If you are old enough to remember The Carol Burnett Show and her famous remake of “Gone with the Wind,” you can probably also describe the momentary loss of picture or sound with some version of the phrase, “There’s too much static on the line.” We tend to see the world through the vocabulary we’ve acquired, so some form of this expression hangs around, even though we now think of it as a holdover from older forms of analogue media. Listen to AM radio today and there can be so much static that it may actually drown out a station. Scratches on an old 35-millimeter print of a film or dust lodged in a cherished vinyl LP are similar versions of the same problem: what audio engineers call a bad “signal-to-noise ratio.” It’s still true that if you still have a land-line phone, you may also find that there are times when you sound like Sheriff Andy Taylor trying to be heard over an old wall phone at the far end of Mayberry.
“Too much static on the line” might seem like a complaint whose time has passed. After all, digital media generally have the potential to strip a message of extraneous noise. But it would be a mistake to think that we’ve licked the problem, especially if we can see its significance in slightly larger terms. I’m struck by the fact that the very devices that carried the promise of freeing us from bad connections have done just the opposite. If anything, those weighed down with various forms of the latest digital devices are now assaulted with more stimulation than we can ever accommodate. In our age, the fragile line represented by a focused consciousness is easily overwhelmed by visual and aural noise.
Talk to a friend while they are surfing the internet or texting someone, and you sense that there’s definitely too much static on the line. Ask someone to do their desk job while they are also trying to process a barrage of useless e-mails, cell messages and Tweets, and they’ve got more than their powers of concentration and discernment can handle.
This has become a familiar and much-discussed issue, especially among older adults who see what they describe as the distractions and attention deficits of the young. To be sure, our children will survive, and no doubt help us tame the twin Twenty First Century monsters of information overload and empathy fatigue. But it’s also worth remembering that many enduring achievements in life tend to come in broad swaths of linear development. The mind works best when it has time to put our heads around a challenge and master its demands. We know this when we’ve finished a great novel, witnessed the performance of a sprawling but magnificent symphony, or taken in the words of a provocative thinker who was given a generous space of time to lay out their views. To reduce these efforts to anything less—especially because of a felt need to accommodate more truncated bits of “information”—is to produce its own kind of mental static.
There’s an important lesson in the fact that a number of great composers wrote their best works in fevers of concentrated effort. It was continuous and sustained chains of invention that gave us the Jupiter Symphony and the gathering brilliance of The Messiah. We can be thankful that Mozart and Handel didn’t have the distractions of 24-hour cable news, Facebook pages to fret over, or e-mails waiting to be answered. It is undeniably true that we have reduced the presence of unwanted electrical noises that dogged the transmissions of older media. But they’ve been replaced by relentless and insistent demands on our attention that represent their own forms of noise.