A Minor Rant On Substance And Distractions

It’s hard work to stand up for what you think is right. The darkly satirical UK miniseries “Black Mirror” has an episode called “15 Million Merits,” set in a not-so-futuristic world reminiscent of Gattaca or The Island, where identically dressed residents live a gamified existence, exercising on stationary bikes to earn “merits” while being continually distracted by game and reality shows.

Protagonist Bing Madsen, furious at the system, tries to make a statement by working his way onto the “ X-Factor”-esque show “Hot Shots,” where he interrupts his own audition by threatening to commit suicide with a shard of glass he’s snuck in with him. Instead of taking him seriously, the judges commend his performance and give him his own show, in which he rants about society while holding a glass shard to his neck -- a shard he carefully puts away in a silk-lined box after every episode.

I’m not so simplistic as to think our own continuous distraction -- with reality shows, with Kim, Khloe and Bieber, with noise and fluff and bright shiny things -- is the orchestrated product of a centralized control structure. But it gets to a point where it almost doesn’t matter. If we are so anaesthetized by the world around us, does it really matter whether someone is doing it to us or we are doing it to ourselves?



As for me, I am uninterested in the Kardashians’ trials and tribulations. But I am interested in TED talks and social media and the occasional Lamebook guilty pleasure. I follow stories about SCOTUS and get teary over videos like this. If we are sucked into a time-wasting vortex, does it really matter whether the subject is reality TV or intellectual cotton candy?

The greater the stakes, the greater the distractions. Start to gain a little bit of fame or notoriety, and people want a piece of you, want to handle you, want to make sure you’re on their track and not some rogue one. Imagine, just for a moment, that you’re Edward Snowden, Wendy Davis, or even Barack Obama. Imagine the challenge of staying true to what you think is right -- whatever that may be -- when thousands, millions of people want you to do what they think is right?

Today a friend of mine posted a link to an article saying Snowden joined Booz Allen Hamilton on purpose to gather evidence. My friend added the comment, “Hang him.” But do we really think any kind of productive outcome can result from a simplistic analysis of fragmented information that almost certainly represents only the tiniest fraction of the full story? Or are we just distracting ourselves?

Serious stories can have their fun side -- like these Amazon reviews of the Mizuno sneakers worn by Wendy Davis during her 13-hour filibuster. But more often they end up put through a keyword-generating, link-baiting meat-grinder, stripping out all sensitivity and nuance and delivering only McContent. And the more we regurgitate that content, the more we lose sight that these stories represent real people, making real decisions, doing their best to face up to what they see as their grandest obligations to the world.

When my friend Zsolt wrote the passage below a decade ago, he was referring to the Iraq war, but you could substitute almost any war or any story and it will still be relevant:

“The war will go how the war will go and certainly we must be mindful of our leaders’ assumptions that we are stupid enough to forgo our deepest beliefs in freedom in order for them to climb to ever higher power and glory. Yet we are no better than they if we remain unwilling to reach out to those in our midst, both neighbors and strangers, in order to make our communities -- especially those who have been abandoned by the same government intent on saving communities elsewhere around the world -- better places to live, so that when the war does end, in a week or a decade, our own neighborhoods will be safer, cleaner, and friendlier, less burdened by oppression.”

The real work, Zsolt was saying, is right in front of us. Don’t get distracted.

2 comments about "A Minor Rant On Substance And Distractions ".
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  1. Rick Monihan from None, June 28, 2013 at 11:52 a.m.

    We're too easily distracted. That's it in a nutshell. There are too many important issues, every day, to remain focused on them all the time. This will always be the case, and always has been the case. The difference, today, is that it's easier to distract people. 100 years ago, the amount of work that went into maintaining your life was significantly greater than it is today. Entertainment was limited to very few things, very few hours, and these things needed human interaction of some kind, in most cases. You could read a book, of course, which was largely solitary. But if you wanted music, phonographs were still not widely distributed. Playing instruments and singing were necessary. Sports was a good distraction, but you had to play or attend with many others. Today, you can get your entertainment and information in isolation and become your own echo chamber. Read something on Twitter, assume it to be true, Tweet it out again, and before too long it is 'true' simply because it's been repeated enough. Jean Baudrillard was very much right about where things were going. That said, the real work is up to each of us individually. If we work together, that's fine, but each of us must focus on what's important to us. Sadly, because of the ease of distraction, distraction is becoming 'the real work'. You can choose what is right or what is easy.

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, June 28, 2013 at 6:50 p.m.

    Booze Allen Hamilton needs to be investigated and probably replaced, but hanged ? Those who use such language and/or incite (let's say) inappropriate activities have yet to learn how to think and to know the power of words. So far, I still think we were better off without twits and fbeast or other unidentifiable commenters. Hard to build and build truthfully; easy to destroy.

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