The Inner Ecology and the Importance of Silence

by Ray Grigg

We give considerable attention to the physical ecologies outside our bodies but very little to the psychological ones inside. Because these inner ecologies are essential in determining how we feel and think, their importance has attracted the concern of the American philosopher and technology analyst, Matthew Crawford.

In his book, The World Beyond Your Head, Crawford argues that our psychological space — our “attentional commons” — is so reduced by the incessant intrusions of unsolicited information from our electronic technologies that we have little remaining consciousness to process our own feelings and think our own thoughts. Indeed, we live in a culture so intent on occupying our awareness with distractions that it denies us the ability to be ourselves.

In order to process experience, solve problems, make thoughtful decisions, examine our feelings, discover perspectives, assess our actions and contemplate our identity, we need time to be alone in peace and silence, free from the constant barrage of trespasses that usurp and divert our attention.

Crawford documents a litany of the distractions provided by our hyperactive surroundings that deny us the opportunity to engage these crucial processes. They range from incessant background music and omnipresent television screens to flashing billboards and blinking digital ads. Any unused space in our consciousness gets filled with something that is designed to attract our attention, sell us something, sooth our existential anxiety or eliminate the opportunity for contemplation.

The result is that we are kept continually off balance by an endless stream of demanding infringements. The character of our modern consumer civilization seems to function as an organized conspiracy against privacy, seclusion and aloneness, as if we can’t be trusted with our own feelings and thoughts. Every moment of our “attentional commons” gets filled with something that impinges on our personal space, that insists on consideration and a decision.

This is only a “conspiracy” in the literal meaning of the word — a “breathing together” of the many facets of a culture of materialism and information that is too hyperactive to allow our lives to come to a reflective halt, so we can ask penetrating questions about what we are individually doing and where we are collectively going.

In such a culture, Crawford notes, “attention is a resource,” and “a person has only so much of it. And yet we’ve auctioned off more and more of our public space to private commercial interests, with their constant demands on us to look at the products on display or simply absorb some bit of corporate messaging.”

Crawford argues that all these incessant “little appropriations of attention” constitute “social engineering”, an exhausting process that consumes our energy and awareness. All these “incessant distractions” he writes, are attempting to “…monetize every bit of private head space by appropriating our collective attention. In the process, we’ve sacrificed silence — the condition of not being addressed. And just as clean air makes it possible to breathe, silence makes it possible to think.”

So, if you are reading this and can find a moment to think, you may notice that the same process that’s consuming our inner ecologies is also consuming our outer ones.