I went to D.C. yesterday with some relatives. The reason for going was to take the three kids (none mine, by the way) to see the museums. Now, for those of you who’ve never been to our Nation’s Capital, there are a slew of museums lining The Mall: The Smithsonian Museums of Natural and American History, The American Indian Museum, The Freer and Sackler Art Museums, The Air and Space Museum, and The National Gallery of Art.
When I was a kid, it was a day trip worthy of an excited, sleepless night before.
We decided to skip the art museums, because, well, most children don’t really enjoy staring at wall after wall of paintings, no matter how pioneering or how contemporary and edgy they might be. So, we took them first to my favorite, the Natural History Museum.
As a child, just stepping into the rotunda alone was enough to make me breathless; an impossibly high domed ceiling arced overhead, protecting three stories of ivory stone. Two of those floors bore colorful banners above each of their squared, authoritative doorways, luring visitors into their labyrinths of discovery. And straight ahead stood the crowing glory — a massive elephant, stuffed and posed in a posture of supreme confidence.
Sadly, they no longer have the white, phone-like devices circling the base of the elephant that one could use to listen to a recording of the pachyderm’s resounding trumpet. I remember countless field trips beginning and ending with a circumambulation of the creature, picking up each headset in varying patterns, hoping to unlock the mystical code that would free the massive, stuffed legs and allow the suddenly reanimated elephant to crash to the ground and set off on a stampede down the yellow gravel of The Mall on it’s way to overturn the Washington Monument with its massive tusks.
The above never happened, of course, but the point was, I thought it might. I gazed at that elephant with eyes other than the ones plastered in my sockets. These kids didn’t. With only a cursory glance, they sauntered on past the magnificent beast. And that set the stage for the rest of the day.
Room after room, exhibit after exhibit, nothing impressed. Not the dinosaurs with their dark, model skeletons gleaming like gunmetal in the dim light. Not the diorama of the prehistoric burial with the mannequin of the decedent curled on his side in the fur-lined pit. Not the rainbow of minerals with their sculpture-like formations and channels that resemble glowing city grids. Not the mundane looking rocks that emanate mysterious green light when the case is darkened. Not even my tale of the supposed curse of the Hope Diamond could garner more than a roll of the eyes, an apathetic shrug.
By the end of the first hour, the chorus of, “I’m bored,” began. After another hour, one was asking to go to the hotel room.
“What are you going to do in the hotel room?”
And there it was, the answer to my puzzlement. These kids are junkies. Exposed since birth to a constant barrage of flashing pixels, recorded voices and digitized interaction, they’ve become addicted to electronic stimulation. The virtual world is the pulse of their existence. These kids are strung out on technology, seemingly unable to take a ten-minute car ride without fighting over who gets to watch the DVD or wear the headphones. Adventure to them is a particularly challenging video game. Socializing is gathering ‘friends’ in Internet sites. The influence of prismatic, instant entertainment has turned the exterior world gray for them. A day trip to experience the cultured world is, for them, equated with the mundane tasks of life; eating, breathing — relieving themselves.
In the midst of my octogenarian-like tirade of superiority, though, I’ve realized I, too, am one of them. Maybe not as severe a case, but still drawn by the lure of the flashing lights and the pretty pictures. More often than not, I’ll pick up a book to read, only to be distracted by the television or the computer. And I’m a writer. If I’m supposed to be a champion of the written word, then how can there be any hope for the rest of our society? If I’m supposed to be a role model for others, yet find myself slack-jawed and glassy eyed on the couch nine times out of ten, then what’s to become of the craft I love so much?
I guess what I’m getting at is I’m pretty sure there is a direct correlation between the age of technology and the shortening of attention spans. I’m not saying that the ‘good old days’ are the way to go and that anything else falls to just this side of Satan’s stomping ground. I can’t think of a time I’d rather live in than now. The Internet, DVR, high-def TV, and surround sound are all fabulous inventions that I’m very happy sharing my space with. But maybe there should be a little more caution involved when we pick up that remote. After all, if it can pull me from my work, and can zombify three children until corporeal experience is reduced to a bothersome inconvenience, then that pretty, luminous box should probably be accorded a little more consideration and respect. And maybe just a little fear.