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The Long and the Short of It

By Jeremy N. Smith

There are two ways of looking at the world: the long view and the short view. In the long view, you look at big things that are far away. In the short view, you look at little things that are very near. I mean this literally.

Last summer, I spent most of my time in the long view. I was in Ireland, and I avoided Dublin, the one major city, as much as possible. This left me the majority of my stay with an unobstructed, uninterrupted view of Ireland's lakes within and oceans without, mountains above and cliffs below, fields all around and bogs all about. 'Twas grand.

Then I went home. I was sorry to leave the Emerald Isle, but also, in truth, eager to catch up on e-mail and the web, newspapers and magazines, television and videos. No matter what Seamus Heaney says, a bog's communication, information and entertainment options leave something to be desired. I was ready for home.

Except for the constant dizziness that plagued me from the moment I stepped off the plane. And the perpetual headache that met me at the door of my house. And the seeming inability of my eyes to focus on anything, anytime, anywhere. Like some short-lived soap opera star, I had all the symptoms of a concussion with no memory or evidence of the original blow. 'Twas not grand.

After a week of this torture, I more or less ran out of my house screaming. Perambulating essentially at random, I vowed to walk until my dizziness died or I did.

Twelve miles later, I prevailed. A 12-mile walk affords a short, slow man plenty of time to think. During my hours of contemplation, I decided that the cause of my "concussion" was the abrupt shift from time spent almost entirely in the long view (lakes, ocean, mountains, cliffs, fields and bogs) to time spent almost entirely in the short view (e-mail, web, newspapers, magazines, television and videos). Only the middle ground of city streets could carry me safely from one extreme perspective to the other.

A second, reverse, equally unintentional and equally unpleasant experiment sealed my hypothesis. Last winter I spent most of my time in the short view. Shunning the dangerous temptations of the outside world, I worked in my room an average of 12 hours a day, reading for classes and writing my thesis. My breaks consisted of e-mail and instant messages. If I finished a section of my magnum opus or managed some other extraordinary feat, I rewarded myself with TV-watching, web-browsing or--after an all-important upgrade--TV-watching while web-browsing. When lengthier diversions were necessary, I read magazines, comic books and the occasional romance novel.

I can't pinpoint the exact date it started, but I know that by March 1--the day I left my room to turn in my thesis--I could not see anything farther than two feet in front of me. Two feet was the distance of my computer monitor from my chair. When I tried any activity beyond that radius, my "concussion" returned with a vengeance.

This time it took a week of two-hour walks to return me to fighting form. Even now, though, it's not as if I avoid modern amenities like e-mail and Entertainment Weekly. As a result, I still have real problems physically focusing on big things that are far away for more than a few seconds at a time. As I write this, for example, I sit fifty yards from a row of towering trees at the Cabot end of the Radcliffe Quad. When I try to train a steady gaze on them, however, my eyes quickly jump to lock on a short, scrawny sapling ten feet in front of me. Only with extraordinary effort can I return my stare to the trees.

My experiences coming home from Ireland or outside from my thesis chamber may be extreme, but my tendency toward the short view is not. If you walk through Harvard Yard at night, you will see few first-years outdoors. Through the windows of their dorm rooms, however, you can spot scores of pale faces, often alone save the illumination of a nearby monitor. Like me, these people live largely in a world of two-foot radiuses. Our numbers are only growing.

Eye-strain aside, my worry is not that we spend so much time looking at little things so near, but rather that soon we won't have a choice. Modern technology brings ever-increasing proportions of work and play to our monitors with amazing efficiency and convenience. No matter how modern the technology, however, it can't show us anything bigger than the physical area of our monitors or farther away than the physical distance of our monitors from our chairs.

Tonight I will walk to the center of the Radcliffe Quad at midnight. I will try to ignore the pale faces illuminated by monitors in the surrounding dorm room windows. I will lay on my back and I will look up at something very big, very far away.

I invite you to join me.

Jeremy N. Smith '00 is a history and literature concentrator in Pforzheimer House. This is his final column.

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