Electronic maps are great. Their route planning vis-à-vis current traffic conditions is terrifically handy. But I am sure I am not alone in finding that reliance upon electronic guidance for direction to destinations impairs my ability to build my own internal maps of new territory – to know where I am and find my way.
I’m pretty good at orienteering. It’s an occupational requirement for professional outdoorsmen. I know where North is almost always, and without thinking about it; and I can often find my way to a new place by the seat of my pants. I’ve trekked in the wilderness for weeks with no better map than what I could draw on the back of an envelope, and never got lost. To be fair, I’ve also found myself totally bewildered in company with three other experienced outdoorsmen equipped with good topo maps and compasses under clear skies. Too many cooks in the kitchen, perhaps.
But when I rely upon electronic guidance to get to a new destination – rather than map reading, memory, and dead reckoning – I find that *I can’t find my way there the next time without that same electronic help.* Why? Because, knowing that as I travel I can rely upon the electronic guidance to support me in my first foray, I relax my conscious attention to my environment versus my map, and turn it instead to my own thoughts of this or that. I arrive at my destination, but without a vivid memory of how I got there. It’s almost like driving a route you’ve known for years; you do it automatically, thinking of other things, and arrive with no vivid recollection of the trip. The difference of course is that when I get someplace new in that semiconscious way, *I have no clear idea where I am.* I am disoriented. I literally don’t know where East is, and must examine the shadows to calculate it.
That state of disoriented befuddlement is a fitting analogy for what is overtaking us in many departments of modern life.
The clearest analogy is to reading. Again, I am sure many share my experience that the more time I spend reading online, the shorter my attention span becomes, and the harder it is to recall in any detail what I have read, or where. Thus the increasingly common locution in my speech: “I read online that …” Where did I read it? Can’t remember, exactly; have been to too many sites in the last two days to have kept track. What was the argument in support of it? It was … something or other, cogent at the time; can’t quite remember. Can I find it again? Maybe, maybe not.
Online books are great – it’s just fantastic to carry a whole library with me as I board a plane, and to have at my immediate disposal almost any book ever written – but they just don’t penetrate as deeply as the books I read without the help of a machine. They make highlighting too easy, and marginalia too hard. It is normal when I read printed books for new insights to bubble up in greater and greater profusion, the longer my session. That happens with online reading, too, but far less.
Then there is online video. The more you watch of it, the less able are you to labor through even simple texts, and the more laborious and unrewarding you find them.
It’s been clear to me since I began writing when still a boy that if you don’t read, you can’t write; and if you can’t write, you can’t think. Not clearly anyway; not well; so, not creatively. As more and more people have spent more and more time watching videos instead of reading, writing even in highbrow media, for highbrow audiences, has suffered horribly. Syntax, grammar, spelling, vocabulary, diction, and rhetorical coherence are crippled. All of those syndromes conflue toward a compounding inability to comprehend arguments, or a fortiori to form them; i.e., to think.
So people fall back on their emotions, and on the inbuilt wisdom of their bodies – upon their reflexes of disgust or pleasure, mostly – to guide them. These are by no means altogether stupid or bad guides, but they are no better than the equipment of our brothers and sisters among the higher mammals.
The less you read, the less you know, and the less can you think; and the more confused you become, whether or not you realize it; the more contradictory and mutually destructive are your policies, the more dissonant your notions, and the worse your ability to detect that dissonance, or therefore care about it.
Notions that are obviously stupid or wrong – such as socialism, fornication, or transsexuality – are not then by sloppy thinkers so easily detected as by those who excel at thought. They are not rejected. They remain current, and even gain adherents. There is then a multiplication of heterodoxies and their promoters, all of them competing for our attention, usually by recourse to ever more extraordinary scandal or subscendence. The greater their multiplication, the harder it becomes to focus enough attention on any one of them so as to test it – or to notice that by it one is under test.
The greater the multiplication of heterodoxies, the harder it is to detect temptation, or therefore resist it.
When you can’t tell the differences between good ideas and bad, one of the things that falls by the wayside is your ability to distinguish true authority from the specious sort. Authority as such then falls under suspicion. Cynicism, sarcasm, and irony then blossom; everyone is a critic, of everything.
There being no discernible authority, there is then no particular transcendent loyalty, to any person, creed, or project. All is fluid. The world is turned upside down; the mob becomes the authority: what is popular right now, what is hot? That then is the right thing. All that was solid melts into air.
There are then no landmarks, no way to know where exactly one is, or where one wants to go, or how to get there. That basic and incorrigible uncertainty and bewilderment about every department of life then fosters unrelenting anxiety, and eventually despair. This we see in the late explosion both of anxiety disorders and of clinical depression, which at the limit are having physiological and thus demographic effects: on sperm count, fertility, morbidity, and average life span.
Of the different sorts of natural terrain, the most confusing is a swamp in flat country. In a swamp, it can be almost impossible even to notice that you have been going round in circles, and are hopelessly lost. That is, increasingly, where we find ourselves: hopelessly lost in the Slough of Despond.
There is fortunately a reliable way out of the morass. It is difficult, but fairly simple. It is to pay attention; to decide consciously where you shall pay it, and then pay it there, deliberately turning it away from the myriad other allurements proffered to us all at every moment by the media and the internet.
This is precisely what monks do. They try to cut out all the distractions, and focus their attention – and, thus, their lives – on what is Most Important. It’s not easy, but it is simple.
More and more, laymen who want to live well – who want to live excellently – are going to have to adopt that monastic habit.
To direct your attention is a form of directing both your intention – so of guiding you to your preferred destination – and your intension – what it is that you and your journey are about, what they mean and signify. To do this is to begin to wake up from the dream of socially constructed reality, and again to encounter the world directly. It is a wonderfully refreshing exercise. The more you do it, the easier it gets, and the less worried and anxious you feel, even as your awareness of the hazard of your journey increases. Because why? Because you find yourself once again oriented. You learn – you remember – where you are, what it is that you are about, and where you ought to go with it.
A thoroughgoing and proper orientation, moreover, does not just inform us about the direction of the East, and so of the other cardinal directions. For, to know where True East lies – to be apprehending the directions of things truly – is ipso facto to be turned and directed Eastward, toward the Son of the Morning Star.