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Detourette’s Syndrome

July 18, 2014

When I am not writing, I often think about my reasons (read: excuses) for not writing. The seriousness of work and the pettiness of life–and vice versa–have displaced my creative habits. The fact that I chose to start this piece with an admitted cliché about writing underlines the point.

Even when I am ostensibly writing, it’s easy to question the vague status and worthiness of creative ambition. How have we spent our time? How does time continue to slip through our fingers even as we put that rapidly disappearing commodity under a microscope of self-reflection and admonish ourselves to do better with that only finite resource? Is it better to have spent a life gathering satisfaction and enjoyment or creating something distinct from oneself? To me, these feel like ethical, existential questions, not just idle abstractions.

Distractions both fleeting and life-encompassing appear in the rear-view mirror and as detours beckoning in the distance. One hears the conventional wisdom that you’d be a sucker to leave the highway and take the turn into a tourist trap meant to separate fools from their money. Yet somehow you wonder whether you’re on the right road or if the detour will lead you where you’ve been meant to go all along. There is no map to consult.

The biggest question of all now appears: whether the detours are keeping you away from the road of life or are they life itself?

To put what I’m pondering more directly, are all of the games, videos, memes, TV shows, movies, and even books just distractions from a more creative or productive life? Is a domestically satisfying life a distraction from a creatively satisfying one? Is there a point where one needs to say, “Ok, I’ve learned and consumed enough; now, it’s time to create something”?

None of these questions imply any value judgment on what constitutes worthy creative activity. Maybe you get all of your creative rocks off in the process of earning a living. There are certainly those mythic and noble beasts who do, and there’s a reason one of the most quintessential pieces of job-related advice is to “do what you love.” The problem usually lies in either an information gap regarding the kind of work a given career actually entails (e.g., being a lawyer isn’t all dramatic cross-examination, frequent televisual dramatizations notwithstanding). However, most people view their problems as stemming from a wage gap (i.e., doing what you love doesn’t pay for all the other stuff you think you need/want). But the latter view assumes you can satisfy all of your basic, human, and existential desires through wages in general. That returns us to the question of whether the “distractions” are really just life itself.

If the human experience is any indication, the most common answer to this conundrum has been that existential needs may be satisfied by a rich family and/or social life, sprinkled with a dash of hobby and infrequent travel. To say that one is satisfying their genetically-ingrained creative impulses by literally creating life is unassailable. But what of the life of the mind, separate from the life of the body? Doesn’t it have needs to pass itself on to future generations?

So we are caught between two poles: the life of bodily pleasure, comfort, security, and genetic influence competing and the life of the creative, productive, and intellectual influence on more than just what we can immediately reach.

By all means, marry. If you get a good wife, you’ll become happy; if you get a bad one, you’ll become a philosopher.

Never have I understood that quotation better.

I’m not certain that existentialism offers an answer to this question other than to say that there isn’t a dichotomy at all if you properly understand yourself and your values. But then, Nietzsche would have said that the free spirit is the one who creates his own values. Maybe the question is further reducible: “know thyself,” “the unexamined life is not worth living,” etc.

But I also think that our modern context bears significantly and differently on the issue of distraction. Maybe it’s just my personal experience, but I wonder whether we are approaching something of a “distraction singularity.” Specifically, we seem to have so much stimulation available to us at all times and so much good content being produced all the time that our in-the-moment decisions of how to maximize our time may be sliding towards consumption rather than creation. If there were a million content producers at the excellence level of William Shakespeare constantly producing YouTube videos that were functionally free to consume and accessible enough to appreciate for what they were, would we have the ability to hold back? Thus, the Distraction Singularity connotes that distraction and fulfillment become one and the same. In economic terms, the supply curve has shifted so far out that the demand is perhaps only limited by our need to subsist. But then again, is there a plausible future where simply consuming free or near-free entertainment combined with an acceptance of the lowest social safety net for subsistence purposes is preferable to some?

Ok, maybe the Infinite Jest hypothesis is a slight stretch (for now), but doesn’t that description of the direction of history ring true, even if the diminishing returns of the distraction-demand curve keep us from running off the cliff? Am I just an old man (30) complaining about these damn kids with their cell phones and their YouTubes?

It is probably unfair to accuse this generation of behaving any differently from any other one; if anything, millennials manage the flood of stimuli admirably considering the shift in the supply. Any alternative to embracing the profusion of distractions would be to demand artificial ignorance of the levels of supply and demand in favor of some non-market based determination of how to make oneself happy. Such prescriptivism is directly opposed to self-determination. And all this just reinforces the Founders’ wisdom that freedom and democracy take work. But we have so much TV to catch up on.

It is nonetheless fair to say that these distraction dynamics are providing people with more reason to avoid ever having to engage in civic duties or maintenance of the body politic. That’s the rational ignorance hypothesis, and it’s existed since long before the Internet. I am not arguing that there is an evil conspiracy setting these dynamics in motion, but maybe the Distraction Singularity has the unintended consequence of facilitating oligarchic influence by creating competing outlets for the attention of the people. Those people, in turn, neglect of their full rights of participation as citizens of a democracy. Of course, maybe the great majority of people have always wanted ignorance and bliss, and now the really good blinders are within reach. Who is to say whether the people are the winners or losers in that fight?

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