, and rumors at the local tavern.  The tradition of an individual reading a newspaper aloud has persisted for a long time, certainly to within a very few years – if not still practiced – at Cuban cigar factories.

Of course, electricity changed all of this.  First came the telegraph, then the telephone, then the radio, then television, then computer-based communications, most recently (of course) the Internet.  We are now immersed in the possibility of communicating with someone – two-way communication, not just passive listening or watching – 24/7, for every minute of every day that we have electrical power.  Or a battery in our phones.

And yet … the human race evolved for tens of thousands of years in a world where talk was the only real form of communication.  Reading is perhaps 4,000  years old (and fluent reading remains a stumbling block for many people).

We were born to a world of quiet and we live in an age of noise.

As a result, it is our time – our time for reflection and time for concentration – that is at an ever greater premium, often buried under the opinions of televised pundits, frittered away with U-tube videos, or scattered in our ongoing, hardly ceasing, exchanges of news with an amazing number of Internet friends.  Our attention is precious.  We may, indeed, cultivate the ability to process great amounts of information, of news.

But will we ever have the quiet between nightfall and first light?  Our dreams may demand it.


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7 Responses to Your Attention, Please

  1. back40 says:

    I think that this is a just so story that neglects to consider the nearly lost abilities of urban people to read the world. The flood of information there for the reading is incomprehensible, non-existent to those who have no skill or even awareness of the information all around them. The world was never quiet, we have just lost our ability to hear much of it, or admit it to consciousness.

    When you understand that there has always been as much information available at all times as any individual could notice and process then nothing has changed in that regard. We pay attention to different parts of the information spectrum, but not more of it. If you want to indulge in some sort of nostalgia for the past then perhaps you could lament the fact that most people can no longer walk a trail and understand or even see it with any depth. The signs and runes are incomprehensible, invisible, irrelevant.

  2. librarybob1 says:

    Well, it *is* a “just so story” … but also still true in some ways. Much was lost (the quiet was indeed not so quiet if one was keyed to it — the coyotes have tales to tell, as do the owls and mice), but human communication ceased outside the home or close settlement.

    And it’s not just urban people who have forgotten how to read the world. The farmers I know may hear what it going on in their barns and investigate, but it’s a disruption from watching TV.

  3. Reed Hedges says:

    Thanks for the interesting thought Bob.

    I’ve been meaning to read this book at some point:

    From Publishers Weekly
    Starred Review. Early in this fascinating gem, Mansfield (In the Memory House) explains how time and place, “once inseparable” (as with fire and light before Edison’s electric bulb), became distinct concepts in the late 19th century when railroads created Standard Time Zones. This is the simple yet enthralling premise that forms the jumping-off point for Mansfield’s investigation into the meaning of progress. “What we want from the past is presence,” writes Mansfield. “We want the moment restored,” and a handful of chapters detail examples of bygone times: an ancient grandfather clock, hollowed and packed with generations of children’s mittens, marks time in a more profound way; a clever young man’s money-making scheme gives birth to “Continuous Vaudeville,” where shows run for 12 hours; a farmer’s almanac from 1860 reveals a time kept by season and sun (“the hour and the minute were not important,” writes Mansfield). Mansfield inspires readers to contemplate accepted definitions and measurements of commonplace, yet elusive, concepts. “Throw out your clocks,” he instructs, carve out a little time and place for yourself, and enjoy this book.

  4. back40 says:

    The issue is information. Sound is just one form. The amount of information that a human can process is always less than the amount available. The world is always noisy and one must choose a portion to give attention.

  5. librarybob1 says:

    I don’t know how much “noise” one can assume deep ancestors “decided” to block out … that seems like a romantic view of how people act. The issue might be better put as “how much is thrust upon us” rather than “how much we choose.”

  6. back40 says:

    Thrust, choose, half full, half empty. It may help to grasp the nettle by considering how much thought was given to the issue by early religious thinkers who spent a great deal of time and effort seeking to find ways to ignore the distractions of existence so that they could better contemplate the divine and/or eternal … or something. The current keening about information overload sounds much the same.

  7. librarybob1 says:

    IIRC, the stoically trained Christian contemporaries were wondering what was up with that “retreat into the desert” stuff. *Evading* temptation didn’t seem very virtuous (resisting it did).

    I don’t think it was information overload that led the son of a shepherd, Simeon Stylites, to climb onto a pillar. Fear, maybe.

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