Monday, April 28, 1997

Opinion: Balance is the key

Published in the Mountainview

Technology maven Esther Dyson recently said, "The most important finite resource in the late 20th century is people's attention." Nothing could be more correct Information is flowing into our lives faster than ever before. Information about places and people previously unheard of is now meeting us for breakfast, in the morning paper and on the morning news programs.

Who a hundred years ago would have thought that the struggle for power of an overweening rich man, Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, would headline world news? We are inclined to ask why this is important to Americans. It is clearly of importance to the people of Zaire and neighboring countries.

Don't we have enough to worry about? Social activists constantly remind us of human rights tragedies around the world and in the United States, Amnesty International makes a point of including the U.S. in its annual reports on the world's worst human-rights offenders. Don't we have enough to do, here at home? Shouldn't our attention be spent on cleaning our own house, rather than throwing stones at the glass houses others inhabit? Isn't that, even if a productive use of our own time and energy, distracting them from the pressing problems of their worlds?

Attention is something we must ration carefully; Dyson is correct. We have only so much time to spend on anything. only so much mental energy before we need sleep, respite, or a good beer. We must choose what we pay attention to; we cannot afford to choose unwisely, How, then, should we determine what to ignore? Or should we ignore nothing, sufficing with short blurbs about everything, reducing our knowledge to trivia and our understanding to mere chronology?

As individuals, we each have certain special interests. Mine may relate to technology and the communications revolution; yours may be in environmentally-aware architecture. Each of us follows a certain set of topics, from sports teams and academic disciplines to current events in the domestic affairs of particular nations. As a nation, we have certain collective interests. Health insurance for all Americans is something to which we should each bend an ear from time to time. We also need to know where our elected representatives stand on the Chemical Weapons Ban Treaty and nuclear non-proliferation. These indicate, however, that there is an overlap in individual, domestic national, and international levels of interest.

The line between what we pay attention to and what we ignore is fuzzy at best. It is no less clear for the fact that daily events occur which we could not have predicted but which directly affect our lives. Would anyone argue that Americans should ignore the threat to our own individual personal safety posed by the Oklahoma City bombing? Would anyone argue that Americans at large ever expected such an event to occur? We need to pay attention to people telling us things we haven't asked about, which we don't know about to be interested in them.

And so our attention is again stretched, unfocused, confused. Can we just shut off the world, even for a short time, and listen to the silence? In the age of digital timekeeping, silence is just that; there's not even a clock ticking to remind us of time passing. Silence can be wonderful, and relaxation, departure from this hectic world refreshing. It is imperative that, at the same time as we learn to take in, process, and comprehend more and more information, we also learn to take time for ourselves to remain in balance.

To do otherwise would be to invite disaster of a cognitive nature. The world closes in around us, and we must learn to escape it or risk being enveloped by it. Our attention must be focused on yet another subject: our own personal, societal, and human well-being: This is the area in which it is most imperative that we all pay attention. We must all confer upon each other the human dignities we ourselves desire; we must respect the space and time of others, and the fact that they, too, suffer from the same attention deficit we do. Our time here is limited, and to make the most of it some things must fall by the wayside.

Each of us must decide individually what to leave behind and what to carry forward. Those who strive to do too much or too little will risk failure and insignificance, both individually and societally. Balance is the key: our resources are indeed finite.