Reach out and touch. No, not the ATT thing. Really reach out and physically touch something! Without moving from the chair, or the couch (or God forbid, the driver’s seat) reach out and touch something. Physically touch anything that’s within reach. Done it? Good. Now stretch a bit. Find something or someone (if that’s appropriate) at the furthest extent of your wingspan. Go ahead. Reach out and touch. There. You’ve defined the full circle of your physical proximity.
Two hundred years ago, that physical circle of proximity, was, most of the time, a reasonable map of our proximity of attention as well. Oh yeah, you might have a treasured memento from the old country that pulled your thoughts there as you cradled the object in your hand. Or some guy on a horse might come rushing in with the latest news, but even then there was a pretty clear crossing of a boundary between here and there.
These days? Not so much. It’s been a slow change. First telegraph, then telephone, then radio and T.V., computers, cell phones, and the Internet all came marching in across the decades and here we are. But where is here?
The Structure of Attention
Each of those wonderful innovations cut a tendon between our circle of physical proximity and the proximity of our attention. Now, like as not, our attention flops around in a macabre dance, all muscle, but no bone to give it order. We’ve all got our stories. Yesterday, on the way to work, a woman in a big white SUV rushed by me on the right through a school zone, yelling into her cell phone and gesticulating wildly. A block up she slammed on the brakes and backed up into traffic because she’d missed her turn into… the school to drop off her kid. Another driver who dared toot at her in protest was rewarded with the bird salute. Where exactly was her proximity of attention? A drastic case perhaps, but only an extreme on the all too common continuum from here to somewhere else.
This shift of proximity, this projection of ourselves from here to somewhere else can definitely be a wonderful thing. In the last years of her life, I was able to video chat with my Mom in Florida from my desk in Wisconsin. Seeing her face light up every time the connection went live and we could see each other said more than all the words we might throw over the wire. The ability of a specialist to participate in a critical medical diagnosis from half way around the world is truly a miracle of our modern Digital age. Maybe I’m just a control freak, but it seems like a good thing that even when work takes me away from my desk, that I can remain plugged in and productive across the whole range of my accountabilities and attachments, not just the one that has me on the road.
But these Digital miracles, they don’t come free. As we cut the tendons between physical and attentional proximity and take flight on that new freedom, we need to find other ways to structure that attentional proximity to direct it at our will instead of the other way around. One of the glories of the Analog world is that it’s not a great respecter of focus. Get too focused on one thing, too plugged in and the Analog world has a way of intruding to gently or not so gently remind us there might be other things to which we might be paying attention, worthy or not.
It’s very tough in the Analog world to give oneself completely over to a single thing, because every single thing blurs into every other single thing. In a strange sense it requires the ultimate multi-tasking. Perhaps that’s why we’re so attached to the Digital with its binary separations and representations that make the multi-task state switch oh so much easier, so much cleaner. The risk, the seduction is that we allow that shift of proximity in the representational world to detach us from our physical circumstances on a day-to-day basis. We become the woman in the large SUV on her cell phone.
Short term, that detachment can have obvious physical consequences if we don’t manage it properly. I’m more concerned, though, about the long term consequences for sustainable attachment and meaning. Don’t get me wrong. I draw meaning and purpose from my Digital associations, not the least of which is this Analog Underground community, dear reader. However, if we fail to manage that shift of attentional proximity from physical to representational, I fear the loss of some foundational slice of attachment and meaning that resides only in physical proximity. What happens to Digital meaning and attachment when the power go out?
Attention’s GPS Coordinates
This foundational, physical layer of attachment and meaning can be seen in almost any life. Ask the parent whose last child has gone off to college. Ask anybody who’s been in a long distance relationship. Ask the spouse of a deployed service member. Ask the widow of a fifty five year long marriage. Physical distance throws immense barriers in the way of our most meaningful and personal attachments.
Digital throws many bridges over that physical distance, and can carry us beyond a physically isolated moment in time. Call it social networking, call it circles, call it virtual reality (if you’re an old fart). We Digerati are always weaving ever more ambitious and sophisticated representational bridges to lift us up, over and out of our temporal, physical boundaries. However, the best of our Digital engineers know that the best bridges, even metaphorical ones, have strong physical foundations.
Much as we’d like to apply the Digital rules of time slicing, compression and store and forward to maintenance of those proximate physical foundations in our lives, that’s not how Analog works. It is becoming a staple of consultant speak that true expertise requires 10,000 hours of experience, experimentation, and practice. Whatever the source of that bit of wisdom, it rings true to me, matches my, well, experience (we won’t delve into how many 10’s of thousands of hours that adds up to right now).
There is no substitute for being fully, physically present to the people and things we care about. No injection of “Quality Time” magically speeds the bonding. No home directed teleconference from seat 3B of a flyover will endlessly sustain the mother-daughter bond. There is, sometimes, at random times, as this blurs into that and that blurs into yet something else, there is no substitute for being there. No matter how deeply nuanced the Digital representation, it is, finally, a substitution, something other than the reality of being physically, attentionally present. Perhaps, even often, the substitution is better than nothing, but it’s a long, long stretch to say it’s better than the real thing.