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Lions Roar : May 2013
SHAMBHALA SUN MAY 2013 64 others. We read reports of fatal train accidents caused by the engineer texting and of commer- cial flights crashing because pilots were chatting. Pedestrians and drivers are killed because they’re on the phone or texting. We need look no further than ourselves to observe distraction. How long can you focus on any activity these days? How many pages can you read before wandering off? How many other things are you doing while you’re listening to a conference call? Have you stopped writing emails that make multiple requests because you only get a reply to the first one? Do you still take time for open-ended conversations with friends, colleagues, or your children? In the 1930s, T.S. Eliot wrote, “We are distracted from distraction by distraction.” It’s a perfect description of our present day. How did we get here—to this life of incessant connection but total distraction—where even if we recognize that we’re hamsters on a wheel, we can’t get off? The answer is that our lives, relationships, and politics are being shaped by an ecosystem of inter- ruption technologies. Between smartphones, tab- lets, and personal computers, we have instant and constant access to each other and to the Internet. Superficially, this seems to be a great benefit, but in practice we can now be interrupted at any time, in any place, no matter what we are doing. Throughout history, technology interacts with its users in predictable ways: it changes behav- iors, thinking processes, social norms, and even, as neuroplasticity studies show, our physical brain structure. It may be hard to accept, but the truth is that the tools we create end up controlling us. I learned of the devouring, deterministic march of technology from the work of French philoso- pher, educator, and political activist Jacques Ellul. You may not have heard of him, but it was Ellul who gave us the now-trusted concept “Think globally, act locally.” Here is Ellul’s harsh clarity: Once a technol- ogy enters a culture, it takes over. It feeds on itself, assisted by eager adoption and demands for more of it. Social structures, such as values, behaviors, and politics, can’t help but organize around the new technology’s values. The predictable result is the loss of existing cultural traditions and the emergence of a new culture. Gutenberg’s printing press, because it put infor- mation into the hands of everyday people, is cred- ited with the rise of individualism, literacy, com- plex language, private contemplation, the literary tradition, and the advent of Protestantism. By 1500, just fifty years after its invention, more than twelve million books were in print in Europe (and people were already complaining that there were too many books). Many of us would like to reject this determin- istic description of human disempowerment. But we can validate how technology transforms culture Once a technology enters a culture, it takes over. Social structures can’t help but organize around the new tech- nology’s values. PHOTOBYRICARDODEARANTANHA