Living with distraction: a rejoinder to Louis C.K.
Over the last few days I’ve rewatched Louis C.K.‘s Conan clip several times and talked of it with anyone who will listen. His point of departure is the case for denying his children smartphones, but he soon dwells on a much more disturbing subject, namely the threat that continuous connectivity poses for selfhood.
The bit is funny because, like pretty much all good standup, it is at once patently obvious and painfully true: solitude is a challenging experience and we’re hopeless at turning down an opportunity to feel part of the human community. Even if the gesture of inclusion is shallow and short-lived, like a text message, we spring for it instinctively.
What’s really interesting here (and probably the source of the routine’s comic weight) is that he’s willing to go out and admit that a text message from a friend momentarily resolves the existential anxiety he refers to as “that thing, that forever empty.” It’s an absurd proposition, really, but of course there’s some uncontroversial truth to it: when we’re even mildly entertained it’s hard to be sad; when stimulated it’s hard to be bored; when communicating with other people it’s hard to feel alone.
The somber note of his routine is the suggestion that we’re worse off for being able to run from solitude so easily. He implies that empathy will be harder to develop. I have to disagree, at least in one very important respect.
Mental discipline is the great differentiator of our era
The fact that distraction is increasingly inexpensive shouldn’t be seen as ineluctably tragic; instead we should think of the onslaught of opportunities for diversion as offering us a fundamentally new form of fitness.*
Armchair prognostication is a hazardous endeavor, but here goes nothing. If Louis’ kids and their peers grow up inundated with unconscionable possibilities of diversion, won’t they have even more respect for the discipline that overcomes them? Won’t they value even more highly than we do the will power needed to establish a life that doesn’t merely consist of diversion? Won’t all their accomplishments, their inventions and creations and new forms of expressions, won’t they seem all the more prodigious because they were achieved despite the distractions? Is this ever not the case in history?
Selfhood is always already about overcoming distractions; the chief distraction for the self has always been society. A pocket sized always-on communication device is a privilege. It raises the bar. It’s harder than ever to know oneself and harder than ever to find the time and force of will to keep a thoughtful journal or read a difficult book. But whenever you actually do succeed, doesn’t it feel good?
*The evolutionary undertone here is intended. Though it would be hard to conceive of reproductive advantage through mental discipline alone, its presence to varying degrees could easily beget most or all of the sexual selection criteria of the future.