The other night a friend told me about a graffiti artist in New York City who's been covering subway and building walls with a simple declarative statement: Stop shopping and start thinking! This is particularly interesting since we are now approaching the season to shop and shop and shop and shop. It also made me wonder what he was suggesting we actually think about. And perhaps more importantly, what we were doing instead of thinking.
So, more than half-way across the country, I went into town and I spent a day watching people. I observed them on the street, in stores, in restaurants, on television, at gas stations. A typical group of young people (anywhere from approximately 10 years of age to 20) walked in much the same way a school of herring swim, in a huddle, somehow sensing one another's movements, veering left, then right without much in the way of verbal communication because every one of them was either wearing an i-pod or had a cell phone planted on one ear.
The Shopping Trance
What I noticed overall, regardless of age group, was that the more crowded the environment and stimulating the situation the less interpersonal the interaction between us. People distracted by brightly lit window displays or by robotic massage chairs or hundred-foot long displays of plasma television screens had very little to do with one another, even if they were "together." Many walked about with glazed eyes and slightly open mouths, trance-like. I am not aware of any research to validate or refute this observation, but it is what I saw.
So, the graffiti artist who bade us, Start thinking, must have been seeing more or less what I saw -- a world rapidly becoming disconnected and insensate from the onslaught of stimulation that is part and parcel of urban and suburban living. Perhaps in that statement I am being too conservative and I ought to take the internet and cable television into account and include rural areas as well. I would hate to. Personally I still need to believe there is some escape, some remnant of a purer life and would appreciate the privilege of hanging on to my delusions just a bit longer.
The Impact of Instant Communication
It's no secret that telecommunications have changed the world in which we live. There's more information, more excitement, more scandal, more sensory overload and more crisis than ever before. Seventy-five years ago in a small town, you could spend a whole day, Lord, a whole week without knowing much more than the day or week before.
Big things -- like the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the death of a neighbor or the arrival of the new preacher -- made themselves known quickly enough. And people responded as necessary. They enlisted in the army or paid their respects or went to church as need be. But there were long periods of time that were left, well, unfilled and simple. Not that there was nothing to do. There was always plenty to do. But it was plenty of one thing or maybe two, like getting the field plowed or fixing the roof, or going to work and coming home, not lists of twenty, thirty or forty things to do. Our ancestors were different in many ways, but perhaps the most significant distinction is that they had a lot less information to manage in one bite and a lot less to worry about. Crises happened, but they happened rarely. Now, crisis is constant. The critical state is the nominal one.
There is a price to the incessant over-stimulation and instant gratification we erroneously consider gifts.
I recently moved to a very quiet section of New Mexico and can remember vividly how people responded when I told them I'd be about a half hour out of the city with only Indian reservation and mountains between.
Almost all of them asked, "But what'll you do? It'll be so quiet!"
"Precisely," I replied.
The quiet was what I wanted, a quiet so deep that I could hear each star blink to life as they filled the sky at night, or locate barn owls from the sound of their wings opening as they swooped off my roof after field mice, or the harrumph of the sun as it lifted itself lazily over the horizon in the morning. City and suburban living with its endless traffic jams and movie lines and white noise had lost its luster years ago.
I told my friend that I thought it was the speed of urban life that had pushed me over the edge. Everything was always so fast and my nature was to respond to that. Interestingly, he suggested that it wasn't just the speed that was the problem. He said it was the overall level of stimulation. And when I considered his words I had to agree.
Speed is only one part of a world that is spinning us out of control. On top of being pounded through all five senses, we are increasingly pressured on a psychological level: pseudo-intimacy, over-exposure (both physical and emotional), intensity, frustration, pressure to complete multiple tasks simultaneously, complexity and confusion of social expectations, and fluidity of family roles.