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New York Mag May 25, 2009Back in 1971, when the web was still twenty years off and the smallest computers were the size of delivery vans, before the founders of Google had even managed to get themselves born, the polymath economist Herbert A. Simon wrote maybe the most concise possible description of our modern struggle: What information consumes is rather obvious: It consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it. As beneficiaries of the greatest information boom in the history of the world, we are suffering, by Simon’s logic, a correspondingly serious poverty of attention.”  “In Defense of Distraction,” By Sam Anderson (New York magazine, May 25, 2009)

Okay, so I’m a little behind in my reading. But that is exactly what Mr. Anderson’s article is all about.  Distraction.  Throw bipolar disorder and ADD into the mix and you have a mind that can’t stop gorging itself on available information.

That’s also the reason I post less frequently than I would like.  Too much.  Of everything.  The e-mails, the RSS feeds, the Facebook notifications, the Tweets…all keep begging for my attention.

The Internet is basically a Skinner box engineered to tap right into our deepest mechanisms of addiction. As B. F. Skinner’s army of lever-pressing rats and pigeons taught us, the most irresistible reward schedule is not, counterintuitively, the one in which we’re rewarded constantly but something called variable ratio schedule, in which the rewards arrive at random.”

Mr. Anderson’s likening the Internet to a Skinner box was very enlightening.  Part of how we change behavior is by knowing why we engage in that behavior to begin with.  After spending the morning wandering through a couple of bookstores, it occurred to me that I was merely wasting time, not, as I had been deluding myself, doing research.  I am always waiting for that next piece of brilliant, entertaining, thought-provoking information that will lead to an insight, that will lead to a post, that will lead to…what?  Being cured?  Happy?  Successful?  Rich?  Adored?

Is anything every really enough?  I doubt it.  We (most of us) are hardwired to want more.  Sure, there are some people who can happily check-out, spend their “golden years” playing golf in Boca Raton.  But that seems to be less and less the case these days as the world gets smaller and as we discover ideas that twenty years ago would never have made it past the front door of our suburban home.  With more exposure often comes more desire.  If you didn’t know there was such a thing as an iPhone, you wouldn’t want one.  Trouble is, now you not only know about it, you have one, only you’re not satisfied with it because you’ve just found out that the newer version comes with video.

The truly wise mind will harness, rather than abandon, the power of distraction.”

 

I don’t have a problem with being unhappy, dissatisfied.  It’s depression, a totally different animal, that I find unbearable.  I have always thought that wanting more is a good thing, you know, like sharks: if you don’t keep moving forward you die.  And by more, I don’t mean “more,” or bigger, or better, or faster.  I mean like learning to speak French fluently, or being able to play the piano, or hike Mt. Kilimanjaro, or win the Pulitzer, an Oscar, or a Tony.  Not having a Pulitzer doesn’t make me unhappy. It’s not like I need one.  But I can’t exactly be completely happy either if I really want one (am striving for one) but don’t have one yet.

I think the best we should strive for as humans is to be content.  Anything more is foolhardy, anything less a waste of what we do have.

But I did finally drag myself away from the bookstore and into the library where I am now writing this.  Okay, true confession; I didn’t start writing this until after I had perused the new books section for some possible unforeseen gems.  I mean, I did have to pass it on the way to the writing desks.  Hey, change is hard.

As Mr. Anderson’s wife reminds him, “You have all the information you need to do something right now.”

And so do I.

Thanks for allowing me to be one of your distractions.

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The Outliers by GladwellThe people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves.  But in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot.  It makes a difference where and when we grew up.  The culture we belong to and the legacies passed down by our forebears shape the patterns of our achievement in ways we cannot begin to imagine.” “Outliers: The Story of Success,” by Malcolm Gladwell  

The world seems to be conspiring against me.  Seems to want me back on medication.  Do you have any idea how hard it is for someone who is bipolar just to get out of bed some days?  The highs are tolerable, but the lows, those deep periods of depression are often unbearable.  

But the world demands that we get out of bed regardless of our frame of mind, get dressed, try to be productive.  And so I do.  I shower, I shave, I get dressed.  I turn off the TV because I cannot bear to hear all of the mindless conjecture about Michael Jackson.  Was it murder?  Suicide?  Assisted suicide?  Accidental drug overdose?  

Later, in my car, out on the open road and trying to let the cool breeze and sunny day lift my spirits, I am again badgered by the public radio station with details of deaths in Iraq, nuclear threats from North Korea and the latest unemployment figures.  Then there are special reports about global warming, AIG’s request to give out more bonuses, and the state of California’s mandatory furloughs (really?  furloughs?) and its unfortunate need to hand out IOU’s instead of checks. 

I really want to be well informed.  But at what cost?  For whatever reason I am sensitive to such negativity.  It doesn’t trigger sadness in me.  It doesn’t trigger anger.  It detonates any sense of hope and that triggers depression. 

So I’ve turned everything off, at least temporarily.  I just need a brief respite from all the negativity.  Some time to regroup.  To rebalance my energy.  Then I can tackle that global warming issue or go shopping to try and help Schwarzenegger refill the state coffers.  

New York MagazineBut as I sort through the mail I come across the latest issue of New York magazine.  That should lift my spirits, I think.  I’ll flip through it and get some ideas for a trip I’m planning in August.  Perhaps find a new restaurant or pick out a couple of Broadway shows to see.  Sadly, instead, only a dozen shiny pages into it, the will to live becomes a distant memory. 

An essay on Levi Johnston makes me want to go back to bed and bury my head under the covers.  This seems to me, given my current state of mind, the exclamation point on the downfall of society.  It is the epitome of granting a person celebrity status for no apparent reason. 

I guess it’s true, that being rich and successful is predicated by luck more than anything.  So why bother?  If you believe what Malcolm Gladwell has to say, and he has some pretty interesting details to back up his speculation, good fortune is the basis for success.  And while he focuses his comments on the rich and famous, there is no denying the same applies to the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker.  Or the high school hockey player form Wasilla. 

The sense of possibility so necessary for success comes not just from inside us or from our parents.  It comes from our time: from the particular opportunities that our particular place in history presents us with.” “Outliers: The Story of Success,” by Malcolm Gladwell 

The truth is, I don’t mind wallowing in relative obscurity.  I have a roof over my head and food on the table, and that is a lot more than many do in what is supposed to be the greatest (or at least the wealthiest) country on the planet.  And I don’t begrudge anyone their fame and fortune.  If it’s deserved.  But perhaps that’s relative too. 

Perhaps I wouldn’t be so depressed by the news that Levi is getting movie deals and book contracts if someone could give me some (any) justification as to why? 

And in case you’re wondering, that is NOT a rhetorical question.

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