On broken time and broken attention

“One further effect of our closer time co-ordination and our instantaneous communication must be noted here: broken time and broken attention. The difficulties of transport and communication before 1850 automatically acted as a selective screen, which permitted no more stimuli to reach a person than he could handle: a certain urgency was necessary before one received a call from a long distance or was compelled to make a journey oneself: this condition of slow physical locomotion kept intercourse down to a humane scale, and under definite control. Nowadays this screen has vanished: the remote is as close as the near: the ephemeral is as emphatic as the durable. While the tempo of the day has been quickened by instantaneous communication the rhythm of the day has been broken: the radio, the telephone, the daily newspaper clamor for attention, and amid the host of stimuli to which people are subjected, it becomes more and more difficult to absorb and cope with any one part of the environment, to say nothing of dealing with it as a whole.

The common man is as subject to these interruptions as the scholar or the man of affairs, and even the weekly period of cessation from familiar tasks and contemplative reverie, which was one of the great contributions of Western religion to the discipline of the personal life, has become an ever remoter possibility. These mechanical aids to efficiency and cooperation and intelligence have been mercilessly exploited, through commercial and political pressure: but so far – since unregulated and undisciplined – they have been obstacles to the very ends they affect to further. We have multiplied the mechanical demands without multiplying in any degree our human capacities for registering and reacting intelligently to them. With the successive demands of the outside world so frequent and so imperative, without any respect to their real importance, the inner world becomes progressively meager and formless: instead of active selection there is passive absorption ending in the state happily described by Victor Bransford as “addled subjectivity.”

Lewis Mumford in Technics and Civilzation (1934)

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