The People of the Beep

It may well be that when we read a history of our day, the beep will be declared the defining noise of a generation. The beep is a purely human sound, one without any equivalent in nature. No animal, no plant, makes a beep.

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You know the sound well. The beep begins and ends with the twin plosives “b” and “p” and in between offers a eee that lasts as long as we care to make it. That beep can be a dot or a dash, a mere blip or a long and sustained beeeeeeep. It can make itself known just once or it can repeat endlessly. Beeps come in many different contexts: our phones beep, email beeps, trucks beep while they back up, washers beep when a load of clothes is clean. No matter the context, the message is always the same: “pay attention to me!” Beeps always demand a response, even if that response is only to turn it off. We may need to look up from what we are doing and press a button, we may need to sprint out of the way of a moving car, we may need to throw some clothes into the dryer, but in every case a beep calls us to action; it calls us from one thing and to another.

The beep is undiscerning and thoughtless. It calls us out of sleep and revery, out of church and school, demands our attention as we stand vigil at the deathbed of a loved one. Every beep exacts a cost, whether that cost is simply the brief moment of distraction as our attention turns to the beep, or whether the cost is having to run for our lives. These beeps fill our lives and often they run our lives. Many of us live from beep-to-beep, concerned more about the beeps than the space between.

The book I am working on now has proven far more difficult to write than the last one I wrote, just three years earlier. My dependence upon technology has increased and technology has found new and creative ways of distracting me. The beeps in my life have grown. Too often I have been distracted by the beeps and buzzes and flashing lights that tell me something is waiting for my attention, something is calling for me, drawing me. I am needed elsewhere for something else. And so I obey. Eventually I have had to find new and creative ways of getting out of the flow, of flipping switches and taking control. I have had to step out of the torrent of beeps so I could remain, at least for a time, undistracted.

We are a distracted people. Our ability to concentrate, to give focused attention to a single subject, has faded. We think in paragraph-sized chunks, never having time to reflect, to ponder the big picture. It is difficult to remain undistracted when our technology seems to evolve toward distraction. In an essay on the related topics of distraction and procrastination, Paul Graham writes “Distraction is not a static obstacle that you avoid like you might avoid a rock in the road. Distraction seeks you out.” We are distracted by things we want and the fast pace of technological change is constantly producing things we want so much more than the things we already have. People are beginning to migrate away from television, certainly the most distracting medium of the 20th century, not because they have found something more profitable with which to bide their time, but because internet-based distraction gives us more of what we want and does so faster and better.

Eventually distraction becomes more than something that just happens to us, but actually becomes who we are. We are distraction. We flit from one thing to the next whether or not we are summoned by a beep. So shaped are we by our beeps, that we lose our ability to focus for any longer than the average beep allows. We become people of the beep.

If we are to be people who survive all of the distraction, if we are to be people of virtue who control our technologies instead of being controlled by them, if we are to be people who live lives that rise above the beep, we will need to examine the ways in which our technologies distract us, in which they tell us what is most important at any given moment. And we will need to realign our priorities and perhaps redraw our lives. We will need to own those beeps that so badly want to own us.