The Age of Disorientation

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.

8 thoughts on “The Age of Disorientation

  1. Kristor: How many times during your adult life have you ridden (front or back) passenger, and had little to no idea, by trip’s end, how you got to where you were going? Moreover, how many times have you been the driver in a vehicle in a small caravan playing “follow the leader” and experienced the same cognitive dissonance? This has happened to me dozens of times, and as a result I always insist on (1) driving, and (2) leading the caravan. As to no. 1 in particular, my wife has no objection whatever; she prefers arriving to our destination safely far above knowing every detail of how we got there. Such, it appears, is the providential complementarianism of our natures. 🙂

    • Oh, for sure, that happens all the time. If I drive, I know better where I am. If I don’t, then only by a conscious effort to will my attention, such as I describe at the end of the post, do I have any notion of my location.

      Nowadays, usually, my wife and I are driving to a new place together. I drive, she navigates using the internet, and gives me turn by turn direction. We arrive and *neither one of us* knows how to get back without electronic support. Although actually she usually has a better idea, because she has been looking at the map the whole time.

      What was really funny – well, funny in retrospect, but at the time maddening – was trying to rely on electronic guidance in rural Europe. The car would have onboard navigation of some sort, her phone would have Google Maps, *and the two would disagree.* Not just about route guidance, but about where we actually were. The two systems could have us in locations 3 kilometers apart. No kidding. One would tell us we were on the road; the other would tell us we were 2,000 meters up the adjacent mountainside.

      Last time we went through this, we were traveling with her two sisters and brothers in law, in two separate cars. We would poll the 4 or 5 systems in use by the two cars and 6 people, and by cell phone conversation try to decide where the heck we were supposed to go. Often, Google would direct us to take a turn into what looked like a rather puny driveway – and I mean, a *gravel* driveway – that turned out to be the main road to some pretty major town. The driveway seven feet wide, dating from AD 900, would turn into a substantial modern 2 lane blacktop, with guardrails and lane markings. Hilarious. In retrospect, I emphasize. At the moment of decision, you never knew whether or not you really were turning into a driveway or a highway. Dozens of times we drove right past turns that were *obviously* driveways or parking lots, and had to backtrack, sometimes miles later.

      It was all rather anxious, and could lead to some rather heated exchanges. “Turn right!” “Where?” “Right there!” “What? There’s no turn there! That was a churchyard! Where the hell are we?” “Well, there was a turn there. But now we are past it. Oh, well, keep going. There’s another just ahead.” “OK.” “Oh hell, you missed it!” “What? Where was it? That was a school!” Remembering this now, the tears are rolling. Sometimes we would stop for a beer just to collect our wits, and laugh our way back to some sort of perspective.

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  3. Nice analogy. Natural way finding depends on two things: a general sense of the direction you are traveling and a general sense of the landmarks that will tell you if you are on or off course. The most important landmarks are linear, since it is hard to cross a river or a road without noticing, but in open country prominent points such as mountains, rocks and isolated trees will serve. When we say that a man “carries a map in his head,” it does’t just mean that he knows the way to his destination. I’d call that way knowing, and say that it is just a matter of memorized instructions (turn right at the Shell station in Puddleville). Anyone who can remember how to make spaghetti sauce can remember how to get from A to B. Way finding is different because the way is actually found or discovered, perhaps with the aid of maps, but mostly with the map in the head. A way finder often does not know exactly where he is, and is very often on a road or trail he has never seen before, but he knows his general location because he knows he is within a polygon formed by a river, a road, and a ridge, and he knows the general direction in which he is traveling.

    I think this is relevant to your analogy because way finding is impossible in a strange place (e.g. a foreign city) until you get the landmarks in your head. I can quickly memorize the route from my pension to the bakery, but I cannot wander around with a hope of finding my way back until I am able to place myself in a polygon (I’m east of the river, south of the cathedral, and west of the Grand Boulevard). Moving to your analogy, the information explosion has made us bewildered tourists in foreign cities of which we have no mental map. We try to overcome this bewilderment with generalized theories about the layout of cities generally, but these generalized theories are not much use to a way finder.

    I think intellectual modesty the answer to this confusion. We are not designed to be way finders anywhere on earth, and we were not designed to comprehend everything we read on the internet.

    • Thanks, JM; I figured and hoped you’d have something intelligent to say about this geographic post.

      Your comment helps me realize that when I have been disoriented in the woods despite good topo maps, compass, clear skies, and the counsel of several other experienced outdoorsmen, the reason has always been *a profusion of landmarks* in the form of mountains. If you are in a valley surrounded by 7 peaks, there is a good chance that the map can be oriented in several ways that look right vis-à-vis those peaks. If the rotation between two of those alternatives is slight, then the compass might not be much help.

      Modern life is beset by a surfeit of potentially noteworthy landmarks. Most of them are noise. The task of ascertaining their relative importance is made much harder by political correctness, which forbids us from noticing many of the landmarks that are massively real, and forces us to guide our steps by landmarks that do not exist. Political correctness insists that the massive peaks surrounding us are merely fantastic and adventitious social constructs that we may safely ignore, and that their socially constructed fantasies are real and crucially important.

      Life is wayfinding. One of the functions of customs and traditions is to provide us with landmarks, tools and decision criteria – and, indeed, with well-trodden trails – that can help us find our way in unfamiliar country. Viz., the moral compass, and the cosmic map furnished by religion.

      Modernity has trashed all tradition. So we must perforce all figure out for ourselves by trial and error what tradition would once have taught us.

      Trial and error learning is of course rather painful. It is trial of error.

      It is modernity’s destruction of traditions that has opened cultural room for the idle fantasies of the Progressive Left.

      When you are not taught the reason of a tradition, or do not learn it, then in keeping it you are merely wayknowing: following a recipe or rubric for no reason you can discern, but only because that’s the way it has always been done by your people. A few generations of such catechetical failure, and a tradition can start to look absurd, stupid, costly and of no benefit, an unreasonable constraint upon creative action, indeed evil, and thus worthy of destruction.

      Such was the feeling of the Boomers in 1967.

      • Finding one’s way in a mountain mass is very difficult because there are too many peaks, and each peak has several faces. Everyone thinks they know what the Matterhorn looks like, but it looks like that from only one direction. Mountain streams also tend to look very much alike. It is easy to get lost in a featureless landscape, but also in one that is full of features that look very much alike. Suburban sprawl, for instance.

        It was easy to keep one’s bearings in the old philosophies and religions because all of the faiths and schools had names. One could pick up a book and quickly ascertain that it was written by a Mormon or a Mohammedan, by an Epicurean or a Stoic. I think these categories are analogous to the polygons I mentioned in my first comment. So long as an author contended that the universe was without inherent purpose, I know I am still in the Epicurean polygon. Once he begins to talk of a logos, I know we have crossed the river into Stoicism. We have some labels–feminism, cultural Marxism, neo-conservativism, but many of the main features remain unnamed.

      • Hah! Yes. That’s why the Left has to engage so constantly and incessantly in ever more and ever more extreme virtue signaling. Because the main features remain unnamed, none of them can ever be sure of any ideological safe harbor.

        A signal of virtue is a signal that, *whatever the ideological safe harbor might be,* the signaler intends to be in it.

  4. Pingback: Cantandum in Ezkhaton 06/30/19 | Liberae Sunt Nostrae Cogitatiores


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