stand by

Confused. Disappointed. Anxious.

Unfocused. Distracted.

Overwhelmed.

Stretched too thin. Unknowing where to turn, never know if I’m doing enough.

Feeling I’m never doing the right thing.

More and more often, I find myself struggling with these kinds of feelings.

Both to my relief and somewhat horror, I know that I am far from alone. So very far from alone.

This is really the conundrum of social media, where we can instantaneously connect with people from all over the world, share ideas, thoughts, perspectives, stories, photographs. Borders dissolve. Community expands. We can reach anyone, anytime we wish.

As a global community, human knowledge has never been so accessible. We write, we edit, we collaborate, we make, we destroy. This is the future humanity of countless novels, scholastic dissertations, philosophical musings, wild and fantastic dreams.

It is truly a brave new world.

It also has a very dark side.

As with any major shift in technology, ability and perspective, it opens a Pandora’s Box of questions without easy answers. With so much information at our fingertips, it can be deeply overwhelming. As we become one collective community, we are exposed to more information than we may ever be able to really work with or healthily take in.

There are issues of easy anonymity. Humanity has always explored aliases and alibis, but with the creation of instant connection over technology, a person can be almost anyone behind a manufactured avatar, and reach to others all over the world. This gives people that may be otherwise suppressed astounding liberty, but it also gives damaging and defamatory actions considerable freedom.

Every day, the news from all corners of the world brings us another tide of misery.

Every day, our e-mail, social media accounts, our online obligations, our sources of enjoyment and entertainment, draw us in deeper.

With so much grasping for our attention, so much to see and do, our mind wanders more and more, our attention span wanes. Our wonderful technological tools and online resources stop being helpful, and become a mental hindrance, and an overwhelming addiction.

Thankfully, the potential and the challenges of this new reality also challenges us with important questions like:

  • How much information is enough?
  • Why? How to we measure enough?
  • Should we reach for as much interaction and information as possible? Why? Why not?
  • Is face-to-face interaction inherently better than online interactions? Why? Why not?
  • How do we live a good life of online social interaction, and healthy “disconnected” time?
  • How do we identify when we are in control, and when the moment has come when our technology controls us?

One of the realizations I’ve come to is a need to take some time and analyse just what I want to do with technology, and why I do it. I realized that I’ve been on Facebook for so long (since 2007), that logging on and regularly checking has become so natural, so normal, that I no longer even think about it, or wonder why it is that I find it devouring so much of my attention and energy. Nor do I really pay that much attention to each version change, and it is only really recently that I find myself noticing the slow creep of advertising and other unwanted content into the interface. I wonder how many people this is true for, how many people globally are plugging in, without entirely even knowing why.

Unfortunately, this has only become exacerbated when I (fairly recently) bought my first smartphone. Instead of closing my computer for the day and saying goodbye to all online contact, my phone is always in my pocket, and providing a constant siren call of easy information and distractions. With it not only comes new highs of online availability, but the necessity of new strategies to keep it from overwhelming.

Every morning when I start work, without thinking, I open three tabs: E-mail, Facebook, Twitter. What astounds me as I look back, is just how easily I did it, and it never seemed to occur to me to simply not do it. Not until I eventually realized that I was moving freely from work to social media and back, that I saw that there might be a problem. And it all happened so slowly. And as this happened, I found myself feeling more agitated, more often, partially because I found myself impatient, skimming through almost I’m reading, often without entirely taking it in. Instead of thoroughly reading through and appreciating the full impact of what I was seeing, I unconsciously mined it for what was pertinent information, without really taking any of it in. At first it seemed just efficient use of time, but in time I’ve discovered part of my agitation is from feeling frayed and stretched, and as if I’m seeing everything and understanding nothing…and unable to stop.

In recent years, a “slow food” movement has arisen as a counter-culture to the saturation of fast food. I’ve come to wonder if we may need a “slow information” movement, a more contemplative, slower lane in the information superhighway. Maybe it already exists, if we can just find it.

Not surprisingly, I’ve found it all draining. Instead of enjoyable posts and exciting stories from friends, my mind and thoughts seemed to latch to infuriating tirades, catastrophic news and inflammatory/shocking posts and exchanges. Both uses have coexisted since we’ve started connecting in cyberspace, but as I feel myself bogged down in time online, it seems to be all I can see.

Another positive of these experience though is that it has challenged me to find strategies to unplug, disconnect and find/re-discover where I find my “zen”. As well as our online interactions, we’ve worked to connect and re-connect with friends, including social nights revolving around things like board games, or simply meeting to talk, eat and share (more than a little disturbing to us was the realization just how novel this concept seems). The warmer weather has helped to help draw us to places away from “screens”, activities like walking in the community, or working in the garden together.

One of our favourite ways to disconnect is an evening walk to the community library. With all of this buzzing in my mind a few weeks ago, as I browsed I found the book “Hamlet’s Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy For Building A Good Life In The Digital Age” by William Powers.

William Powers opens the book with a hypothetical room, one that defies reality by being both massive and intimate, by somehow allowing billions of people to simultaneously interact. The room is a place of wonder and endless possibility, where people share anything and everything together. It is a place where at first we think we could never tire from, where there is always so much to see and experience. But in time, the insistent messages and pictures and people and objects people bring to our attention are wearying, even in their seemingly endless variety. Soon the experience becomes overwhelming, but when we ask others in the room about a way out, they seem perplexed, some, even disturbed. Why would you want to leave? This room has everything you could ever need…doesn’t it? And…haven’t we all always been here?

For those that seek a way out, they may meet with confusion from those that find enjoyment and purpose in deep immersion in technology. But they may meet others that are always seeking and searching for a way out. As I dig deeper into his book, I hope to learn more about his ideas about how to find balance, and find a better understanding for myself of how to live a satisfying and fulfilling life in the age of globalization.

As I write this, listening to video game music (Final Fantasy IX) performed on piano….finding it somewhat ironic as I contemplate the necessity of switching off. In no way do I mean that we should walk away from our technology, or this new global reality. But we should be aware of how it impacts us, and the vast and deep implications it has for us all, something I hope to learn more about every day.

I hope to continue a series on this, covering some of the highlights of William Powers’ book, and some strategies I’ve found as I work through finding balance between online and offline time…hopefully interspersed with posts on community as well!

Next post: Overwhelmed – Data Mined

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