Looking away

What if the most valuable thing we could teach our children is how to look away? What if the most vital skill to teach ourselves in a desires-trained culture is to avoid the voices that exist to exploit our attention and prey on our insecurities? To learn to not see that which is designed to be inescapable.

We allow our mobile devices, our cell phones and tablets, to chirp and buzz and alert us to the point of eliminating our ability to sustain focus. I walk into a bar with even one flat screen on the wall and I see all eyes on the screen. I get into a cab and find myself instinctively looking at the perpetually-on-loop screen—and I hate myself for that instinct. These things are not cultural inevitabilities. They’re learned habits. They’re choices.

We’ve chosen to let our mobile devices vibrant when we receive an email or a text message. We’ve chosen to put televisions on every empty wall space. We give ourselves the devices that are eliminating our leisure time. We can also choose to intentionally and systematically structure our interaction with devices and the media they convey.

Our devices have dramatically improved our lives by enabling information access on an unprecedented scale and at a profound ease. But there have been obvious and serious tradeoffs that we don’t seem to be addressing with as much enthusiasm.

“We must shift America from a needs to a desires culture, said Paul Mazur almost a century ago. “People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. … Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.” If we measure time as money, Mazur’s words ring in our ears. What most of our screens want when they call our attention is both of these things—they want our attention as a means to our time and money.

Where are we preserving the space for deep or uninterrupted thinking? For contemplation? For family? For leisure? For retreat? These aren’t simply important public goods. They’re also important personal goods.

We build communities so we can enjoy one another—not so we can merely transact with one another. The market, which screens often serve as access points to, is only one of the forms of important human exchange:

When the Stranger says: “What is the meaning of this city?
Do you huddle close together because you love each other?”
What will you answer? “We all dwell together
To make money from each other”? or “This is a community”?

Oh my soul, be prepared for the coming of the Stranger. —T.S. Eliot

Creating spaces free of screens will be one of the most important civic contributions of leaders in the coming decades. We can start with our homes, which should always be a refuge from the frenzy of the outside world.

The response to this call in the future might seem radical, but if it turns out to be radical, it will be a radicalism concerned with tradition—that is, the tradition of authentically free spaces.

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