Siren Song and the 1961 Ferrari GT California Spyder
The sound shivers through the walls, through the table, through the window frame, and into my finger. These distraction-oholics. These focus-ophobics. Old George Orwell got it backward. Big Brother isn’t watching. He’s singing and dancing. He’s pulling rabbits out of a hat. Big Brother’s busy holding your attention every moment you’re awake. He’s making sure you’re always distracted. He’s making sure you’re fully absorbed. He’s making sure your imagination withers. Until it’s as useful as your appendix. He’s making sure your attention is always filled. And this being fed, it’s worse than being watched. With the world always filling you, no one has to worry about what’s in your mind. With everyone’s imagination atrophied, no one will ever be a threat to the world.
-Chuck Palahniuk – Lullaby
Among most schoolchildren, incivility and the demise of social skills have much less to do with rebellion and the preferred diagnosis of “oppositionality” than they do with the annihilation of boredom. Fifty years ago, the onset of boredom might have followed a two-hour stretch of nothing to do. In contrast, boys today can feel bored after thirty seconds with nothing specific to do; the threshold has been drastically lowered. Their lives are now filled with electronica — games, phones, computers — an updated version of the old counterculture mantra “turn on, tune in, drop out.” The beeps, buzzes, and cryptic messages of electronic feedback are ever-present, and many boys want nothing to do with moderation. This ubiquitous, battery-powered cacophony of multisensory junk food can hold boys spellbound for hours.
-Adam J. Cox – The Case for Boredom
The modern mind is constantly bombarded by distractions. Communication media has overtaken communication. Quiet reflection is boredom. Stimulation has become boredom. Go to any gathering and you will find groups of people not talking, but instead scrolling across virtual worlds, social media, and electronic communication via their smart phones. They ignore the flesh and blood people in front of them for the streaming electron people miles away. Were Hesse to write Siddhartha today, enlightenment would not come in solitude while only listening to the sound of a babbling stream, but in response to the droning of engines, the booming of stereos, and the dissonance of overlapping conversations.
We noise-aholics. We quiet-ophobics.
The Cox article from which the second quote is taken focuses on boredom as a requisite of civility. Though he does not specify that boredom itself is the source of civility, boredom does signify time for quiet reflection. Boredom suggests that one does have moments in which to drink in the sound of the babbling stream and simply think. In Cox’s words, “It is only during moments of relative calm that young minds learn to bind empathy to action, and the development of thoughtful behaviors we associate with civility.”
The problem extends beyond civility, though. This constant barrage of stimulation, of light and sound and communication, blinds us to the actual world around us. It isolates us and renders us a world of islands. We are no longer bound to our neighbors nor are we concerned with their plight, other than in some abstract sense. We are bound to ourselves and our immediate clan. Meanwhile, the elites exploit our abstract empathy and incivility to further entrench their own power. The elites wave a wand and offer us a pretty illusion. We respond with a cursory glance and return to our stimulation. “Whoso draws near unwarned and hears the Sirens’ voices, by him no wife nor little child shall ever stand, glad at his coming home; for the Sirens cast a spell of penetrating song, sitting within a meadow.”
The streaming electron Sirens become a feedback loop. Our disconnect feeds our incivility which feeds our disconnect. Shrieking at electrons is so much easier than shrieking at a person. Stealing from electrons is so much easier than stealing from a person. With the imagination atrophied, alternatives to shrieking, stealing islands are nonexistent. Big Brother feeds us stimulation, free high speed internet and cable coming soon to a hovel near you!, and we lap it up like experimental space monkeys with water bottles full of cocaine.
Salvation is possible. Reverse the polarity. Become a quiet-aholic. A noise-ophobic. Bind yourself to the mast such that you may hear the Sirens’ song without succumbing to its allure. The Sirens are not without their charms and increased communication is a net good, but the application of that good is often the opposite. Abjure the elites and the shackles they seek to impose, allow your imagination to flourish rather than atrophy, and relish in a bit of boredom. Listen to the crickets in your backyard. Watch a rainstorm instead of a television show. Remember Ferris Bueller’s advice – Life moves pretty fast. You don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.
The river is everywhere at the same time, at the source and at the mouth…in the ocean and in the mountains, everywhere, and that the present only exists for it, not the shadow of the past, nor the shadow of the future…Siddhartha the boy, Siddhartha the mature man and Siddhartha the old man [are] only separated by shadows, not through reality…Nothing was, nothing will be, everything has reality and presence.
Originally published in September 2010, but I’m republishing it as I’ve gained some new readers lately. Thanks to delusion damage for a portion of those new readers.