We were seated at the Thanksgiving table when the young woman across from us snapped a photo of her turkey dinner with her phone and started texting. By way of explanation, her father told us, "She is very connected to her friends. They share everything with each other." Eventually the woman looked up and shared her post–college plans, glancing at her phone every minute or two depending on whether she was talking or "listening." Fifteen minutes later she excused herself, while we lingered over dessert with her parents.
The more we use technology, the more technology is changing us. Evidence increasingly suggests that it is impacting the way we think, feel, and relate to each other. As William Powers describes in Hamlet's Blackberry, this has been the case throughout human history. With the introduction of each new technology there are those who warn (sagely and hysterically) of the potential for negative consequences. For example, Socrates was concerned about the deleterious impacts of the written word, which we know because, ironically, other Greeks wrote about it.
And yet today, even enthusiastic proponents are raising red flags due to the power and pervasiveness of today's digital culture. In Alone Together, MIT professor and clinical psychologist Sherry Turkle offers dozens of examples of how communication technology and robotics are profoundly impacting the way we perceive ourselves and what it means to be human. As Dr. Turkle points out, many of the young "digital natives" and the older "digital migrants" she meets are first lured by the market–amped novelty of each new technology. Then they come to rely on the convenience, such as the handiness of a cell phone, the speed of texting, and the vastness of the web. Soon they find themselves enjoying the psychological benefits of relating through technology: the control of their time, the anonymity of the web, the opportunities for multi–tasking, and the freedom from emotional entanglement.
As a result, Turkle observes that we are finding it increasingly difficult, and sometimes impossible, to relate in real time. Being face–to–face with others burdens us with the task of negotiating our competing agendas, our conflicting schedules, and our messy emotions. It requires that we observe social graces, including censoring our selves.
By avoiding these elements of human interaction, however, our lives can be diminished as we come to accept the inherent compromises of technological communications and avoid more direct connections. Deep down we know (and studies increasingly confirm) that we all need significant amounts of embodied connection (eye contact, facial expressions, voice, body contact and warmth) for our physical and mental well being at all stages of our lives.
What's more, all this technology takes time (and not because we are all busy reading the manuals). Not only is it impinging on the time we spend directly with others, but it is taking away from the time we have to focus inwardly on our own thoughts and emotions. Time for reflection is essential in our intellectual and emotional development. As the conscious designers of our lives, we need time to think, to feel, to look for patterns, to plan, to experiment, to make mistakes, and to reconsider.
There is an illuminating New York Times story about several neuroscientists on a five day rafting trip (a kind of City Slickers for nerds). Their assumptions about the relationship between digital culture and the brain are tested as they spend time completely unplugged. Even the skeptics among them finally acknowledge that they are being changed by the technology they use and that periodic breaks are a good thing. Their experiences echo the conclusions of both Powers and Turkle: we need to control our use of technology or our technology will control us. To be successful we need to do this as individuals and as society. The responsible use of technology is a discussion to have with our family and friends, as well as at work and in our communities.
We might begin these discussions by asking, "How can we make life better by controlling our communication technology?" How can we have fewer interruptions, and the mental space to really focus on one thing at a time? How can we take more quiet time for our reflective selves and spend more time with those we care about? How can we regularly unplug: a few hours each day, a day or two each week, and three or more days every few months?
We can begin by creating what Powers calls "Walden Zones." These are physical places and periods of time that are free from technological intrusions. In turn, they become opportunities to engage directly with the physical world, with nature, with people, and with ourselves. Once we do, and we rediscover the joys (and sorrows) of being a fully embodied human on an incredible planet, we will be on the road to using technology slowly and responsibly for the good life.
How many hours of your waking day are you unplugged?
How has communication technology impacted your relationships? your work?
Consider reading either Hamlet's Blackberry (a quick read), or Alone Together (a longer read). Extra credit: try reading them as books (versus electronically).
Create some "Walden Zones" in your life. Possibilities might include the following:
More extra credit: Plan a time when you can unplug for three days. Ideally the folks around you will be unplugged as well. No, you can't text or tweet about the experience during this time.
Sending you a warm digital hug,
Beth and Eric
This monthly slow essay is from Beth Meredith & Eric Storm of Create The Good Life.
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