Saturday, June 11, 2011


One of the many, many irritants in my life is the music they play near the elevators in my apartment building. The radio station (yes, they still have those) that I am forced to listen to for a few minutes every morning describes itself as “the home of the best rock of the 70s and 80s”, by which they mean some of the worst music in the history of the world. I can do without “Highway to Hell” at any time. I certainly don’t need to hear it at 7:45 AM. Yesterday it was “Hotel California.” At 7:30 in the morning. I felt like I was the person in the song. If I were an aging hippy, and lived in a van, and were brain damaged from too many drugs, I might want to listen to the Eagles at 7:30 in the morning. But I’m not. So I don’t.

Some mornings, I catch the station between songs. But this only makes things worse, when the disk jockeys (yes, they still have those, too) are bantering. This station has three of them. You know the types: the one who always seems to be suppressing a laugh at his own joke; the one with the barking voice who sounds like he’s going to tell you that this FRIDAY, at the METRODOME, the first hundred FAMILIES to see MONSTER TRUCKS get a FREE 12-GAUGE; and then there’s the hapless female, who makes inane sexual innuendos at her own expense. She serves no other purpose on the show. When I get to Hell that’s what will be awaiting me. An eternity of listening to FM Whatever-Whatever, Home of the Hits.

In the winter, my morning ritual involves a short walk to the corner of the downtown intersection to catch a bus. I used to stop at Starbucks for an espresso, but the long lines, the fact that, after a while, I caught myself translating my own order into Italian (“doppio espresso”), and their diurnal selection of music just became too much.  The musical selection usually involved the latest CD by another in a litany of minimalist folk-rock females of modest talent who will one day be featured during a weepy montage sequence at the end of an episode of Grey’s Anatomy.  In Starbucks, you get the added bonus of listening to the counter-staff (who are supposed to be making your espresso) talking about the music. (“This is Morgana Wheatfield. She is, like, so cool. She’s, like, such a great poet.”)  People who work at Tim’s prefer the Eagles, I think.

Out the door, espresso in hand. Standing at the corner, waiting for my bus. My city has located all of its social services in the core. There are arguments for and against this, and for good historical reasons I get quite uneasy at the suggestion from some of my city’s quite clueless public officials that all such services and the people who use them should be “relocated to the east.”  Anyway, the very core of the city is a haven for small-time drug dealers. They’re there all day long, and everybody knows it. In an effort to get them to move, the owners of the building set up speakers and started playing classical music at quite a loud volume. The hope was that this would be so unendurable to the dealers that they would leave. This hasn’t worked but I suspect that, in six months or so, London will have the most erudite and cultured criminal element anywhere.

And then the bus arrives. I sit between two people wearing iPods and playing them at such a volume that I can hear every note. And usually the music sounds something like: “WAAGGHAH! AAAARAGHA! WOOOOO! BAY-BEE! WAAAAGHAHAGH!” and the people listening to it nod their heads and play drums on their knees while I’m trying to read a book. Add to that the following fact:  my city’s busses talk. Insert blasphemy of your choice here. Can I say it again? My city’s busses talk. The busses. Talk.  They announce the next stops. This is one thing on a subway, where the stops are blocks apart. It’s another on a bus, where they are fifty feet apart.

Silence. Please? May I have a moment without an endless cacophony of noise? Well, yes. Because then I get to class. It used to be, only a few years ago, that when I wanted to start lecturing I would have to tap the podium for some time to bring my students’ chattering to a close so that I could begin the process of crushing their youthful enthusiasm for learning. (“I'm teaching you to think critically. Now memorize this lecture: it's on the exam.”)

So, what has changed? Well, now when I enter the lecture hall there is silence. Because my students aren’t talking to one another. They’re “talking” to people who aren’t there. They’re sending text messages on a device that used to be used for speaking.  (
Some day there will be a class-action lawsuit against Blackberry and others by the all the people who got arthritis by the time they were forty because of the thousands of hours they spent typing with their thumbs. Mark my words. It will happen.) And they almost never stop, just like the people who get on the elevator in my building in the morning, who start texting in the ten-foot walk between their apartment door and the elevator. Like the people on the bus, texting where a decade ago they might have been reading a book. Like the woman out walking her dog the other day, texting while she was walking, who strayed onto my side of the path while my bicycle and I were barreling down onto her.  I nearly hit her.  Like the grown man, texting behind the wheel of his SUV, who nearly hit me while I was crossing an intersection. Like the boring couples I see in restaurants, texting while sitting directly across the table from one another. Like increasing numbers of colleagues at meetings. Well, they might have a point there.

But why, really? What is so important? Well, nothing, of course. We have no evidence that students are smarter or businesses more efficient or people happier because we can now all "talk" to everyone all the time. On the contrary. What is important is that our brains want it and want it all the time. Our brains evolved to do simple things. Find a nut. Get an endorphin hit. Find a berry. Get an endorphin hit. Trap a small rodent. Get an endorphin hit. Now it’s: get an e-mail. Endorphins. Get a text. Endorphins. Send a text. Endorphins. These behaviours are a literally addictive byproduct of a behavioural process that evolved for other purposes. And it’s just one more thing that’s making people dumber. Every minute they spend sending messages they don’t need to send is another they could have been doing something meaningful with the ever-decreasing number of minutes that they have left.

Students sometimes ask me, “What can I do to get ahead?” By this, I assume they mean, “What can I do to get ahead of my classmates?” It’s a fair question, because it’s a dog-eat-dog world where they’re going to be competing for smaller numbers of good jobs with increasing numbers of highly credentialed classmates. My advice? Leave the laptop at home and get a cell phone for emergencies only. Then encourage your classmates to get the newest Blackberry and bring their laptops to school. I predict a twenty-point spread in grades at the end of a twelve-month period. Try it and see if I’m not right.

Addendum, June 13th. Just finished reading a very good and profoundly startling book, Nicholas Carr's The Shallows in which the author argues that our cognitive equipment simply can't handle the amount of stimulus I talked about in this column and the last. The exigencies of modern life require mastery over a range of skills, but really learning something important requires concerted effort and concentration on one thing (or a small number of things) at a time. Modern communications technology, however, practically demands and usually receives shallow and superficial spurts of attention. It is making us stupider. In fact, I took time out from marking to write this paragraph. And you, presumably, took time out from something else to read it.


Graham Broad said...

This early update brought to you by a 3.5 hour traffic jam on the 401.

Anonymous said...

The buses "talk" to assist blind people. Just saying.

gwarder said...

I thought that's what dogs are for

Dotty dot dot said...

You've made some interesting points on social media, but I find myself more baffled by you (a) buying an espresso at Starbucks, thereby receiving it in what I can only assume to be a giant paper cup; and (b) taking go!

Graham Broad said...

Yes, but I cleaned that paper cup with rainwater and then filled it with composted soil and am using it to grow medicinal herbs.