Susan Jacoby: The Culture of Distraction

Photo by Alyssa Pawluk/ The Jambar

By Alyssa Pawluk

Photo by Alyssa Pawluk/ The Jambar
Photo by Alyssa Pawluk/ The JambarSusan

On Tuesday, in Kilcawley Center’s Chestnut Room, students and faculty listened to author and secularist Susan Jacoby’s lecture on the rise of anti-intellectualism in America — a topic covered in her book “The Age of American Unreason.”

The talk was sponsored by the Thomas Shipka Lecture Series — the second largest lecture series at the university.

Jacoby has written for The Washington Post, The Detroit Free Press and has contributed to The New York Times Magazine. She authors a column called “The Spirited Atheist,” which appears in The Washington Post.

Jacoby focused on a chapter from “The Age of American Unreason” entitled “The Culture of Distraction: Why the Young Need to Fight It,” appealing to her college-aged audience.

“Fifty years ago, I was you. I was sitting in some lecture hall at Michigan State, usually half asleep, and resenting the fact that I not only had to listen to those professors, but I had to work and make enough money to pay to listen to them just so my real life could begin,” Jacoby said.

Jacoby said that she believes social media is having an adverse effect on the rationale of those in the United States.

“I believe that as a nation, we are in serious intellectual trouble because of our preoccupation, sometimes bordering on obsession, with all of the junk thoughts spewed out 24/7 by the media. We are in trouble because 100 times more Americans clicked on that dumb dress controversy than tuned in to the important tribute to the huge turning point in our very recent history,” Jacoby said.

Jacoby added that her book is a representation of why the American population needs to change this trend.

“It’s not only courage in part of the young or old that is needed to change, but knowledge of the past that is needed to change the future. That’s why I wrote ‘The Age of American Unreason,’” Jacoby said. “It was published during the presidential campaign of 2008. I really think that a poisonous mixture of anti-intellectualism, anti-rationalism and just sheer ignorance is harming our culture as a whole.”

Jacoby said that the ignorance of Americans has consequences that will carry over to the next generation.

“This dumbing down has practical consequences in every area of our lives and isn’t something that only matters to writers or professors or others who are sneeringly called the elites. If you allow yourself to remain ignorant about science because it’s boring, you get your opinions from the Internet; you and the kids most of you will have someday will suffer the consequences,” Jacoby said.

Jacoby discussed “infotainment,” a concept she defines as a popular culture of video images and digital interruptions that require no logical thought, and said that these distractions are hurting the intelligence of Americans.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this kind of ignorance is the undoing of progress. It is not only how diseases spread, it is how schools graduate kids who can’t read. It’s how civilizations collapse,” Jacoby said. “While there are a lot of things that seem beyond the power of us to change, our complicity in this dumbing down, distracting obsession is something each of us does have the power to change.”

She said that studies have shown that people are 25-50 percent less likely to remember anything read online just 24 hours later and more likely to remember the information if read in a book.

“One of the most maddening things so-called ‘cultural observers’ go around saying is that computers are making us smarter. This is utter nonsense. It’s exactly the same thing as if saying that forks, which were invented in the sixteenth century, made human beings better eaters,” Jacoby said. “Forks, like computers, are tools, and the most urgent thing for you who hold the future of this country in your hands to understand is that tools must be your servants, not your masters. What I’m urging you to do today is think in perhaps some ways that you haven’t before about how you can become the masters and mistresses of this tool rather than allowing it to master you.”

She referenced a scientific study showing that people ages 18 to 77 found it unpleasant or painful to be isolated without a smart phone for just 15 minutes, and a smaller study where a group of people were hooked up to a machine that would deliver a shock if he or she chose to entertain themselves with a phone rather than sitting quietly by themselves.

“It tells us something about our addiction to infotainment, when a significant number of people would rather administer themselves a shock then be alone with their thinking. What can we as individuals do if we perceive this as a problem in our lives?,” Jacoby said.

Jacoby suggested a few solutions to these distractions, of which included: unplugging or isolating phones and computers when working on a project, and never trusting the relevance of a source from a website such as Wikipedia.

“I promise you that if you can try unplugging, even if you can only stand it for an hour, you’ll be amazed at how much more you can get done and how much better you are able to focus. If it makes you uncomfortable, you know you are a little bit hooked,” Jacoby said. “The Internet is especially problematic because much of it comes in anonymous form. I have nothing but contempt for anonymous comments, whether it is on social media or a response to articles of online editions of traditional newspapers or magazines. Anonymous free speech is not free speech because it risks nothing.”

Audience members were receptive to the talk and gave their opinions as well as questions to Jacoby. Raymond Beiersdorfer, a professor in the department of geological and environmental sciences at YSU, expressed his frustration for those who are oblivious to local issues.

“One of the things that I find most frustrating is that people in positions of responsibility are being woefully ignorant about some of the issues of the day,” Beiersdorfer said. “In particular, I’m mostly concerned about our energy consumption, global warming and the Shale gas development, locally. Yet, they are being anti-intellectual about it and just being totally ignorant about this, yet there seems to be no blowback. Is there any solution to that?”

Jacoby expressed her own insight on the issue, and left the audience to think about how the issue can be changed.

“The blow hards often get the stage. Often people don’t have the energy to change it, but you might change the mind of someone who listens,” Jacoby said.