Can’t Think Now, I’m Busy

The Age, Australia

By John Watson

IN MY lifetime, the number of Australians has doubled. When last I looked, our population was estimated at 21,150,121 and growing by one every one minute and 44 seconds. A second country has sprung up alongside the one of 10.5 million people recorded at the 1961 census, almost literally so as half of today’s population is either foreign-born or born to a migrant parent. Only a minority would argue that Australia has not benefited from the resulting evolution of a more diverse, interesting and dynamic society, but it is also a more crowded country.

Australians are crowded not only by other people, but as a result of countless technological and social developments that, I suspect, have more serious implications for our collective capacity to think, create and remember. The reasons are to be found in the way the brain works, but more of the science later. Such thoughts have nagged at me since I read the writer Paul Theroux’s reflections in The New York Times on “America the Overfull”, in which he lamented the loss of “a country of enormous silence and ordinariness (and) empty spaces”. Theroux acknowledged the seductions of nostalgia — “Yes, it is just silly and fogeyish to yearn for that simpler and smaller world of the past” — but the lost world he describes holds lessons for the creative, innovative nation that Australia aspires to be, as we have been told ad nauseam this past election year.

“I grew up in a country of sudden and consoling lulls, which gave life a kind of pattern and punctuation, unknown now,” Theroux wrote. “It was typified by the somnolence of Sundays … There were empty parts of the day, of the week, of the year …” Of course, some people still see the value in setting aside such time each week in defiance of this 24/7 society. (A New Yorker cartoon by Robert Mankoff makes wonderful play of this by depicting a man bearing a briefcase and speaking into his mobile phone as he walks along a busy subway platform: “And remember, if you need anything, I’m available 24/6.”)

For me, the contemporary relevance to Australia’s “clever country” aspirations lies, paradoxically, in Theroux’s recollections of a quieter past and, in particular, of the solitude of a long drive of the sort that we can rarely experience on today’s crowded highways, even if we chose not to hop onto the next cheap and convenient commuter flight. Theroux paints the picture perfectly: “Late at night, in mostplaces I knew, there was almost no traffic and driving, a meditative activity, could cast a spell. Behind the wheel, gliding along, I was keenly aware of being an American in America, on a road that was also metaphorical, making my way through life unhindered, developing ideas, making decisions, liberated by the flight through this darkness and silence.”

When did you last have several hours of unbroken, idle contemplation to yourself? Our lives are crowded, noisier, faster, in almost every way. People, technology such as mobile phones, the internet and other mass communication, our ways of work, have all eaten into our time and space. The imperatives of productivity and efficiency demand that not a minute be wasted. Time is money. But the cost to our quality of thought is immeasurable. We are too busy to think.

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