*Before we get into this week’s Signal Fire newsletter, just wanted to give a quick reminder of something exciting I’m finally offering up, after years of people asking me to do so. I am now, for the first time, offering up little personalized video greetings in the Chasers Shop, and I’ve already recorded a few and I am loving doing it! Think Cameo, without being Cameo, and I listened to all of your advice, all of your feedback, to try to create prices that fit people’s budgets. In addition, I decided to make the Free Gift for those who sign up for a Founding Member subscription to this Signal Fire, one of those video greetings with me reading any poem I’ve written in the Typewriter Series or The Never Was. Anyhow, if you’re interested, click the button below…now, on with the show!*
A question, as this is a place for them, you know that by now: Are we losing our ability to notice beauty? We, that ol’ familiar word, that lumping categorizer, that descriptor that can mean a few, or it can mean the entirety. Which we, you may be asking, which are you wondering about their capacity for noticing beauty, for celebrating it, for actually experiencing it? Truth is, when I hatched the idea for this essay, this Sunday Edition, my sights were set on a specific demographic, fingers pointing at the youth of this place, but as I started really thinking more about it, the net was widened and cast much further. Turns out, the “we” I speak of is damn near every single soul on this planet nowadays, save a few, save those lucky few that were ‘never-adopters’ to the panoply of technology we’re inundated with, those lucky few that choose another way, those lucky few that are either too old or too stubborn to try to incorporate it.
All these thoughts, all this worry and confusion about the lack of attention wasn’t born from some specific event, I don’t believe, it wasn’t as though I woke one morning and was so frustrated or irritated with the evaporating attention spans, the craned necks towards some glowing blue-light in the palm of a hand, no, it was much subtler, and it was a hell of a lot sneakier than that.
I remember getting my first mobile phone, and I remember it wasn’t until I was a sophomore in college. I remember hating it, I remember my mother insisting as I was driving so often the 120 miles back and forth between Missoula, and Helena, Montana. That brick of a thing sat in my car, in my backpack, or somewhere in my apartment 98% of the time, and I couldn’t be bothered with it. Slowly, sneakily, more people that I knew began having them, and their functionality grew. Slowly, eyes began drifting to the little screens with increased frequency, they began interrupting conversations, thought processes, even movies and other forms of entertainment. Frighteningly, these events were round-about twenty years ago. Since then, and most specifically since smartphones replaced those archaic bricks, our attention spans and interest has been funneled and channeled almost entirely to these devices. They are everywhere, and as such, we are nowhere.
It’s the nowhere that bothers me the most, and I see it mostly in the kids that fill up my life. Mobile phones, iPads, laptops, AirPods, they all add up to this terrifying ‘sameness’ that means that wherever they are, they aren’t really there. I see families turning on the double screens on the seat backs in front of them before they even leave the driveway, whether it’s for a trip to the grocery store, or even more heartbreaking, a long road trip over miles and mountains, coastlines or wide open plains. Glued to the glow, they miss everything. I know that saying this will immediately make me sound old, out-of-touch, and that’s fine, but some of my most vivid and amazing memories in my own childhood were the multiple times we drove from North Carolina to Montana, from Montana to New Mexico (and back), from Montana to California, and about a dozen dozen others, all in a Volkswagen Van. The world that flew by my window seemed ENORMOUS, it seemed magical, and it seemed like it was filled with more mystery and beauty than I could even begin to comprehend. I think of the generations of children watching Frozen for the 17th time as they drive along some haunted and gorgeous stretch of highway, and I cannot help but feel sad. Triumphantly sad.
Wander into a grocery store lately, even before Covid wreaked havoc on everything, and seen someone pushing a cart with a toddler’s chubby little legs dangling from the weird holes at the front? Popped into a restaurant and found a family sitting at a table? I’ve got $10 that says more often than not, the wee ones in the group are glued to and masterfully navigating some electronic device. Kids as young as 8 months somehow learning how to swipe, scroll, and even change the videos being played. There are literal millionaires that are under 12 years old right now that make their money being filmed opening and briefly playing with toys, because so many children are watching them. Strangely, the problem of this addiction doesn’t seem to depend on the age of the people involved, a surprising observation. I’ve seen the exact same level of dependence and obsession in 4 year olds, teenagers, and adults. I’ve gone to sporting events and watched in horror and disbelief as hundreds of students are glued to their phones, not even cheering at the actual game they paid to attend. I’ve been at concerts and watched as people watch the concert through their tiny phone screens, Snapchatting or Instagramming or TikToking every moment, and what’s even more bizarre, the majority of the time the camera was just aimed at their own face. They are watching themselves on a 5 inch screen, with famous musicians performing 20 yards away.
The question all this raises in me is a simple one, and one I do so hope you chime in on, all of you beautiful youse:
Are we, truly, losing our ability to notice beauty? Are we creating generations of human beings who cannot drive in cars without screens, go to the grocery store without being on a device, eat a meal at a dinner table without distraction? Are we?
Some may say that we’re not losing our abilities to notice beauty, perhaps the definition of it is changing, perhaps it’s shifted as times have shifted, and if you’re in this camp, I would love an elaboration. What is the beauty of the digital world, in comparison to the the real one right beyond our arm’s reach? I am genuinely curious here, and offer no judgement to your response, I am here to be educated, to learn perspectives I may not adopt. Please, do so. Please.
I’ve just seen a change, and the change is drastic enough over these last decades since I graduated high school, to call it out, for no matter how slow-motion the shifting has been, it’s still been, and if we do not speak of it now, who knows what it will be in another two decades. Beauty aside, our definitions of it aside, this is about the noticing, the isolation that has grown as we’re vacuumed into the blue glow in our hands and hanging on our walls, and I cannot help but think of that episode of Doctor Who where everyone was being sucked into their own screens during the Queen’s Coronation. We’re missing the world, however beautiful or hideous you wish to describe it as, and we’re creating generations of little humans that would rather watch another child play with a toy, than just play with one themselves. We’re lost in distraction, filling every waking moment not with thought, but with scrolling, with aimless entertainment that so very often adds up to nothing. Yes, there is an irony in you reading this, or hearing me read it to you, on a device, and I understand that. This is the medium of the day, and I cannot afford to send this to you via newsprint and ink each Sunday, though I so very wish I could. Perhaps one day I’ll compile a few year’s worth of these and make a physical book you can hold, perhaps. We’re isolated in this nothing, we’re traveling and still staying in that nowhere limbo that exists between our palms and faces, the glow and the eyeballs that absorb it. It frightens me, it saddens me, and yes, it often pulls me in, too.
So I ask again, are we losing our ability to notice beauty? Are we lost in distraction as the haiku below says? What will become of us? Someone take a risk and offer yourselves up as Nostradamus for the rest. What will become of us, if we do not fix where we are right now?
Lost in distraction,
isolated in nothing,
missing the whole world.