Writing in his excellent Sentences blog, Wyatt Mason reminds us that intellectual labor has always been hard work, even in the days before Google and Twitter. Digging into the Harper’s Magazine archives he finds an 1882 article on Emerson’s seminal essay “Intellect,” in which Emerson describes the arduous process of articulating a thought. He says, “you must labor with your brains, and now you must forbear your activity, and see what the great Soul showeth.”
Emerson did not have email, could not tweet, did not date online, could
not stream video from his favorite strippercam. Emerson was not
distracted, therefore, in the modern way. Whatever did, in his era,
stand between him and his setting his mind to that hardest task, the
problem of focus is surely nothing new, despite the novel methods we’ve lately heard about its treatment.
The novel methods Mason refers to are the neuroenhancers popular among college students. Just as steroids were (and probably still are) most popular with marginal baseball players trying to hold on to a major league roster spot, neuroenhancers are generally used by middling students trying to balance academic performance and intense socializing.
Neuroenhancers are useful for cranking out a report at 2 AM, but no one claims they can sustain the kind of extended intellectual labor Emerson spoke about. They’re an imperfect response to a problem everyone, myself included, encounters more and more: concentrating on a task. But as Mason suggests, the problem isn’t really a new one; it’s simply that the distractions have become more attractive. Salon’s Laura Miller points out that we’re hardwired for distraction. The early humans who learned to constantly scan their environments for dangers were the ones who survived because they saw the poisonous snake lurking under the leaves.
But there is another way to think about distractions.
Jacques Derrida was once asked on French television to comment on Seinfeld. Derrida shifted in his seat; clearly he’d never seen it. He responded by snapping at the camera, “you should be doing your homework and not watching television!” He may have regretted this answer. It strikes me as inconsistent with Deconstruction. The problem with the “Google is making us stupid” argument is that there’s no center to our mental life. Ask any graduate student in English studying for a comprehensive exam what it’s like to focus exclusively on reading. He or she will tell you the distractions are within the field of intellectual labor, not outside of it. No matter what book one is reading, there’s always another book that’s more essential, closer to the center of the issue, than the book one is reading now. You can be a third of the way through Dombey and Son before a crisis emerges: really, Vanity Fair is a better representative of mid-century British fiction. No, that’s too central, too canonical: I should be reading The Tenant of Wildfell Hall! And so on.
Hence the beauty of Facebook: we know it’s a waste of time, so whenever we leave it we know we’re doing something meaningful. Without Facebook or Twitter on the margins of what’s important, we can’t identify what we should be doing.