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The Age of Interruption

Lima, Peru--The best part of this job is being able to step outside of your routine and occasionally look at the world through a completely different lens. The Peruvian Amazon rain forest is such a lens, and looking at the world through this dense jungle has given me new perspectives on two issues — Middle East violence and the spread of the Internet.

What is so striking about the rain forest, when viewed up close, is what an incredibly violent place it is — with trees, plants and vines all struggling with each other for sunlight, and animals, insects and birds doing the same for food. I was always impressed at how our Peruvian Indian guide would identify a certain bird or wild pig or possum or parrot and immediately add who its predators were. In the rain forest, everyone and everything is part of a matched pair of predator and prey.

Yes, there is nothing like the violence of a rain forest, but it is violence with an identifiable purpose: plants and animals demarcating and protecting territory for the survival of their species.

I have to say that the violence unfolding between Israelis and Palestinians today is utterly without purpose. Israel has evacuated Gaza, and what does Hamas do? It doesn't put all its energy into building a nest for its young there — a decent state and society, with jobs. Instead, it launches hundreds of rockets into Israel.

The Palestinians could have a state on the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem tomorrow, if they and the Arab League clearly recognized Israel, normalized relations and renounced violence. Anyone who says otherwise doesn't know Israel today. But those driving Palestinian politics seem determined to destroy Israel in its territory — even if it means destroying themselves in their own territory. Species that behave that way in the rain forest become extinct.

As for the Internet in the rain forest, my point is this: There is none. Yes, I had to go to the Tambopata Research Center, deep in the Peruvian Amazon, to find it, but I can report there is still a place with no Internet or cellphone service. Of course, there are still many such places, but the fact that people could use their cellphones from atop the sacred Incan ruin of Machu Picchu, in the Andes, reminds one that there are fewer and fewer every day.

I have to say, as a wired junkie myself, there was something cleansing about spending four days totally disconnected. It was the best antidote to the disease of our age, what the former Microsoft executive Linda Stone aptly labeled "continuous partial attention."

Continuous partial attention is when you are on the Internet or cellphone or BlackBerry while also watching TV, typing on your computer and answering a question from your kid. That is, you are multitasking your way through the day, continuously devoting only partial attention to each act or person you encounter.

It is the malady of modernity. We have gone from the Iron Age to the Industrial Age to the Information Age to the Age of Interruption.

All we do now is interrupt each other or ourselves with instant messages, e-mail, spam or cellphone rings. Who can think or write or innovate under such conditions? One wonders whether the Age of Interruption will lead to a decline in civilization — as ideas and attention spans shrink and we all get diagnosed with some version of Attention Deficit Disorder.

I know that connectivity means productivity. But it is possible to overdose. There is such a thing as "too connected," and modern society is heading in that direction, as more people at more income levels get wired. Everyone we met in Peru had a cellphone, since Peru, like so many developing countries, is going straight from no phones to cellphones, skipping over land lines.

It means everyone is always "in." You're never "out." Out is over. Maybe soon we'll have to artificially recreate "out." Maybe soon we'll see an ad for a Four Seasons resort that says, "We guarantee that every room comes without Internet service."

What struck me about our Peruvian rain forest guide, Gilbert, though, was that he carried no devices and did not suffer from continuous partial attention. Just the opposite. He heard every chirp, whistle, howl or crackle in the rain forest and would stop us in our tracks and immediately identify what bird, insect or animal it was. He also had incredible vision and never missed a spider's web, or a butterfly, or a toucan, or a column of marching termites.

He was totally disconnected from the Web, but totally in touch with the incredible web of life around him. I wonder if there's a lesson there.

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