All day, I have kept company with The Scatter. Not that this is unusual, but today’s unasked companion has a slightly spikier flavor than garden-variety. It is pointing out to me how I live in other people’s heads, as much as my own.
This is novels and memoirs, of course. (I’m reading one of the latter called The Salt Path, and it’s 100% inhabitable, wonderfully so.) But these are a controlled habitation—a vacation, or perhaps a course of study, one with an end. And they seemed a reasonable proportion of my brainspace, before I also began to allow email, news, and social media (all things with no end or downtime) to take up such loud and regular presence in my thoughts. Even when I am not participating actively, these three collective minds remain, clamoring.
With those unholy triplets setting up their constant electric hum, other things I legitimately love long ago began to scatter me too. Online newsletters and quirky personal blogs. The private chatspace where a group of my friends discusses anything and everything, often asynchronously. Even library books are a source of scatter: there are all the books I could read, plus the books I don’t read once I’ve borrowed them, plus the books I do read, but at the expense of books I own. I am exhausted by things I love—by the choosing between them, and the task-switching to engage them all within the time alloted.
It’s my instinct to say this is a problem of too much, and possibly too shallow, information. I would not be alone in this, and I don’t doubt there’s something to it. But I’m coming to think a root of all this oversaturation is actually speed.
Doing fewer things, reading deeply before widely, thinking (actually thinking), opening space to create art, communicating with friends by letter and phone dates and distanced backyard one-on-ones—all of these things require an ethic of slowness. It’s not about less, it’s about more. But more depth. More slowness.
Slowness in a day, sure. But the very primacy of the day as organizing unit for activity betrays our cultural hurry.
When I get caught up in speed, it doesn’t look fast on the surface. I’m often home, often solitary, nearly always quiet and frequently silent. And this is perhaps why I’ve had trouble apprehending the problem.
My job, for example, I have learned to conduct slowly. (This is my privilege; as the only person employed by my current company who does what I do, I set the pace.) But the nature of my industry (tech) is fast, and the medium within which my job must be done (internet, and that’s must be done, there is no separation) is equally the epitome of speed. It’s also work I do with my mind, which sometimes spins right out of itself without my body—utterly passive—to rein it back.
My expectation of speed is set by other things I don’t control. Email, again. The much abused, yet rarely resisted, 24-hour news cycle. Our default methods of travel: car, and until recently, aeroplane. All equally un-embodied ways of moving through the world, now I think of it.
Always, I come back to the beginning and have to ask: ok then, what is the answer? How do I take back my focus, and my thoughts? And the answers I arrive at either feel, or are, impossible.
I cannot solve the problem at its root: I cannot live in a society that values human being more than it values convenience, compliance, and profit. That rocketship—to some corporate fantasy on Mars—sailed long ago. I cannot opt out of this society. Even if that were possible today, I don’t have the skills. And I’m not sure I’d want all the trade-offs.
I could quit my online job, and I could take my life offline. At which point I would replace The Scatter with some different, and probably equally distressing, anxiety. Maybe it would be more focused anxiety: closer to home, understandable, and within my sphere of influence. Honestly? I can’t imagine what that’s like. I live too far away.
I took a break from my paid online work to write this. Writing—work involving both of my hands and all my intellect—smoothes The Scatter. It’s the heavy silken flow of river, unspooling from the chop of rapids.
I went back to work. In my known reality, that’s required—if I want to eat, and to choose the particular shape of my shelter. Then I remembered I’d better harvest some broccoli for dinner, before it gets unpleasant to be outside in September’s heat. I stepped out here, and sun on the bricks scolded my bare feet. Cicada-song wrapped me up in its singular, droning purpose.
Kitchen shears in hand just now, and a bowl of leaves and florets, I stand amazed at how usefully slow—for a moment—I have become.