Today we are more informed than ever, but we know less. We have more data, but we are less critical. We pay attention to a greater number of events, but we are more forgetful. We are more connected, but also more alone.
If we want to keep pace with modern life, we are forced to prioritize one set of skills and habits over others. Usually we do it unconsciously, letting ourselves be carried away by the prevailing current. The mass establishes what is normal. And it is often easier to conform to the rules than to rebel. However, that way we could live consuming life, rather than slowly enjoying it.
That is the danger that the philosopher Byung-Chul Han alerts us to in his book “The Disappearance of Rituals: A Topology of the Present.” Han believes that Western culture has been structured in a way that robs us of some of our most valuable abilities to make sense of and fully enjoy life: symbolic perception and intensive attention.
Serial perception restricts the search for meaning and enjoyment
“Today symbolic perception disappears more and more in favor of serial perception, which is not capable of experiencing its duration. Serial perception, as a successive grasp of the new, does not delay in it. Rather, it rushes from one piece of information to the next, from one experience to the next, from one sensation to the next, never ending anything. In fact, the ‘serials’ are so popular because they respond to the habit of serial perception. At the level of media consumption, serial perception leads to television binges,” Han wrote.
Symbolic perception is one that goes beyond the forms and penetrates the content, includes the hidden symbols behind appearances. It is not a simple perception, but it implies reflecting, as well as looking for shared meanings. It is not a fleeting glance but a detained look. Instead, serial perception is that which passes from one stimulus to another, without stopping too long, without asking questions, without scratching the surface. It does not go deep and, therefore, does not leave a mark.
“Serial perception is extensive, while symbolic perception is intensive. Because of its extensive character, serial perception pays flat attention. Today intensity gives way to extension everywhere. Digital communication, for example, is extensive communication. Instead of building relationships, it just makes connections,” added Han.
Flat attention does not leave space for things and phenomena to settle so we can discover their essence. It is an attention that does not allow reflection or emotion. It involves going from flower to flower, without establishing solid links or finding deep meanings. It is an instantaneous attention that does not rest and forgets how to linger on things, so it ends up influencing the way we live.
Flat attention covers too much but does not go deep into anything. Hover over the world without stopping to taste its essence. It impels us to consume life, to rush it to the last drop, but without fully enjoying it because we do not have time to capture its essence or details.
The more we try to cover, the more we lose
Han warns that “The neoliberal regime forces serial perception and intensifies serial habit. Intentionally removes duration to force more consumption. The constant update, which covers all vital areas, does not allow any duration or termination […] Because of this, life becomes more contingent, more fleeting and more inconstant .”
When our perception and attention expand to encompass more, instead of concentrating to help us understand better, we fail to construct deep meanings that give sense to our lives, and we fail to finish anything. That generates a vital dissatisfaction that we carry permanently. But since we do not know where it comes from, we believe that the solution is to consume more and more, discover more things, travel more, communicate more … We do not think that perhaps the solution lies in subtracting. “That pressure desecrates life,” says Han. In fact, the very pressure to be happy generates unhappiness.
This philosopher thinks that “If life is deprived of the contemplative element, one drowns in one’s own making of it […] Contemplative rest, stillness and silence are essential.” However, “Rest and silence have no place in the digital network, whose structure corresponds to flat attention. The digital community is horizontal. Nothing stands out in it. Nothing goes deep. It is not intensive but extensive, which increases the noise of communication”.
When there is no room for silence and stillness there is no room for reflection. This leads us to live thoughtlessly, consuming huge amounts of information that do not provide us with anything relevant, establishing connections with a greater number of people who will not be by our side when we need them or visiting a greater number of sites without getting to know them.
The rush to live robs us of life. The need to be up-to-date takes away the familiar. Flat attention takes away our reflection. The commitment to quantity leads us to forget quality. The more we embrace, the more we lose. Orphaned of the skills that allow us to linger, find meaning, and enjoy ourselves, we end up becoming avid consumers of our own life, rather than being its careful architects.
Han, B. (2020) La desaparición de los rituales. Herder: Barcelona.