by Clarence Brown
American Reporter Correspondent
January 2, 2002
SEATTLE, Wash. -- The phrase "attention deficit" will call to the mind of anyone who has been reasonably alert for the last few years an unruly child of school age in need of medication and perhaps of professional help. The three R's today would seem to be, in roughly this order: Reprimand, Ritalin, and Rehab.
But kids are being unfairly singled out for what is a disorder not of their generation but of modern Western society as a whole. Many a disaster reported in the papers can be ascribed to a simple lack of focussed attention.
The menace posed by the one-handed motorist, steering and dialing at the same time, is well known.
I saw one such driver who was not only talking on a cell phone but also steering with a hand that managed somehow to stay in perilous contact with the wheel while also containing a cigarette and a paper cup.
There was lately a report in the papers that some 1,200 people in England -- patients of their National Health Service -- were killed last year by medical personnel who gave them the wrong medicine, or wrong doses of the right medicine, or no medicine at all. The people who killed their patients are no doubt overworked and underpaid, but people who are lethally inattentive to what they are doing deserve no pay and no work at all.
A patient here in Seattle had an operation to remove a tumor from his abdomen, and when for months thereafter he suffered excruciating pain, he was told that post-operative discomfort was to be expected. He was medicated for pain.
When he got no better, an X-ray finally revealed that the surgeons had left behind a bit of thin pliable metal some 18" in length. The person sewing up the wound was simply not paying attention. The big cheese, the surgeon, leaves the cleanup to the flunky, who thinks he's making the boss look good by whipping through the endgame in a jiffy.
Those investigating the incident involving a United Air Lines 737 that experienced rudder problems as it tried to land in Chicago a few days ago found beneath the cockpit floor a wire brush which could well have hampered control of the rudder.
It was no doubt left behind and forgotten there by some mechanic who might at the same time have been listening to the radio, talking to his broker on a cell phone, and wondering whether it was altogether a good idea to have had three beers with lunch.
It is worth noting that there are times when the missing attention was not all that great to begin with.
If the phrase attention deficit is in bad odor, the same cannot be said of another modish new word, multi-tasking. Both computers and those who operate them beam proudly when someone says within their earshot that they are good at multi-tasking.
When, that is, they are paying enough attention to what is said within their earshot.
But multi-tasking is the very source of attention deficit. We are simply getting a bit ahead of our evolutionary station.
Stretching is a good thing in the gym before a workout, and when you are demanding a little more of yourself in the accomplishment of some worthy effort.
But stretching beyond the level of our evolutionary skills? I'm far from sure.
The phrase "One damn thing after another," has historically been uttered with a sigh of resignation. But it ought to be cleaned up and promoted as a slogan for sensible behavior: "One thing after another... please."
Clarence Brown is a cartoonist, writer, and Professor Emeritus ofComparative Literature at Princeton University.