The room is dark.
I’ve got the covers pulled up to my chin, my arms are at my sides, my eyes are wide open.
I’ve got the thinking cap on; I am working overtime.
This is where and when I get my best work done. Fast work. Very fast.
In my mental universe, things must happen quickly. I have an attention deficit problem; too much thought, a demand for prolonged concentration, too many options — all are discomfiting. I am easily distracted. I flit from idea to idea like a fruit fly in a mating frenzy.
I am an omen, a portent of things to come in this best of all possible worlds: a high-velocity, paper-thin consciousness operating in total darkness. My rapid-fire thought process is an example of what will soon be common to the entire species. My Teflon intellectual life is a paradigm case of what will be the norm for humankind within a generation. Maybe sooner.
Regard the future, and weep.
As I lie awake in my bed, I ask myself: What, beside a series of head injuries, is responsible for this lack of concentration, the need to cull and deflate information, to render complex things rapidly and ridiculously clear? This way of dealing with existence is fast becoming the way most Americans apprehend the world. Were millions of other people also clobbered in the noggin by a baseball-bat-wielding Danny Freeman during a softball game at Lincoln Elementary School? Did most Americans also decide they could easily wipe out that huge defensive end on the Gilpin County Eagles’ football team during a kickoff?
No, they were not and they did not.
And yet, the average American’s ability to concentrate over prolonged periods of time is eroding. The day will come in the near future when the same will be said of the citizens of Zaire, Paraguay and Bhutan.
What is behind this shift in the duration, depth and quality of mental activity? I’ve compiled a list of possible causes, creations that are changing the temporal nature of the things that happen to us and, thus, changing the way we think.
The telephone, for example, and e-mail. Rapid personal communications. With a single wire, a light-bearing fiber, a world is in your ear or on your screen in an instant. Aunt Gladys in Davenport is no longer a week away by mail. Unfortunately. And, now, you can talk to her as you do your grocery shopping. You can make and receive calls anywhere on your cell phone.
The airplane — a device that puts Tangier in your pocket, Beijing in your back yard. With space travel, Mars is an adjacent county.
The light bulb. Daylight no longer sets the timetable for enterprise. Night becomes day. More things happen, faster.
The computer. Ditch the slide rule; forget about writing that letter in longhand. Access the data, run the numbers, scan the photos, digitalize everything, everyone. Fax yourself at max Kbps (that is, if you’re stuck in the digital Stone Age and you still use the fax machine). From the abacus to the gigabyte, this journey has to make a difference. And, there’s the Internet, of course: at once the best and worst thing that has happened to the species. Facebook. Twitter. Google.
Microwave ovens. You can heat barely edible food in a tenth the time it would take you to heat barely edible food in a conventional oven or on a stovetop burner. An evolutionary step up from the boilin’ bag.
Television. Suddenly, you are with Queen Elizabeth, Kim Kardashian, a bunch of lumpen morons from Louisiana who make duck calls and are regarded by many Americans as entertaining and enlightened. You are a party to what is happening, as it happens. You are told what is important, before it is important. Your space is flush with photons. You sit in front of a digital display as “War and Peace” is delivered by satellite in a mini-series format, with plenty of commercials to boot. It is all there, all done for you. Quickly, choppily.
Now I’m getting to the point.
Great choices I think, but there is one more: The device most responsible for shaping, then reinforcing a short attention span, for changing the manner in which people think about the stuff of life.
The remote control.
A small, hand-held link to a television and a variety of other devices; an innocuous looking, immeasurably potent plastic object.
If you want to understand the future, if you want to know why humans of the next century will think differently, observe the remote control. The scope of its power is inversely proportional to its size.
I have meditated on the remote. I have held one in my hand, felt its transformational energy course through my fingertips, pondered its effect on personal and collective life.
My remote has allowed me to accelerate the refinement of my already teeny attention span. My remote is a parsimonious scalpel, fueled by two AA batteries, cutting every situation and every explanation short, reinventing time, rendering meaning minimal and manageable.
As part of my ongoing social research, I spend a frightful number of hours watching television. Allow me to show you what I mean about the remote. Let’s examine a typical two minutes of my viewing and consider what it entails. Let’s take a highly compressed trip across a painfully thin universe — a universe that grows thinner with each passing moment.
PBS. A disheveled gent with an untrimmed beard and baggy bib overalls is teaching me everything I need to know about growing bamboo. He is earnest, ecosensitive.
A martial arts movie. Blow after blow is landed on vulnerable body parts. Blows that would kill an ordinary man — blows to the crotch and the head — land with terrible accuracy. And yet, the victim seems to be okay. No one bleeds. No one gets a hernia or suffers damage to internal organs.
Golf. Goofy hats. Out of shape middle class guys with clubs playing a game only out of shape middle class guys would call a “sport.”
Bowling. Goofy shirts. Out of shape lower middle class guys with big …
The development of the “Supercruise” function will make our next generation of jet fighter aircraft deadlier in a dogfight. Good people will have the fastest jet. Evil people will have the slower jet. Drones? A little collateral damage for the sake of freedom? You tell me.
A commercial from a world where everything is tinted blue and all cars are without dents. This world exists for two seconds, then it is gone.
“Jaws and Claws.” Coyotes and wounded prairie dogs. Badgers. The relentless Andes vulture; a beak that can shred the shell of a tortoise like a piece of tissue paper. Don’t go outside, whatever you do!
Mexican television. Cristina’s Edicion Especial. Midgets do the boogaloo in a dance contest. Dance unites us all, even if we speak different languages. And are different heights.
Just because they possessed fabulous wealth didn’t prevent the Rothchilds and Astors from being wacky, fun-loving folks. They’re just folks. With gigantic houses. And it certainly didn’t prevent them from controlling the world, now did it?
NASCAR. Around and around and around and around. Fast, colorful crashes. Car racing for the pro wrestling fan.
A Navy recruiting ad. Join the armed forces to earn a college degree. Sky dive in your spare time. There is no mention of war.
Trim the stems off those Shitake mushrooms. The stems are icky.
A movie about terrorists in Toronto: Mounties versus Islamic fundamentalists. The ultimate showdown in the Great North. Canadians are good. Islamic fundamentalists are evil.
A cartoon beaver watches a sunset. Animated entities enjoy the beauty of nature. They have feelings, too.
Oops, a local access channel. Self-glorification with a poor soundtrack. The epitome of the Pollyanna complex: I am here, so it must be the greatest place in the world.
Spies. Can’t live with them, can’t live without them. Spies look so normal. They are evil, unless they are one of us. Do you really care that the NSA monitors your every move on the Internet, every call you make on your phone?
The air core self-cooker. Throw in anything — frozen, thawed, raw. It doesn’t matter. Three hours later, you’ve got the best meal you’ve ever eaten. Even better than the one you ate at that little restaurant tucked in an alleyway near the Louvre. Better than the French Laundry.
Direct from factory savings on commercial-grade trimmer mowers. Mow down young trees. Destroy vegetation with the best of ’em.
McAuliffe. Bastogne. “Nuts.” Best part of WWII. Colorized.
No yolk in the whites, whatever you do.
Move over Lenin, we’ve got a real revolution on our hands. Mr. Nick is so confident about his haircare system he is willing to demonstrate it on his own long, luxurious mane. Even proles can afford the four-week haircare treatment.
Mattress City. Just think: a whole city.
Donald Duck’s voice has changed. Huey, Dewey and Louie are exactly the same size they were 30 years ago.
Norwegian flat bread. Three techniques for cooking lefse. Aquavit is aged in old sherry casks sent as deck cargo from Norway to Australia and back. The rocking of the ship creates flavor. It will work for bourbon.
Miraculous skin rejuvenator. Several doctors abandoned their practices to bring word of this non-surgical treatment to a desperate world. Why waste time saving lives?
The cockpit of the ME 109 was extremely cramped, limiting the mobility of even average-sized Luftwaffe pilots. No wonder they lost the war.
There is weather in Kansas, 24-hours per day. Tornadoes. The weather is always severe — isolated, but severe.
A disheveled guy with an untrimmed beard and baggy bib overalls points to a perfect stand of bamboo.
Wow, we’re back.
All that information, in two minutes. And it is just the kind of info I need. Digesting the information, in the “real time” of the remote, strengthens a cognitive style ideal for next millennium.
As I recline in the dark, I realize the remote control has allowed me to cut the learning process to a matter of milliseconds. It provides me the best kind of information: it suits my emotional needs in an ever-more complex world. By trimming ambiguity, the remote gives me the ability to see experience as simple, one-dimensional, direct, filled with non-threatening data. The remote is my baton and I am conducting a symphony of comfort.
My remote control is the key to a consciousness that will not, cannot, examine itself or its contents — a consciousness in which consideration of complexity or differences is a trap door leading to the ultimate, scary problem: doubt. Especially the doubt that what I see or believe might be false. If I feel the pressure of doubt, I change the focus to something that soothes me.
If I speed past events, if data is compressed and easily entertained, I can convince myself that because I understand something, it must be true. I can believe that words written and spoken are crystal-clear clarions of fact. I can ignore the possibility that human perception is a matter of intent and interpretation. I can convince myself that an “objective” perspective, (my perspective!), is real. I can ignore the notion that only one body can occupy one spot at one time, and that the way things appear depends on what spot I occupy. I can sidestep the potholes dug by the intentionality of human consciousness. The weight is gone from my psychic shoulders.
The remote is the technological facilitator of cartoon awareness — a minimalist mode essential in a world where social, religious, political, ethical and economic ideas are best expressed by T-shirt slogans and bumper stickers, by simple, redundant slogans learned from radio and cable televisions hosts, repeated like mantras, voiced again and again, emphatically, inflexibly, like rote lessons delivered to kindergartners. This is a world in which principles are superhero clear, stunningly simple.
The remote is my range finder in this paper-thin world.
With my remote in hand, I am confidant, untroubled by useless details, by ambiguity and doubt.
A couple stands in a television kitchen. They are talking fast, as though their time-release diet spansules have dissolved prematurely and kicked in a massive dose. They are putting together a breakfast casserole. Quickly.
Their creation reminds me of a classic strata. I think I’ll make a strata when I emerge from the darkness of my bedroom and cease to jet around the disc of an increasingly flat planet on the back of my remote.
I’ll take the crusts off some day-old bread. I’ll butter a baking dish.
I’ll soak the slices of bread with milk and layer the bottom of the baking pan with slices, leaving small gaps between the slices.
Next, I’ll cook some onion and mushrooms, with salt and pepper to taste. I’ll use Shitake mushrooms and remove the stems. The stems are icky, you know.
I’ll cook the melange until the moisture from the fungi evaporates, adding chopped garlic, chopped green chile and crumbled, cooked and drained hot Italian sausage. I’ll cover the bread slices with the mix and top the mix with another layer of bread.
On top of the bread and mix I’ll pour four or five beaten eggs whisked with a cup and a half of cream, salt and pepper, and minced garlic, then cover it all with a layer of shredded Cheddar cheese. I’ll let the mess sit awhile then bake it at 350 until the egg mix cooks, sets, gets poofy and brown — an hour to an hour and a half. More time than I would like, but I will go back to the television and take in plenty of shallow information in the interim.
The Las Vegas Hot Dice Roller Derby team wears great outfits, but can they play fair? They are evil. The team from Florida is good.
I am going to eat some strata, then call the local nursery.
I need to buy some bamboo.