Too Much with Us

Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end…

-- Henry David Thoreau

At last Apple has come out with a watch that lives up to the name: you can just watch it. Quite apart from telling time, the so-called smart watch does all sorts of tricks you will never grow tired of – at least not until Apple comes out with a new model next year that does even more tricks. The Apple Watch fills a product niche with customers who stopped wearing a watch because they could always pull out their smart phone if they needed to know the time. Since the new watch now performs many of the functions of your old smart phone, you no longer need to pull your phone out at all – unless, of course, you are one of those traditionalists who still uses a phone to make calls. You don’t even need to turn the new device on, because it activates as soon as you raise your wrist. This added convenience was a real selling point for Wall Street Journal columnist Geoffrey A. Fowler, who estimated that he spent 4.3 hours per day looking at his phone. That’s a lot of digging into your pocket or handbag every time you want to check your e-mail. Now, with a mere flick of the wrist, you can distract yourself in a thousand different ways.

Distraction may be the abiding spiritual malady of our age. As spiritual maladies go, distraction may be as old as the devil, but never has it been so much in your face – or so on your wrist, as the case may be. Marshall McLuhan once declared that technology was an extension of the human body, and this was at a time when computers were still room-sized machines that crunched data fed to it on punch cards. There were as yet no microprocessors, much less “wearable” technology; however, he was obviously already onto something. McLuhan, whose ideas were considered far-fetched a generation ago, no doubt would feel vindicated by such innovations as Google Glass, which projects computer read-outs directly onto your field of vision through your eyewear. And what about the “taptic engine” built into the Apple Watch that gently taps your wrist when you have an incoming call, text message or appointment on your calendar?

“The world is too much with us,” Wordsworth wrote, as the full weight of the Industrial Revolution was making itself felt two centuries ago. All the more so now, when the world is literally at our fingertips. By world, I mean the world not tangibly available to our senses at this moment. Wordsworth felt the world crowding in on him even before there such things as the telegraph, telephone or internal combustion engine, when timepieces were still too big to fit on your wrist. “Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers,” the poet lamented. “Little we see in Nature that is ours.” What might Wordsworth think of online shopping, 24-hour news cycles and cat videos? As for nature, then as now: “It moves us not.”

What is distraction if not the surrender of our senses? Everything clamors for attention, and we respond by allowing ourselves to be pulled in every direction. Everything our attention alights upon, however briefly, becomes the jumping off point for something else. Our watchword becomes that old line from the Monty Python shows: “And now for something completely different.” It is novelty we crave. To allow our attention to linger too long on any one thing is to risk missing the next big thing. We imagine, however obscurely, that we are outracing oblivion with all our restless seeking, when that is precisely what we are racing toward.

Why call distraction a spiritual malady? Even those who consider themselves spiritual tend to regard spirituality as something otherworldly, when the opposite is true. People are always looking elsewhere for God, not realizing that the ground on which they are standing is holy ground. "The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed,” Jesus told the Pharisees, “nor will they say, 'Lo, here it is!' or 'There!' for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you." If the kingdom of God is in our midst, what exactly do we hope to find that is not already at hand? We strain to hear the Hallelujah Chorus and ignore the simple melodies of ordinary life – the music of birds or of small children at play, the wind in the trees, the sun on our face, a human touch, all that is tangibly available to our senses at this moment. These are precious beyond reckoning. And yet we allow ourselves to be distracted by empty striving to be entertained or even to be enlightened when all we really need to do is to pay attention.

Geoffrey A. Fowler, “Apple Watch Review: The Smartwatch Finally Makes Sense,” Wall Street Journal, April 8, 2015

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