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Attack of the Shadow People

Michael Grady | Feb 10, 2014, midnight

And the cop, utterly used to this phenomenon, asked him what kind of phone he got.

What the hell?

I don’t believe in the death penalty. But I do believe in poetic justice. And I think distracted drivers who cause accidents should be required to undergo some kind of invasive medical procedure while their surgeon trolls for kitten pictures on the Internet.

Forget the blinding stupidity behind phoning and driving. Forget that future generations will look back on us as morons. (“You texted while driving?” They’ll ask. “Why not juggle while you were at it?”) They will regard us the same way we look at those who bled the sick with leeches, drove without seatbelts and smoked cigarettes as a “pick-me-up”—distracted drivers are the most dangerous expression of a societal trend that I find destructive and sad.

We see it every time a phone caller breezes through a checkout line without so much as a word to the cashier. We see it in restaurants, when two people sit down to eat and then one or both of them takes calls at the table. I see it every time parents glance away from their children to read or send a text. We are subdividing our focus so much, we are becoming a race of half-attentive shadow people.

Technology now allows us to act with the powers of multiple people: we can sit at our desks at work, talking on the phone to clients across town as we email a colleague in another continent and scroll for shoes on Amazon to the music of a composer who died centuries ago. We have the capacity of being in so many places at once that we inhabit none of them fully. While this is tremendously attractive from a time management standpoint—and it really rocks your to-do list—it does have its long-term drawbacks.

Very few of us are Einsteins in the first place. Even if you get my full attention, you’re not going to twitch under all that crackling cerebral wattage. But then, if you cut my attention in half—give me two tasks, a live conversation and a TV screen to follow—do you think I am more or less effective? (Ask my wife this question any time she’s talking and Paul Goldschmidt is at bat.) Halve it again: add a crawler on the TV screen; add a child in the background. Suddenly, your consciousness is playing a prevent defense, and it’s all you can do to keep up with the stimulus in front of you—let alone think about it. People spend their days this way. People operate heavy machinery this way. People sit in boardrooms and make decisions this way. (Which, I believe, is the only reason why “American Idol” is still on the air.)

The problem isn’t so much what we do (although I’m convinced the superficial sound bite politicians we elect depend upon our short attention spans) it’s what we miss: I wonder what if our critical thinking skills, creative problem-solving and literacy rates will suffer because we’re so busy walking into mall fountains as we scroll for the latest Grumpy Cat post. I know, as far as society goes, the multitasking toothpaste is pretty much out of the tube. We’re never going to go back to mud huts, where we live like shamans and watch grass grow.

But the really powerful moments in life only come when we are fully-focused on something, and we can’t lose the ability to do that. I want my grandsons to be able to contemplate the stars and their significance without wondering what’s on their Twitter feed. And I hope we carve out time to cultivate quiet for the solitary exercises that feed our souls: things like reasoning, contemplation, appreciation…

And driving. Those of us who survived the “Me Generation” don’t want to be casualties of the “Huh? What?” Generation.

Michael Grady is a Valley-based freelance writer, reporter and playwright.

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