Carlyle Fielding Stewart III

Writings on Democracy, Social Justice, and Religion

“The Abbreviated Society”

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Here is some quick food for thought. We live in a society where everything is abbreviated so we can receive things faster. I like using Amazon on line because I can get books in two days, which saves me the time I would have spent running out to the bookstore – although I still love to do that as well. Gone are the days of waiting weeks to receive software disks by snail mail. Now, I relish simply downloading applications onto my computer by quickly touching a button. (However, I do still intentionally use snail mail just to support the United States Postal Service. The USPS is threatened with extinction due to reduced revenues and billions of dollars in retiree pensions that Congress may require it to prepay to the U.S. Treasury.)

When we are in a rush there are many benefits to living in a society where everything is moving by milliseconds, in micro-units of time. Warming food in the microwave can be quite convenient.

But there may be a down side to these trends. Many people today seem to want everything short, fast and in a hurry. Instant meals, Twitter tweets, short video clips, sound bites, smaller reads and quicker conversations are in high demand. While we do have the capacity, says author Malcolm Gladwell, to get the full picture in a”Blink” – the title of his book – we must ask ourselves if we are missing vital information in such transactions? Don’t get me wrong, I am in favor of these technological innovations but as with all things, I often wonder about their true long-term adverse social impact.  

In a society that increasingly extracts every ounce and exacts every iota of our human capacities through sensory overload, what we seem to be gaining is shorter attention spans, growing impatience and shortening cognitive endurance. We appear less engaged, more distracted, less willing to spend time on things that really matter, things which bridge and sustain meaningful interaction over the long haul. I have found myself leaving more text messages for loved ones than voice mail messages because my time does not permit the lengthier interaction that phone etiquette requires one to observe in order to not appear rude and cut people off.

Could these neatly packaged abbreviated lifestyle forms, in this new techno society, be the very things we do not need, especially in a world that seems to be reducing our capacities for extended concentration on things that really matter?

Could our use of these new technologies condition our ability to intake less information by shortening the intervals of our cognitive reception?

Will the ludicrous results of an abbreviated society soon be MLB games reduced to six innings, pro gridiron contests decided in two downs, prescribed dating periods in five seconds or five minutes, fewer words in our lexicons of human vocabulation? (I made that word up!)

Even in the church, some parishioners want abbreviated everything: the bible in forty minutes, condensed, millisecond sermons filled with side tickling clichés, terser praise and worship services, and all the joy of “fast and furious, grab and run, hi and bye” virtual interaction. The metrics of abbreviated spirituality are measured in fewer words from the preacher, lesser time for the offering, seeing how fast I can get away from you on Sunday, how long I can stay away from you during the week and how well I can give you a virtual experience of my presence on next Sunday. Here I am. Now I’m gone. Swoosh, bam! Gone in thirty seconds!

Could the paradox be that by redefining spiritual intervention with shorter timeframes for meaningful human interaction, I am really defining my spiritual life more by the time I spend away from church than by the time I really spend in church? I want to spend less time in church and that is what I want from church and that is why I go to a particular church. But does the lesser time mean more meaningful religion and spirituality – or does it mean less? Does the amount of time spent in church define the spiritual substance of what is offered in that time frame at church?

In our fast paced consumer culture do our efforts to have everything in our lives in short order, except of course our paychecks, lessen our capacity to see, feel, touch, taste and hear the world as feeling human beings? Or are we, in our mad dash – all for the sake of having and doing everything faster and shorter, while keeping up with the newest technologies – becoming less capable of making the long-term, transformational decisions that demand disciplined concentration. These are the decisions that will help us in crises. These are the choices which cannot be either made or remedied in a flash of the eye, with the quick flick of the wrist or by the push of a button.

So, I ask you to ask yourself: Do all things in life need to be shortened simply because consumers want most things more quickly? Does our conditioning to these various forms of social and cultural abbreviation lessen our expectations of society and short change our capacities to think through and effect long-term solutions to problems?

In a society that works diligently to extend the life span of human beings, the ultimate irony is how we may be shortening our attention spans and our capacity for disciplined concentration when it comes to the things that really matter – the things which, in the end, truly make life worthwhile and meaningful.




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