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‘Just look up, people’: The fire all around us

How binge-watching on-demand media distracts those who would help repair the world from even noticing what's wrong

The other day, among the relentless news stories, my eye caught the headline of an otherwise inconspicuous article: “German city puts traffic lights on the ground — for you phone gazers.”

The sum of the story is that in Augsburg, Germany, city officials installed traffic lights on the ground near busy train stations so that commuters looking down at their phones wouldn’t inadvertently walk into harm’s way. This article was barely noticeable among the other headlines of domestic strife and global atrocities, but I did notice it–particularly this simple sentence that seems both timeless and timely: “Though the solution seems simple — just look up, people — distracted walking has become a dangerous problem in recent years.”

The timelessness of this idea, that when we are too distracted we miss the signals all around us, feels particularly relevant as we celebrate the holiday of Passover, commemorating the Jewish people’s exodus from bondage and its national liberation from mental and physical slavery. In many ways the epic narrative of Passover is about the power of paying attention. For example, what if Pharaoh’s daughter didn’t notice the baby Moses in the basket among the bulrushes? What if Moses didn’t notice the Hebrew slave being beaten by an Egyptian master? What if Moses didn’t notice the burning thornbush that called out instructions for him to pursue the moral imperative of helping free his people? In this arch-narrative of justice, to never have noticed would mean to never have begun.

In our current era of distraction and over-stimulation, it is easy to forget  the importance of noticing what is around us. How could we not fall victim to the easy lure of addictive technologies and the siren call of infotainment not only displayed for, but targeted at, our over-eager eyeballs? As detailed in books such as Hooked by Nir Eyal and, more recently, Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked by Adam Alter, through technology and immersive media, our attention is being manipulated and the cognitive surplus that we hold for new observations and ideas is constantly being challenged by Pavlovian engagement with devices that increasingly serve as interlocutors for the real world.

Yet all around us is injustice. All around us is a fire that calls out to us demanding our own moral response.

To walk upright in this world and to set our eyes in the direction of that which is around us, we can see far too many blows being delivered to far too many people. There is mental and structural oppression of racism, sexism, anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim hatred, and there is the physical oppression of mass-incarceration and anti-immigrant violence . Globally, there are national aspirations yet to be fulfilled and nationalistic violence yet to be diminished. Perhaps most of all, around the world there is an increasingly sullen sense that apathy is overtaking empathy, and that there may be too few people fighting too many injustices that are too interwoven to easily untangle.

Yet there are not too few of us; it is just too many of us spend too little time looking up from that which distracts us. In a world of binge-watching “on-demand” media, we are easily entertained yet also easily distracted from what plagues the real world around us. As we walk through life, we don’t always see those small baskets of possibility floating in front of us, and we don’t always notice the blows being felt by those we walk among.

But perhaps if we just look up, even for a few moments, we will see the fire all around us — calling for us to not only avoid danger but to help, in ways small and large, repair our world.

About the Author
Seth Cohen is a Senior Director at the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, a global organization committed to igniting the passion and unleashing the power in young people to create positive change in their communities.
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