Your Attention Didn’t Collapse. It Was Stolen

January 5, 2022

When he was nine years old, my godson Adam developed a brief but freakishly intense obsession with Elvis Presley. He took to singing Jailhouse Rock at the top of his voice with all the low crooning and pelvis-jiggling of the King himself. One day, as I tucked him in, he looked at me very earnestly and asked: “Johann, will you take me to Graceland one day?” Without really thinking, I agreed. I never gave it another thought, until everything had gone wrong.

Ten years later, Adam was lost. He had dropped out of school when he was 15, and he spent almost all his waking hours alternating blankly between screens – a blur of YouTube, WhatsApp and porn. (I’ve changed his name and some minor details to preserve his privacy.)

He seemed to be whirring at the speed of Snapchat, and nothing still or serious could gain any traction in his mind. During the decade in which Adam had become a man, this fracturing seemed to be happening to many of us. Our ability to pay attention was cracking and breaking.

I had just turned 40, and wherever my generation gathered, we would lament our lost capacity for concentration. I still read a lot of books, but with each year that passed, it felt more and more like running up a down escalator. Then one evening, as we lay on my sofa, each staring at our own ceaselessly shrieking screens, I looked at him and felt a low dread. “Adam,” I said softly, “let’s go to Graceland.”

I reminded him of the promise I had made. I could see that the idea of breaking this numbing routine ignited something in him, but I told him there was one condition he had to stick to if we went. He had to switch his phone off during the day. He swore he would.

When you arrive at the gates of Graceland, there is no longer a human being whose job is to show you around. You are handed an iPad, you put in little earbuds, and the iPad tells you what to do – turn left; turn right; walk forward. In each room, a photograph of where you are appears on the screen, while a narrator describes it. So as we walked around we were surrounded by blank-faced people, looking almost all the time at their screens.

As we walked, I felt more and more tense. When we got to the jungle room – Elvis’s favourite place in the mansion – the iPad was chattering away when a middle-aged man standing next to me turned to say something to his wife. In front of us, I could see the large fake plants that Elvis had bought to turn this room into his own artificial jungle.

“Honey,” he said, “this is amazing. Look.” He waved the iPad in her direction, and began to move his finger across it. “If you swipe left, you can see the jungle room to the left. And if you swipe right, you can see the jungle room to the right.”

His wife stared, smiled, and began to swipe at her own iPad. I leaned forward. “But, sir,” I said, “there’s an old-fashioned form of swiping you can do. It’s called turning your head. Because we’re here. We’re in the jungle room. You can see it unmediated. Here. Look.”

I waved my hand, and the fake green leaves rustled a little. Their eyes returned to their screens. “Look!” I said. “Don’t you see? We’re actually there. There’s no need for your screen. We are in the jungle room.” They hurried away. I turned to Adam, ready to laugh about it all – but he was in a corner, holding his phone under his jacket, flicking through Snapchat.

At every stage in the trip, he had broken his promise. When the plane first touched down in New Orleans two weeks before, he took out his phone while we were still in our seats. “You promised not to use it,” I said. He replied: “I meant I wouldn’t make phone calls. I can’t not use Snapchat and texting, obviously.”

He said this with baffled honesty, as though I had asked him to hold his breath for 10 days. In the jungle room, I suddenly snapped and tried to wrestle his phone from his grasp, and he stomped away. That night I found him in the Heartbreak Hotel, sitting next to a swimming pool (shaped like a giant guitar), looking sad.

I realised as I sat with him that, as with so much anger, my rage towards him was really anger towards myself. His inability to focus was something I felt happening to me too. I was losing my ability to be present, and I hated it. “I know something’s wrong,” Adam said, holding his phone tightly in his hand. “But I have no idea how to fix it.” Then he went back to texting.

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