Each day, I carry a briefcase full of books to my office. Some days, the books never make it out of the briefcase. I arrive with the best of intentions and with fervent ambition. Somehow, though, time runs through me, instead of the other way around, and I go home, wondering what happened to all those plans, all those breaths and heartbeats.
This is because I live at least a double life. As a working person, I have a business to run (or at least, oversee). As a student, I have a constellation of books swirling around me, a galaxy of concepts strung through the lobes of my brain -- a universe to learn. The job can easily overwhelm the education: the former is compulsory, the latter a luxury. In work, it has to get done now. In study, there are exceptions, extensions, and other kinds of excuses. The intellectual life is lived in the gray matter -- and the gray area of shades of meaning, shifts of perspective, angles of interpretation -- that live between the covers of a book.
And a book is a hard nut to crack. Sequential concentration and uninterrupted focus are (usually) required, so that you can follow the progression of narrative, or idea built upon idea. No such attention is (usually) required by the internet, which encourages you to follow trains of thought through links and searches to whatever happens to cross your mind.
It's this phenomenon that I think is largely responsible for, or reinforcing of, our twin national curses: attention deficit and eroding civility. In short, we're forgetting how to concentrate: how to learn, listen, think and relate to another. Searching online follows a path of our own design, and, perhaps subconsciously, we begin to believe the universe is patterned after our own thoughts, and we can't for the life of us figure out why others don't see it as we do. A book demands that you submit to the author's conceptual or figurative universe. Sure, you can close the book, just as you might click through to another web page, but if you return to the book, and read it through to the end, you will have been immersed in the author's world. You will have submitted.
This reflects a sea change in the nature of knowledge: what is perceived as true or compelling is now transmitted by means of an interactive interface much less subtle than the act of interpretation demanded by reading. As it's less subtle, it can be produced, transmitted and updated more quickly, disseminated more widely, and made more compelling visually. This fires neurons and receptors that engage us primarily emotionally. Our cognition is rooted in a visceral certainty reinforced by the assumption that it should be universally recognized that the facts are what we perceive them to be.
The ability to ponder and the luxury of contemplation cannot be carried from the classroom or the library to the office. Similarly, the instant track-switching of online searches can't be transferred to the books in my briefcase -- not, at any rate, by my feeble mind.
At work, what I know and don't know is divided into two rigid categories. The battle is to fill up the former category by emptying the latter. At school, the line is blurry, uneven and shifting, like the undulations on the beach caused by shifting tides.
The challenge this year will be to live these different ways at the proper times, and still be present, at home, at work, and at school.