The Nerdfighter Summer Book Club Book this summer was Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury. I never got around to finishing reading it. I kinda only barely started. I kept meaning to, the way that, for years now, I've been meaning to read this book. But I didn't get around to it. Now, I've just watched John Green's commentary on it. (I'm not worried about spoilers.) Here it is.
John talks about a hard-to-describe omnipresent pain that's ambiently floating around for us to experience whenever we're not doing something else. He talks about the increasingly inescapable presence of distractions as a defense mechanism developed by society to avoid facing that angst.[1. I'm calling it angst, because that's what I think it is, but John never used that word.]
I don't know what the world was like before these distractions were available everywhere. I wasn't there -- pretty much no one was that I have access to. I mean, I'd argue that pretty-much-everpresent distraction has been available in some form for all of human history. Before smartphones, there were cell phones. Before cell phones, there were radios. Before radios, there were books, and before those, there were stories. You have to go back very far before you couldn't memorize enough things to say back to yourself that you've always got access to some sort of distraction.
John points out that he's changed his mind about books being a special way to access that clarity, that escape from distraction, that engagement. I think he's right, but I also suspect that the increasingly potent information field we live in has increased not only the capacity for distraction, but our need for it.
[notice]Informational update:[2. This update is separated because I don't want to break the train of thought that it's in the middle of.] The Flynn Effect describes the fact that, in developed countries, the intelligence of citizens appears to rise over time. There are a number of proposed explanations for this, but I believe it's because over time societies get better at thinking in a way that is useful for living in a developed society, but less useful for surviving in a tribal or feudal society.[/notice]
The more technology we have, and the better we get at acclimating people to the developed world, the easier it is for people to tap into that sense of angst that we might not need to feel otherwise. There's so much happening around all of us, it's impossible for individuals to avoid being presented with a hundred contradictions a day. I think the angst that John is describing is the angst of doublethink, being faced with multiple contradictory narratives. We don't want to examine this because it hurts, and because, ultimately, there's no satisfying answer to the problem.
I'm quite bad at fighting this resistance. That's particularly problematic for me because I want to make a career out of the answers that you get when you think deeply about hard questions[3. There are a lot of attempts at defining what art is, and I don't want to try and make a case for one right now. But I do think that thinking deeply about hard questions is a prerequisite for the kind of art I want to do.]. It's hard to write a story that exposes a difficult question when you don't have an answer to provide for it. It's harder work than I've been able to manage so far.