From: Willard McCarty <mccarty@phoenix.Princeton.EDU> (229)
Subject: Wired to Distraction
[The following article appeared in the bilingual Canadian academic
newspaper, our equivalent to the U.S. <t>Chronicle of Higher
Education</t>, in an issue devoted to "The wired campus". UA/AU is
published by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, 600
- 350 Albert Street, Ottawa, Ontario K1R 1B1. Contributions on topics of
interest to Humanists from similar publications are most welcome. --WM]
"Wired to Distraction". An interview with Bruce Powe.
<t>University Affairs / Affaires Universitaires</t>, December
1995, pp. 10-11. Republished with the gracious permission of the
editor, Christine Tausig Ford.
[In an interview with University Affairs, philosopher and author
Bruce Powe delivers an alternative message in a time of media
hype. Mr. Powe insists he is no technophobe, but he warns
Canadians not to be deluded by the technological paradigm as a
blanket solution to all our problems.
At his Toronto home, his telephone answering machine doesn't
always work and he doesn't own a fax, computer or word processor.
He prefers to write longhand, much to the dismay of his editors.
On the other hand, he helped produce a CD-ROM portrait of Glenn
Gould, entitled <t>Noise of Time</t>.
A student of Marshal McLuhan and Northrop Frye and an informal
reading adviser to Pierre Trudeau, Mr. Powe has written several
books, including <t>A Tremendous Canada of Light</t>, where he
puts forward the idea of Canada as a modern "communication state"
in process, and <t>The Solitary Outlaw</t>, where he discusses
the role of the intellectual in a mass culture society.
His new novel, <t>Outage</t>, explores some possible effects of
communications overload. Mr. Powe has lectured at York University
since 1984, and this year is also an academic adviser at York's
Q: You talk about living in a world with an overload of
communications technology. What are some of the consequences,
especially within the university community?
A: We live in an information glut. There's not only one
message coming at us, it's a multiple-message environment. It's
deeply distracting, overwhelming, confusing. And there's so much
stuff coming at us that people have a great deal of difficulty
making selections. What is it that we really need to know?
Because everything is pressing, everything is always urgent,
always at you, demanding attention, there's a vast distraction
The danger is that the rush and connections and speed and all the
vast inter-webbing seem to promise a kind of Utopia. And I think
you have to be very careful about those kinds of claims.
I'm all for a better world, that's not the issue. The issue is,
will this be the thing that does it? On the contrary what I see
happening is deeper alienation, more disconnection, more
paperwork and more over load -- and that very important
contemplative time that really is the point, to a certain extent,
of a university gets lost in all of that.
What worries me is that there's a sort of global insistence that
everybody wire up, and I don't think it's good for everybody.
For me, e-mail is just not useful. I can see the benefits: if you
can write more effectually, if you achieve more connections with
people, then wonderful. I get the same effect from writing
letters. I have a wide-ranging international correspondence. I
don't think e-mail prose is especially distinguished. John
Updike, in the New Yorker recently, had a blast at how bad
writing has become: the run-on sentence, for example, is almost
universal in student essays because of word processors. There's
that kind of fluidity -- you're not slowing down by handwriting,
and that's why I think some of the effects on prose are
Sometimes you have to take students back to a slower process and
sit down with a pencil or pen and start working off hard copy
again. Musicians talk about "touch memory", where your hands
know things. Glenn Gould used to say he would memorize things in his
hands. You experiment and explore with tactility as well as with the
listening. And I think, with handwriting, that's one of the great joys,
but also necessities. You're thinking with your hand.
Q: Has the omnipresence of TV had an effect on students'
capability to think, to write and to read?
A: TV is a titanic omnipresence. Students just assume TV now.
I was raised with books, with music and with television. But when
I look at young people, frequently they grew up in households in
which there were no books or very few, in which there's very
little silence, study, privacy, solitude, and in which there's
very little debate and conversation.
My experience with students is that, if the family does not
encourage a certain amount of debate, dialogue, conversation and
book reading, you have a tremendous amount of work to do at the
university level to catch up. Mass education has brought a degree
of literacy, but the deep comprehension, patient reading,
awareness of the traditions of language and understanding of the
book culture are very much limited.
I know this is going to sound like neo-conservatism but it's
probably cultural conservatism or traditionalism. If the book is
not in the home they will never really catch up. They will always
have some sort of difficulty with reading. They may pick it up
later but it will always be a struggle to come back to the
literary sensibility. That is the crucial issue here, the
question of sensibility: how we receive and process and engage
all this information in this volatile electronic environment.
At universities today you have people who were raised with a
literary sensibility who are now dealing with a group of people
who don't have any. And that is a profoundly difficult thing.
Anyone who has ever taught first-year or high school knows how
difficult it is to get students to read, and to read in any far-
ranging way. Frequently they will come around, but when you read
their essays they still have trouble writing sentences. I'm not
sure that any great return to grammar or rhetoric will actually
work. One reason is that their environment does not reinforce it.
Frequently, students are not aware of the electronic world
they're in. They just take it for granted.
Q: Do you see any positive consequences of the overload of
A: The positive side is that we are faced with the challenge
of distraction, and we have to learn to make selections. It's
even more imperative now because you have so much going on. It
all may seem useful and yet it may not be truly so to you. People
have to be alert in a way that they've never really been before.
One thing I find exciting about dealing with students who have
been raised in that electronic world is dealing with their
intuitive abilities. They're very astute in terms of
understanding something psychically. They read for authenticity,
not necessarily for complexity. Students have a great sense of
intuitive and almost X-ray awareness. They can tune into what's
going on, they sense their way.
Q: Why does electronic media lead to this openness?
A: Because it's like an X-ray of our system. TV is literally
a low-quality X-ray and it gives a kind of scanning of the human
psyche. What we bathe ourselves in all the time is a kind of
electromagnetic scan of our psyches. This is what is so
fascinating about it for us: we're watching the human identity
being spread out before us in a way that no one in human history
has ever had the opportunity to do.
A lot of it is second-hand experience, but first-hand in terms of
sensory effects. The TV does affect you, the computer does affect
you, the e-mail systems do affect you. So, while students are
frequently scattered intellectually and have very little
tradition and background in literary history, their ability to
respond to the moment and to intuitively respond and X-ray is
Q: What makes for a good teacher in the post-literate age?
A: I find that the greatest challenge to being a teacher is
staying true to your students. They need to see you vulnerable.
The most successful teachers I know are the ones who really show
themselves to their students, who get to know their students,
bring them in on a one-to-one basis, let them know what they've
been through with their studies in that the studies are not seen
as an abstract, detached scholarly work but that they have some
kind of personal authentic meaning. When students see that, the
student-teacher relationship just takes off.
I think the bottom line mentality that is now obsessing many
universities is sending out the same message to students that
politicians are sending out in the country, which is: this is a
time of limitation, of shutdown, of cut and slash. Think of the
language we use, it's all violent, and that language suggests
that there's nothing out there or if there is, it's very severe,
it's very hard.
I'm not suggesting university or society should be a warm bath,
but you also have an obligation when things are this hard to
provide some sort of inspiration and imagination, and cultivate
students' imagination to help them see options. They want to use
their strengths, which are intuition, sensitivity and
vulnerability. Those are great strengths.
So while I would argue -- and I would argue very strenuously --
that I don't think students get a very good literary background
anymore, and that within 150 years we may see that the book has
become a marginal, cottage thing, what you do see among students,
on the positive side, is all this hunger, desire and raw ability
to interpret where they are, and a kind of heightened
sensitivity. It frequently comes out as paranoia, what you hear
in their music, but it's absolutely authentic, it's true. I'd
hope more of us could find some way to really communicate with
Q: You see a problem for the individual's self identity
because of the preponderance of modern communication forms --
telephone, fax, TV, computer, radio, air travel. Why?
A: The question is not so much that self identity is
determined by electronic or any kind of communication forms. I
think the real point here is that there's a certain amorphousness
or uncertainty that's always at the heart of identity. Which is
why so many philosophers said 'one must become slowly', because
identity is capable of many, many manifestations. That is why
this process of finding one's identity is such an essential task,
and it's a lifelong task to find out what you're capable of. So
in an electronic environment where you have many manifestations going
on through the information glut, there is a real possibility that
individual self identity can be scattered, diffused, uncentred,
seduced, caressed, lured into all kinds of interesting combinations
and connections and disconnections.
It is not that telephone, fax, TV, computer, radio, air travel
inherently dislodge; it is just that there is a great deal of
dislocation already in the human identity, it is a process that
has to be shaped, forged. Therefore these very complex,
sophisticated technologies that we've created for ourselves can
extend and sometimes mangle and sometimes unseat, upset, and
sometimes enhance and enlarge identity.
They're like extra eyes, extra ears. The fact that the electronic
world reflects us back on an epic scale, this can be very
disorienting, and it can be fascinating. One has to learn the
process of selection, not to be deluded by it.
All these -- telephone, fax, computer, radio, TV -- offer an
experience of a kind but it's sensory, it's not existential. You
have to be very clear about that distinction. As long as you're
aware of the process you can begin to manoeuvre through the
thickets of reality.
Q: How will Canadians use what you see as our special
affinity with communication to our advantage in the coming
A: Canada is a country whose paradigm really is
communication. But often it's also miscommunication, the two go
together. And one of the things that's so interesting about this country
is that, yes, we must communicate with each other but we frequently don't
understand what we're saying to each other. There's this constant
breakdown, breakthrough process. The fact that we've done it largely
without violence is one of our great qualities. If we knew how
to sell this and promote it, we'd be one of the great cultural
imperialists in the world, but again, typically Canadian, we
Q: You've talked about how the communication age we live in
is a fast age, everything speeds up. You've also said that one of
Canada's strengths is that we've tended to take our time making
decisions. But now are we being pushed faster? Are we going to be
propelled into things with the danger of losing what we're good
A: Yes. If the ground of the electronic world is speed, is
rush, is haze, is blur, a kind of whirling information cyclotron,
then the danger is you can uproot things, lose things. The first
thing that goes is that question of identity and sensibility. The
sensibilities become confused, blurred. We lose a sense of
future, of focus. I'm not sure you have to be so careful as to
become immobile, I think you just have to be aware. The speed is
not going to go away; my impression is everything is going to
accelerate. So there has to be some countermining to it, which is
not just a contemplative time for oneself, but also a questioning
process -- is this really where you want to go?