As you begin reading these lines, I’d like you to take a moment, stop whatever else you’re doing and listen. Hear that? It’s the distinct sound of nirvana, dangling permanently out of reach.It’s no coincidence that so many religions feature the mythology of focused solitude – Jesus had his 40 days in the desert, Buddha spent seven weeks beneath the Bodhi tree, Muhammad had his annual retreat to Mount Hira, and so on – all in order to attain clarity. Truly great epiphanies, it’s always been thought, simply do not occur amid the din of endless diversion.
The good news is that since the Enlightenment, people have begun to consider philosophical arguments beyond those strictly rooted in theology, opening up vast new horizons of discussion.
The bad news is that people have gone a long way to improve upon distractions since biblical times. Buddha needed to get away from what? The sound of grinding rice? These days, one can basically watch soft-core porn driving down Interstate 275, one Coors Light billboard at a time. Zen through that.
If you’re wondering about the chances for another revolution in cultural illumination happening any time soon, here’s what an afternoon of people-watching on the USF campus will get you: an eyeful of belly buttons and a depressed, uneasy feeling about the future of contemplative thought.
The most obvious example of what I’m talking about is cell phone use: incessant, ubiquitous and annoying in a way never previously achieved. It’s like being trapped in a world where everyone is constantly sharing the most mundane details of their lives with their invisible friends.
Just note what’s being discussed in the next conversation you overhear. I guarantee it’s nothing a phone call should be made over. I’d guess about 90 percent of calls fall into one of two categories. The first is more or less about telling people where you’re at: “Hey. I’m at Cooper. Where are you? Really? I’m at Cooper. No. OK. Yeah, I’m at Cooper. Later.” True story.
The second involves all those things that no one particularly wants to hear but are inevitably shared over the worst possible connection, thus requiring shouting. “YEAH! IT’S TOTALLY INFECTED!” And so on. Please, for the love of thy neighbor, find thee a landline.
The end result of these unending conversations that interrupt every stretch of free thought is people are really never alone with their own thoughts. As mentioned before, deep reflection is not a between-calls kind of thing. Mentally, people need a chance to consider our surroundings at some length in order to develop as human beings.
It’s not that I suspect USF (and the country in general) is just chock-a-block full of untapped Nietzsches and Rousseaus – it’s just that I fear whatever lay in this generation will go undeveloped under the ever-thickening blanket of this digital morass.
The cell phone behavior, however, may actually be more of an effect than a cause. Spend 10 minutes looking around the campus gym sometime, and notice how most of the students are completely droned into the two dozen televisions mounted throughout the weight room. It’s like watching the armies of the undead getting pumped for Zombiethon ’06. The influence of television is apparent and available in most indoor spaces, and now even the portability gap has been bridged: Not only has the advent of the iPod Video made it possible to watch entire episodes of prime-time TV in any environment, I can now watch the Devil Rays lose to every team in the league on my phone.
While the Internet provides access to a boundless universe of information, the hours spent surfing its expanse simply doesn’t engage one’s brain in the same way reading the printed page does. Every skyline is punctuated with billboards and other large-scale advertisements that lack the intrinsic beauty of the nature they obscure.
The assortment of electronic media now interwoven into everyone’s lives has synergistically combined to fill every head with rushing waves of pure white noise. No wonder people are placing calls every chance they get: There needs to be something to break up the onslaught of numbing nothingness that has taken the place of natural inner peace.
The typical advice given to someone who is suffering from a mild degree of information overload is simply to cut back a bit and perhaps take in a few nights of sound sleep. Being that I believe people are in far deeper than just a bit of culture-wide burnout, however, I’d like to suggest something a bit more radical: a day of complete unpluggedness. No phones, no texting, no computers, no instant messaging. No televisions, no headphones. No first-person shooter games. Nothing.
What would be the result of such an experiment? Besides an ugly initial few hours of withdrawal, I mean. What if it were not merely a single day, but as often as once a week? More? Would more people begin to rediscover the depths of internal dialogue? Would general levels of anxiety and antagonistic behavior begin to dissipate as people are re-humanized?
Would the purveyors of corporate distraction unleash new and unforeseen forces of mind-numbing pseudo-cultural crap? Probably – they’re wily. But I’m willing to take that chance. Even if it yields no utter greatness, everyone may at least return to themselves the gift of their own full potential.
Ryan McGeeney is a senior majoring in political science.