Your attention please

Today, many people feel very impatient with the U.S. government. Myself included.

When the founding fathers officially declared independence from Great Britain on this day in 1776, they had in mind a republic, modeled on the ancient Roman republic. In 1787, the Constitution replaced the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union to form a more perfect union.

Technically, the U.S. government doesn’t operate as a democracy with direct popular participation in affairs of government, but as a republic through elected representatives. All the constitutional offices of government are accountable to the public through the two-, four- and six-year election cycles of all federal government representatives.

But the founders never envisioned millions of unelected, unaccountable, lifetime government bureaucrats who run rings around our elected representatives and us. They are the real problem within big government.

But, modern technology has “democratized” our society through instantaneous access to “information” on the internet, granting previously unheard of freedoms of all kinds. (Although there was never a more fitting use for the ancient Roman republican warning of caveat emptor, or “let the buyer/consumer beware.”)

Secretary of State John Kerry — a Vietnam vet, long-serving U.S. Senator from my old state of Massachusetts, and former presidential candidate — recognizes the impact instantaneous communication has on the government.

Instant information discourages deep thinking and discourse

Secretary Kerry recently stated that it is, “much harder to govern…much harder to find the common interest” in this high-speed age, pointing to “the internet and the ability of people everywhere to communicate instantaneously.” In fact, Kerry and other foreign diplomats point to the Egyptian Revolution and the “Arab Spring” beginning in 2010, which coincided with the rise of the internet and iPhone there.

Today’s information technologies deliver on-demand, narrow-cast, light-speed streaming. They condition people for instant gratification, instant answers, and instant solutions.

But a republican representative form of government is not designed to deliver instant answers or solutions.

Adlai Stevenson was the grandson of the U.S. Vice President under Grover Cleveland, a U.S. Senator from Illinois, a presidential candidate in 1952 and 1956, and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations under JFK. Like Kennedy, Stevenson stood up to the Soviet Union. He also said that our form of government, “depends on giving ideas and principles a chance to fight it out.”

But that statement assumes citizens really pay attention beyond the mainstream media sound bites.

Attention span shrinks for average American

According to a 2008 study, the average person’s attention span shrank from 12 minutes in 1998 to just under five minutes a decade later.  One shudders to think what has happened in the last eight years since then.

With the rise of Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, etc., impulsiveness and superficiality are the new social norms. Especially among young people. Twitter — whose very name suggests some kind of awful twitch — has a character limit, which encourages short attention spans and superficial communications. It discourages any deeper analysis, discourse or thinking.

Rewiring our brains…and not for the better

As I have reported, neuroscientists recently discovered evidence of the human brain’s neuroplasticity, meaning the brain has the ability to adapt and re-organize neurons based on inputs and stimuli. And studies show that slowing down and engaging in regular mindfulness meditation benefits the brain’s neurons, mass and memory. You can learn how to practice mindfulness in the middle of your busy lives by reading my book with Don McCown, New World Mindfulness.

Tragically, using modern technology appears to rewire the brain so that we have shorter attention spans. We think about more random topics, but with less depth. And we’re less patient and more impulsive.

Cultural historian Neal Gabler says this kind of technology impacts politics and governance, “creating expectations that the political system can not possibly meet.” He notes the contrast between the Great Depression of the 1930s and the Great Recession of 2008 to the present. Two generations past, during the Depression, “few Americans expected an immediate remedy and by and large demonstrated extraordinary maturity and patience.” But today, Americans expect “instant results…profoundly impatient with the pace of political change.”

Of course, all these “great expectations” of today are based on the idea that big government even has the solution. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan warned that “government big enough to give you everything you want is big enough to take away everything you have,” and that “government is not the solution to our problems, government is the problem.”

In the 1990s, even the Clintons declared, “the era of big government is over.” (Although they lied about that too.)

Today, I encourage you to learn to depend less on government and the mostly mediocre services it delivers. And I also encourage you to limit the time you spend using smartphones, tablets, and other technology. After all, Rodin’s, “The Thinker,” is holding his chin, not an iPhone, in his hand.

Although the country has been heading in the opposite direction (almost since 1776), if we, as a nation, actively use our minds to think, strategize and constructively debate ideas, I believe we can still find and create solutions in what is left of the free enterprise system and the independent sector. That will just require paying attention and the simple old Roman republican rule of caveat emptor.

For my part, I will continue to bring you original thoughts, connections and alternative solutions to today’s biggest health problems. The real solutions may not usually deliver quick, instant fixes. But they are safe, effective alternatives to keep you healthy and happy well into your 70s, 80s, 90s, and beyond!