When you take a class with the Harvard University art historian Jennifer Roberts, your first task is always to choose a work of art, then go and look at it, wherever it’s displayed, for three full hours. Three hours! If that notion doesn’t horrify you at least a little, I suspect you’re atypical: in our impatient, accelerated age, the mere thought of it is sufficient to trigger an irritable jumpiness. (Stick me in front of a painting for three hours and I’d soon be swiping my thumb on it downwards, to see if there had been any updates.) Roberts knows this: the whole point, she writes, is that it’s “a painfully long time”. She doesn’t expect her students to spend it all in rapt attention; rather, the goal is to experience that jumpiness, tolerate it, and get through it – whereupon they see things in the artwork they’d never have imagined were there.
Information: there’s a lot of it about. In his new book The Organised Mind, psychologist Daniel Levitin notes that we consume five times as much as we did in 1986. He also puts it like this: if you took one person’s share of all the human-created information in the world, wrote each byte of it on an index card and spread them out, you’d blanket Massachusetts and Connecticut. (Don’t actually do this – you’d cause chaos.) But then he drops his bombshell: we’re not really suffering from “information overload” at all. Your brain is incredible at storing data; some neuroscientists believe almost everything you’ve ever experienced is in there somewhere. Which is a relief. I don’t need to worry that my ability to recall the lyrics to Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in their entirety means I’m using up space needed for something else.
On the worst kind of New York day – soon after heavy snow, when everything’s covered in a slurry of mud, slush and litter – I stepped off a busy street into the lobby of a building I’d not visited before. I gave my name to the doorman, who murmured in recognition, and made my way down a corridor. I typed a code into a keypad and the door of a suite clicked open. If this sounds shady, it won’t help to add that I was paying for it by the hour. But all I did when I got inside – a spotless room, with Scandinavian furnishings and a yoga mat – was to write part of this column and stare out the window. I’d booked the space through Breather, a startup offering “peace and quiet on demand”: spaces for around £20 an hour, currently only in New York, San Francisco, Ottawa and Montreal. (To pre-empt your questions: the rules include “a zero tolerance policy for anything illegal or inappropriate”, and rooms are cleaned after use.) Breather’s a fabulous idea. On the other hand, it’s troubling that it’s a fabulous idea. What does it say about the world that there’s money to be made in giving people a few minutes to hear themselves think?