A few weeks ago, I wrote about Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron.” In the world of that story the year is 2081, and, in an effort to render all people “equal,” the government imposes handicaps on all those who are somehow better than average. One of the characters, George, whose intelligence is "way above normal," has "a little mental handicap radio in his ear.”
As George tries to concentrate on something,
“[a] buzzer sounded in George's head. His thoughts fled in panic, like bandits from a burglar alarm.
"That was a real pretty dance, that dance they just did," said Hazel.
"Huh" said George.
"That dance-it was nice," said Hazel.
"Yup," said George. He tried to think a little about the ballerinas. … But he didn't get very far with it before another noise in his ear radio scattered his thoughts.
George winced. So did two out of the eight ballerinas.
Hazel saw him wince. Having no mental handicap herself, she had to ask George what the latest sound had been.
"Sounded like somebody hitting a milk bottle with a ball peen hammer," said George.
"I'd think it would be real interesting, hearing all the different sounds," said Hazel a little envious. "All the things they think up."
"Um," said George.
"Only, if I was Handicapper General, you know what I would do?" said Hazel. … "I'd have chimes on Sunday--just chimes. Kind of in honor of religion."
"I could think, if it was just chimes," said George.
Re-reading the story, I thought about the work of the late professor Cliff Nass, whose “pioneering research into how humans interact with technology,” as the New York Times described it, “found that the increasingly screen-saturated, multitasking modern world was not nurturing the ability to concentrate, analyze or feel empathy.”
If we have little “mental handicap radios” in our ears, these days, it’s usually because we put them there—or on our eyes, or wrists, or just in our hands—ourselves (though some versions are increasingly required by employers or schools). Still, like the ones in the story, they are making it more difficult for all of us to focus on key tasks, to be present for our loved ones, to truly take in and respond to our surroundings.
In anticipation of the Memorial Day’s weekend, I wish you a few days of lessened technological distractions. And, if you have some extra time, you might want to read some of professor Nass’ research.