Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Electronic Distraction

“All men's miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone,” said Blaise Pascal more than three hundred fifty years ago. It seemed a dubious claim on first impression. All men’s miseries? I knew Pascal was an accomplished mathematician and would likely have been as precise about language as he was about numbers. This, however, was more of a philosophical statement than a mathematical proof. I suspected he was referring to people’s ability to ponder things eternal but I wasn’t sure.

Pascal was especially proficient in probability, which some claim he invented, and best known for “Pascal’s Wager” quoted here: “Belief [in God] is a wise wager. Granted that faith cannot be proved, what harm will come to you if you gamble on its truth and it proves false? If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation, that He exists.”

What’s implied is that should one wager that God doesn’t exist as understood in Christian faith, then live a debauched life, then die to discover there really is a god he would lose everything and spend eternity in hell. I knew Pascal was a man of faith. My reading of him indicated that faith was derived not from mathematical proofs, but from grace. Respected as a man of science, peers would likely have challenged him to justify that faith in mathematical language, and he came up with was his famous wager.

The wager was easy enough to understand even for this mathematically-retarded writer. Though not all will agree, anyone can comprehend what he meant whether atheist, agnostic, or believer - but what was this about human misery caused by not being able to sit in a quiet room alone? Did he mean individual human misery, or that collective misery experienced by nations or cultures? More meaning came to me over time. Won’t say I fully get it yet, but observing my fellow Americans over the past couple of decades, I’m getting clues.

The first clues came watching young people with portable electronic devices. Playing beep-beep games on little boxes, they were completely absorbed, ignoring their surroundings. Others were plugged into devices pouring sounds into their ears, some innocuous, but others angry and degrading. Their attention was focused exclusively on those sounds, excluding all other sensory input - and their own thoughts. It bothered me.

Then came cell phones. Anybody my age remembers when there was no such thing, but after a dozen years or so, my wife, myself, and my elderly mother were the only people I knew who didn’t have one. I gave in finally, but only because there were hardly any public telephones around anymore, so if I was away from home and needed to call it was the only option. The first time I saw someone using one was a sidewalk in Boston. A woman walked along talking to someone who wasn’t there and it bothered me. I was annoyed and couldn’t figure out why.
When strangers are walking on a city sidewalk, we’re together in the same place doing the same thing. We’re each in our own thoughts but aware of one another. We learn not to make eye contact but we’re aware. When some are engaged in animated conversation with others far away, however, they’re not fully present. Then I’d think: so what? They’re strangers. Why should what they do annoy me? As long as they’re not bumping into me, why should I care? If the person being spoken to on the other end of the line were physically present on the sidewalk it wouldn’t bother me, so what difference should it make if he or she is somewhere else?It’s not rational, I know, but I was kind of insulted. I resented that a person whom I’d never met and would not likely ever see again, was choosing to converse with someone else instead of walking along silently with me.

While there are likely some benefits to follow from increased communication between people, I also sensed a fundamental shift in human behavior both individual and collective that didn’t bode well. Then I would ponder Pascal’s observation about sitting alone.

Now we have smart phones which combine beep-beep games with cell phone technology, as well as countless other capabilities and they’re ubiquitous. Traveling through airports or on elevators, or subways, people everywhere concentrate on their smart phones. If they were reading a book, it wouldn’t bother me, I guess because that’s a kind of contemplative exercise. Talking on a cell phone isn’t and I don’t like sitting there listening to one end of a conversation when I’m reading my book, or just sitting and thinking. I’m reminded of people who cannot abide silence and talk endlessly about the inconsequential. To sit alone in a quiet room requires that one be comfortable in his own skin, at peace with his Maker, content with his purpose in life.

I cannot accurately gauge whether American ability to be quietly alone is strengthening, weakening, or is static. I sense, however, that it’s declining. We don’t like our own thoughts. We need to be constantly plugged in to information, mindless beep-beep games, or conversation. Only the last was available in Blaise Pascal’s time, and he recognized a weakness even then. I wonder what he would he say of he looked around here in the 21st century.


Texas Transplant said...

People have often heard my complaint: "Everyone seems to be talking, but no one is really saying anything". That is why I enjoyed today's column. Thanks, Tom!

Anonymous said...

Simon and Garfunkle had it right listening to the Sounds of Silence.
I wonder how many people take the time to sit outside on a cold winter night and listen to the 'hissing' of the snowfall. Or have bothered to listen to the old wooden house creaking and groaning and whining about the cold. Silence is very loud if you pay attention.

Anonymous said...

"What’s implied is that should one wager that God doesn’t exist as understood in Christian faith, then live a debauched life, then die to discover there really is a god he would lose everything and spend eternity in hell."

So, let me get this right, Pascal, and you, are implying there is only a christian version of god? And, if you don't believe that you will go to hell for an eternity?


buttercup said...

You kids get offa my lawn!

Winston Smith said...

Yup. Cell phones, tablets, portable video games, anything to distract and stop critical thinking in this sewer of a country. How about cancer and cell phones?
What's that? Conspiracy theory? Wow how original and unimaginative. You think holding a microwave up to your head isn't going to do any damage? Hahahaha

Indeed we are distracted. And unfortunately we cannot afford to enjoy the calming silence of time alone. When we have a president who is actually destroying our constitution and no one cares---when we illegally invade countries and no one cares---when the banksters got away with everything and no one cares--when the "press" spins the last bastion of freedom we have--protest and civil disobedience--as unorganized sex and drug parties and people actually believe it, well.......

We live in a nation of shallow vapid hypocrites consumed with materialism and controlling other people.

America? Its over. Nice try

Anonymous said...

So what's your point? That you're smarter, better, more aware than the rest of us? Tom, you have already made that abundantly clear.

Anonymous said...

"we don't like our own thoughts" really? Speak for yourself please. Those of us who are aware and actually like things like freedom and the bill'of rights survive by our own thoughts.

Clearly you like others to think for you, as do many many others in this corporatocracy. Just because you've sold your soul to some two party non sense in the name of a savior you have nothing in common with don't blame the rest of us.
You dont like your own thoughts because you simultaneously claim to be a Christian and endorse genocide, slaughter, war and detest freedom. That's not our fault. It's yours. Wake the f@$@ up maybe?

You can't claim to be a Christian then endorse killing, hate and prejudice. Well. I take that back, you can claim that, but no one with a brain will take you seriously.

Anonymous said...

It would be nice to have a former history teacher's perspective on how President Obama is actually defying the constitution with his actions.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Mclaughlin.
I am a former student and just learned of this crazy and very horrible story right here in Maine. There is NO media coverage!! PLease, please check this out

We need to end this now. These sick perverts are running around free! Why? Because they are the ones in control!! Sick sick sick

Anonymous said...

africans arent allowed to have cell phones.