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Over the last couple weeks I’ve been writing this “Overwhelmed” series as I’ve thought about the connections between technology and stress, and reading through William Powers’ book “Hamlet’s BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building A Good Life in the Digital Age”. As I look back on the series, I continue to explore ways that I can live more meaningfully and peacefully on and offline.
These are some of the areas that Powers covered in his book, and thoughts on how they can be used in our lives. He stressed that what he proposes are just suggestions not prescriptions, and challenges each of us to imagine ways we can be more intentional in our online time, and live our offline lives more fully.
One of the simplest ways (in theory) to detach from technology is to set it down and walk away…but this can be very hard to do in practice. I feel that we’re all becoming very conscious of just how many screens we’re exposed to everyday, and how often we view events now through a screen/lens, our own or someone else’s. In particular, whenever I’m at a concert I feel hyper-aware of all the phones held up, how many people are seeing the celebration before them through the minuscule eye of a recording device…we’re so wrapped up with recording, saving, processing, sharing, declaring “I was here!”, that we may miss what is right before us. I hope that as we learn how to live with our new technologies, we will in time learn to put our devices back in our pockets, and allow ourselves to again be, live to, just in the moment. Our mind, our attention, in the same place at the same time as our bodies.
In the post “Driven to Digital Distraction”, I explored Powers’ observations about old vs. new technologies. One way to be purposeful in our utilization of technology is embracing elements that are offline, including carrying a notepad and pen with us when we want to write, or a camera on an evening stroll instead of a phone that can take pictures. It can often be extremely handy to have an all-in-one device in our pocket, but it also stimulates the mental itch to check e-mail, texts, social media etc. in a time that could be better spent on inner reflection and relaxation. I find it very difficult to put my phone down, but as I’ve worked on this series I’ve tried to make time “off the leash”, free from digital distractions. It has been strangely liberating, and has made me realize just how much my dependence on/obsession with screens has changed my perception, without my even realizing it. It has also been liberating to realize that adapting to new technologies has always been a struggle for humanity, and gives me hope that as our digital life matures, we will find ways to find balance just as our predecessors have.
In the post “Ben’s Example”, I shared Powers’ exploration of the life of Benjamin Franklin, and a method he developed at the age of 20 that he believed helped him become the astounding politician, philosopher and inventor we recognize today. Though it is simple to think “today I’ll put away my phone and go for a walk”, we may find halfway through our stroll that it has still found its way into our pocket. Franklin stressed that we must find the root causes of our compulsions, and work at understanding ourselves to find ways to slowly change for the better. It isn’t an easy road, he warned, but he believed so strongly in his method that he touted “follow the Example & reap the Benefit”. The catch may be, we may need to put down technology and find a time of contemplation, to find ways for us to walk away from our gadgets.
Zones of Solitude
In the post “Home of Refuge”, I shared Powers’ thoughts on philosopher Henry David Thoreau, and his personal experiment of creating a “zone of solitude”, a home in the woods, away from the hectic bustle of town. His thoughts on what constitutes home, and the need for barriers against the pressing chaos of the outside world, can be instructive to us today as we imagine ways to disconnect today. The struggles Thoreau faced are all the more pressing today, as, instead of being connected by telegraph, the walls of in vs. out may almost entirely vanish in a digitally connected home, constantly offering diversions and distractions from all over the world. Today, we may want to create zones in our homes where we intentionally keep screens out (many families work to reduce or remove entirely screen use in bedrooms), or have “screen free” times, which can be hard depending on shifting needs of different family members. Though strictly enforced screen off times may not be welcomed, if time away from devices can be encouraged, it may become a welcome practice in time. The hard part is slowly developing these practices, something I am definitely still working on!
One of our favourite ways of spending time with others is over board games (Settlers of Catan and Power Grid are our new favourites). With the distance often between us, it can be fun to play games like Scrabble online with friends and chat as we play, but there’s nothing like meeting together in a home, sharing food and conversation as we play. For the past few months, we’ve tried to make a Wednesday night games night a ritual with a group of friends. It can be difficult to find the time, and not everyone can always make it, and sometimes the day is shifted in the week to better accommodate everyone.
It takes effort to slice out the time from hectic lives, but we’ve found it extremely worthwhile! Is there a group of people you haven’t seen in a long time? A favourite activity away from devices you haven’t done lately? A social night away from screens might be a great way to bring some calm and fun to the week.
I hope that you’ve found this series interesting! It has been both fun and challenging to write, as it has been on a subject I find fascinating, but has also made me face many of the things bringing me stress, some without me even realizing it. With screens and distractions so readily available, it can be hard to switch off, both externally and internally. This process has helped me contemplate just how much time I spend online, and how little of it is of value…I find I have come to almost continually slide from one window to another, unfocused and retaining little. My goal from this writing and reading isn’t so much to spend less time online, but to regain focus and understanding of what I do take in. As I consider my digital practices, I hope to continue to refine how I connect, and disconnect. I also hope to continue to find ways to live a more intentional life online, and a more meaningful life offline, and that this series has helped point to ways others can too.
From here I’ll return to previous posts on community, about small communities as well as ways we can all connect over common causes and interests across communities. I’ll also be in Kitchener next week at a conference on community and neighbourhoods hosted by the Tamarack Institute, I’m very excited to participate, and share everything I learn there, here.
Next post: Sharing Community
I once read that someday the walls of the typical American kitchen will be constructed of enormous digital screens. The report had a sanguine tone, a perky world-of-tomorrow certitude that this will be a brilliant addition to any modern home.
“How long you figure before we save up and get the fourth wall torn out and a fourth wall-TV put in? It’s only two thousand dollars.” “That’s one-third of my yearly pay.” It’s only two thousand dollars.,” she replied. “And I should think you’d consider me sometimes. If we had a fourth wall, why it’d be just like this room wasn’t ours at all, but all kinds of exotic people’s rooms. We could do without a few things.”
This is another post that somewhat got away from me. I meant to continue talking about “Hamlet’s Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy For Building A Good Life In The Digital Age” by William Powers, and the chapter “The Walden Zone” on Henry David Thoreau and making the home a “zone of solitude”. But something from the chapter got me thinking about Ray Bradbury’s classic “Fahrenheit 451”, and the post took something of a life on its own.
The first quote above is from the opening of Power’s chapter “The Walden Zone”, while the second is a conversation between “fireman” Guy Montag and his wife Mildred in “Fahrenheit 451”.
Powers’ chapter reflects on the work and life of Thoreau, and an experiment he performed by himself as he developed his philosophies of simplicity, living in relative isolation, creating a “zone of solitude” where he by turns lived in quiet contemplation, and in companionship with visitors when he desired them. Thoreau for a time built a place of reflection and relaxation where he carefully measured and examined what truly matters to him, and what can be discarded.
So what is home? Powers offers these definitions:
“Home” means so many things. On the most basic level it’s simply a location, a place where one lives. It’s also the physical structure, the house or apartment that is home. Last, home refers to the environment that is created inside the structure, a world-away-from-the-world offering refuge, safety, and happiness.
He goes on to say that it is this third definition that is sadly lacking in our understanding and appreciation of home now, and how we balance our use of technology, as demonstrated by the quote at the start of this post.
In “Fahrenheit 451”, the main character Guy Montag seems to live his life “thinking little at all about nothing in particular”, working as a “fireman” burning houses instead of saving them, destroying books wherever they are found. It is revealed in time that the firemen are thought to be “protectors of happiness”, keeping things nice and simple by burning down all those inflammatory, angering, grievous words. Thought brings confusion, sadness, anger…unhappiness. Who could want that? In fact, he never even really thinks about all that thoughtlessness, until he chances to meet a young girl named Clarisse after a night of burning.
She tells him all kinds of bewildering things, including the fact that her family often sits long into the night, talking. No TV, no radio, nothing but earnest discussion and sharing. Guy asks if this is healthy, and she admits it has her teachers very worried. Bewildered, he doesn’t know what to think…but he soon realizes that he is thinking. In fact, it feels as if this little girl has quietly thrown a rock through the burnt mask he didn’t even realize he was wearing.
They continue to talk every day when he finishes work. He wonders what she does for fun, she admits sometimes she just watches people, watches all the automaton thoughtless people, and wonders what is to be done. She ends one conversation with:
“I’ve got to go and see my psychiatrist now. They make me go. I make up things to say. I don’t know what he thinks of me…they want to know what I do with all my time. I tell them that sometimes I just sit and think. But I won’t tell them what.”
This is in stark contrast to Guy’s home. The Montag home imagined by Bradbury, multiplied a millionfold across the country, gives a frightening illustration of a possible future, where people obliterate their minds with entertainments, where thought is shunned as dangerous. A thinking person cannot be trusted, a zone of solitude and contemplation to be feared and hated. Thoreau observed in his time:
Surface meets surface. When our life ceases to be inward and private, conversation degenerates into mere gossip…In proportion as our inward life fails, we go more constantly and desperately to the post-office. You may depend on it, that the poor fellow who walks away with the greatest number of letters proud of his extensive correspondence has not heard from himself this long while.
So, what can this teach us about our use of technology today? Ray Bradbury was extremely sceptical of the new technologies developing, to the point of fighting against the publication of his work on eReader devices. Are we to forsake all new technologies? Are we to attempt to disconnect ourselves from the world to regain our sanity?
Thoreau may give a better illustration of a life of balance.
In his experiments, his life was one of seclusion and social in turns, as fit his moods and needs. He learned the value and need both to commune with the self, and to be in and of the greater world, that too much of either could be destructive. Home should be a place both of fun and frivolity and of calm and contemplation; he suggested that with enough room, smaller “zones” could be built, perhaps on a spectrum of calm to chaos. Home should be able to accompany places of being together, and places where we can be truly on out own and “ourselves”, and discover what being our self means.
It’s easy to be continually distracted, to move feverishly from one thing to another. It seems it has always been a feature of humanity, and the ability to be constantly connected furthers this fever. With a phone always in our pocket, with a computer or mobile device always near at hand, the world always beckons, and the refuge of home doesn’t exist.
Why are we so eager to be connected?
Bradbury shows us the consequences of thinking. As we read and contemplate only in the world of our own imagining, we may find a frightening place. In this solitude, thoughts and questions will come to us to be considered as the noise and confusion of the outside world falls away, questions and wonderings of meaning, the hows and whys of our existence. In the silence, the big questions press close.
Thoreau teaches us that it is important to have times of social and digital connection and disconnection, and to be very intentional in how we do both. Perhaps in incorporating Benjamin Franklin’s example into our lives, we can learn more about ourselves, who we truly are, and what drives our needs. Once we know ourselves, we can understand why we are so hungry to connect, and find a natural rhythm for our lives, alternating from the internal to external worlds and back for our health and happiness.
On my next post, I’ll explore everything covered in this series, and seek to find practical ways to disconnected from the digital world and reconnect with ourselves and the things that matter most, the things that may be slipping away from us.
Next post: Beyond Overwhelmed
As I delve deeper into the conundrum of what it means to live in this perpetually connected digital world, I’ve come to a point in the book “Hamlet’s Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy For Building A Good Life In The Digital Age” where author William Powers describes how the personal regimen of one man in the 18th century can teach us valuable lessons for mastering our 21st century life.
That man is Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the United States, as well as being one of a few truly outstanding polymaths, excelling in many fields including politics, science, invention, music, civil activism, statesmanship and diplomacy.
He was a deeply social and active person, so much so that one of his early writing pseudonyms was “Busy-Body”. He was constantly on the move, thinking, reading and connecting…Powers says that Franklin was a master of “doing the eighteenth-century equivalent of social networking”. Everyone that observed him saw that he was a man going places…but it wasn’t until he had a moment of profound “disconnection” that he realized he didn’t known where that place was.
At the age of 20, Benjamin Franklin voyaged from London, England to Philadelphia, leaving him with a great deal of time for philosophical soul-searching, of his life so far, and where he wanted to go. This is an excerpt of his journal from the travel:
Man is a sociable being, and it is…one of the worst punishments to be excluded from society. I have read abundance of fine things on the subject of solitude, and I know ’tis a common boast in the mouths of those that affect to be thought wise, that they are never less alone than when alone. I acknowledge solitude an agreeable refreshment to a busy mind; but were these thinking people obliged to be always alone, I am apt to think they would quickly find their very being insupportable to them.
Despite this, Franklin reflected in his voyage that too many things in his life weren’t going at all the way he wanted. He was pulled in too many directions, and far too busy to properly put his life in order. Despite our hectic lives often seeming to be a very new, digital age phenomenon, Franklin’s writings give us a stark reminder that this type of busyness and “quiet desperation” (next post will examine the life and work of Henry David Thoreau) have always been with us.
From these reflections, he built a philosophy and personal regimen that he attributed to building the man he would become.
Seeing Franklin’s teachings and his own personal struggles in a rapidly expanding and connecting world gives me hope for us. How simultaneously empowering and frightening it is to consider that we are really all the same people! As much as we like to distance ourselves from many of the murky chapters of human history, I find it reassuring to know that there is so much already lived and written behind us to draw from in our own often torturous lives.
I found Franklin’s teachings as shared by Powers deeply interesting, both as a period study, as well as a broader examination of human nature. Take a minute to consider these 13 virtues he developed at the age of 20, and how it can inform us today:
- Temperance: Eat not to Dullness. Drink not to Elevation.
- Silence: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself. Avoid trifling Conversation.
- Order: Let all your Things have their Places. Let each Part of your Business have its Time.
- Resolution: Resolve to perform what you ought. Perform without fail what you resolve.
- Frugality: Make no Expense but to do good to others or yourself i.e. Waste nothing.
- Industry: Lose no Time. Be always employ’d in something useful. Cut off all unnecessary Actions.
- Sincerity: Use no hurtful Deceit. Think innocently and justly; and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
- Justice: Wrong none, by doing Injuries or omitting the Benefits that are your Duty.
- Moderation: Avoid Extremes. Forbear resenting Injuries so much as you think they deserve.
- Cleanliness: Tolerate no Uncleanliness in Body, Clothes or Habitation.
- Tranquillity: Be not disturbed at Trifles, or at Accidents common or unavoidable.
- Chastity: Rarely use Venery but for Health or Offspring; Never to Dullness, Weakness, or the Injury of your own or another’s Peace or Reputation.
- Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
With some small modifications and updating of language, it can be easy to image how these goals could speak to us here in the 21st century. Franklin was confident that with discipline, anyone could follow his philosophy, so much so that he exhorted his readers “follow the Example & reap the Benefit”.
One of the things that I hadn’t considered on first reading that Powers points out is that, though the wording is austere, the goals are positive aspects to work towards, noting as one example “who doesn’t want tranquillity?” Instead of things like “The No Ice Cream or Any Other Goodies Diet”, he gives 13 targets to aim towards (noting in writings that he never comes near to the centre of any of them, but that it is the effort that is rewarding).
It has a great deal to do with attitude, as well. Franklin apparently moved through life and his philosophy in an easy and affable manner, not becoming undone by each failure to live up to these massive ideals, but in quiet congratulation and good humour with each success.
Powers also notes that the power in Benjamin Franklin’s example and challenge is not an easy path to walk, but can be truly transformational…in fact, that is the reason the path isn’t easy to walk. We want to change for the better, and talk about transformative experiences at great length, but how many of us truly want to experience it?
I’m not so sure I do. Not really.
But if we find the courage to work at it, we may be astounded by the results.
To push back against the seeming onslaught of activity and information in our hectically connected lives, many groups (including families, companies and organizations) have tried to enforce e-mail/digital device free time. However, this puts only external pressure on us, instead of enticing us to discover what it is that drives us, and to through personal examination and reflection to reshape ourselves.
This is something I hope to continue to reflect on and practice as I write this series. My first thoughts on this is a goal to reawaken my appreciating and enjoyment of simple pleasures – though sad that it takes such concentration to do. As I move through this process, I realize that many things I used to enjoy are done without the pleasure I used to feel. I realize that, though my desires and passions haven’t changed, I am always thinking on things I feel I should be doing, and often, that the mental itch of social media and online activity are distracting me from the physical present and the now.
How simple it can be to say “cherish life”, but realizing, with the haste of everything that life can entail, how little we actually do it. I hope that we can each, in small steps, recapture our lives, our meaning and ourselves. As we do this, it will empower us to step out into the digital world refreshed, rejuvenated, and more able to enjoy it as a tool and not as something that controls us.
In my next post, I’ll examine the example of Henry David Thoreau and building a zone of solitude in our homes.
Next post: Overwhelmed – Home of Refuge
In my previous posts, I explored feelings I’ve been struggling with, and the conundrum of what it means to live in this perpetually connected digital world. I also began exploring the book “Hamlet’s Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy For Building A Good Life In The Digital Age” by William Powers.
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 well as how it is already shaping and informing our cultures.
As I consider this subject, I reflected on all the different stories from the last couple decades that explore these themes. When the concept of cyberspace was still in its infancy, many (especially science fiction) writers explored what nature it may take, and the ramifications it may have for us. Michael Creighton explored these themes in many of his books, even slipping some philosophical ranting through the character Ian Malcolm in his popular books Jurassic Park and The Lost World. As we have become immersed in the reality of digital, global connection, academic work as well as fictional musings have only expanded. One instance is the anime Serial Experiments Lain, which centres on the exploration of the intersections of digital communication with personal identity and our understandings of reality.
In his book, Powers argues that though the present challenges of instant communication and constant gratification and communication of online interaction is unprecedented, the general problems and opportunities presented are not new to us. In fact, he argues that there are important lessons that can be learned through human history that can give guidance to a good life in our world today.
From the title of the book, “Hamlet’s BlackBerry”, he presents a fascinating anachronism, the thought of Shakespeare’s antihero holding a modern mobile device. But, he argues, Hamlet actually depended on the equivalent of his time, a device I hadn’t heard of.
He points to this text from Hamlet, Act I, Scene IV, after Hamlet has spoken to the ghost of his father. The ghost of King Hamlet Senior exposes the truth of his death, from supposed poisoning by a bite, to having been murdered by his brother, Hamlet’s uncle Claudius, and the new king. Hamlet slips into soliloquy after his father’s ghost fades away, saying:
Ay, thou poor ghost, while memory holds a seat
In this distracted globe. Remember thee!
Yea, from the table of my memory
I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,
That youth and observation copied there;
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmix’d with baser matter:
First, Hamlet mentions the “distracted globe”, probably a triple-entendre on his own distracted mind, perhaps a world that is in its entirety distracted, and making a clever jab at the audience seeing the play performed in the Globe Theatre, whose minds by this time may have been wandering. Though this sense of being overwhelmed may seem to me and to us to be a modern situation and struggle, it may be that the bustle and clamour of Shakespeare’s London may have been just as trying!
But the part that Powers really wants to focus on is the table, also called a “writing table” or “table book”, basically the precursor to the modern notebook/tablet. These earlier notebooks used a coated parchment or paper, marked with a metal stylus, and could be later blotted out with a sponge to be used again. So in Hamlet’s speech, he thinks of his mind as a singular tome cluttered with meaningless trivia, scattered and unfocused, where everything except the knowledge of the “murder most foul” of his father must be wiped out.
Powers talks at length about how many people of Shakespearian England, and perhaps Shakespeare himself, relied on a table book to keep their helter-skelter lives in order. A common practice would be to have this impermanent object always close at hand, and to have a heavier journal kept at home. At the end of the day, the scribbles and notes of the day could be gone over again, carefully weighed and judged, and everything of value could be copied into the permanent journal, before the table was wiped clean. This practice could be an important time of introspection and examination of the busy days behind and ahead.
So in the same way, we may actually use our phones and mobile devices in this way, and bend the new technology to an old practice. But Powers notes that many (including himself) prefer an old paper-and-binding notepad for his notation. It could be simply nostalgia, he notes, but he thinks it goes far deeper. This is how he says it:
In conventional thinking about technology today, the fact that paper is a three-dimensional medium – that it’s made of atoms rather than bits and therefore takes up space – is considered its greatest weakness. Like you and me, it has a body and is stuck here in the physical world. My notebook can’t fly from here to China in seconds the way digital data can. However, just as the strength of digital devices (their ability to bring the crowd closer) is also their weakness, the weakness of paper can also be its strength.
As I took down notes as I read in a coffee shop, I found myself nodding along. I actually faced this conundrum, as I found myself transcribing notes onto my phone, my hand aching for the pen and paper I hadn’t thought to bring with me. The phone notebook is of course handy, but one of the major flaws I found was the alerts popping along the margins as I wrote and read, online messages vying against the quiet sounds of coffee poured and conversations around me. The alerts meant people reaching to contact me in a different medium than the world around me – these can be pleasant, but it can also be mentally taxing.
I found the format of the digital notepad interesting as I contemplated it from this new perspective. Though it exists in bits of code, the background looks like a yellow notepad found in every stationary store, the default font choice mimicking handwriting, to give it a seemingly personal quality. Phone keyboard sounds often come with the option of sounding like the harsh clack of a typewriter, many device covers are available that look like the pebbled and worn surfaces of a favourite leather notebook. And so on. Almost as if chosen to try to make the transition easier, warmer, more tangible, more personal.
So one of the first strategies may be simply to devise ways to disconnect as we reflect and write. This is obviously something I struggle with, and seems oddly ironic to say from an online blog, and as many of my favourite authors write blogs that I follow. However, it is good to have down time for personal reflection, contemplation and meditation, on ourselves as well as the information we take in.
Like all things, it is much easier to say than to do.
Powers reflects that we cannot cut ourselves off “cold turkey” from our digital dependencies and expect the results to go well. But he holds up the example of one exceptional man that created a personal method to reshape his nature, and create a pleasurable and productive life for himself, to astounding results. I’ll share his thoughts in my next post, and reflect on how this man’s method can inform us today in the digital age.
In my previous post, I explored feelings that I’ve been struggling with, and the conundrum of what it means to live in this perpetually connected digital world. I also began exploring the book “Hamlet’s Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy For Building A Good Life In The Digital Age” by William Powers. I hope to continue writing about how we can easily become overwhelmed with technology and living a life continually connected, but as I started to write, I ended up with what is something of an aside – this post.
In my last post, I said that it is a brave new world for us as we become more deeply connected through a variety of technologies, with more seemingly developed everyday. In some ways, it is also starting to resemble something from George Orwell’s “1984”. The Wall Street Journal recently shared this image (click for an expanded version):
All of our online activity is tracked, recorded, mined, harvested, aggregated, compiled, analysed, bought and sold. All of this information is immeasurably valuable for advertisers and marketers, as they work to understand their target markers in an increasingly competitive and tough economic environment. All of our activity can provide valuable insight into our wants and needs, desires and dreams. Not only does it give impressions of our singular activities, but tracked over time, our digital and physical movements can provide better understandings of what drives us over a period of time. Aggregated together with everyone around us, this can paint quite a picture of our collective nature.
This information could be used for a multitude of purposes. This information is gathered at great expense so that we can more cunningly be advertised and marketed to, but it could also be utilized by planners, sociologists, psychologists, demographers, cartographers etc. to better understand our communities, societies, and ourselves. The potential for us all to gain understanding from this information is immense.
One thing I take from all of this is a certain sense of irony, that our Conservative government abolished the mandatory long form census, as it is too “invasive”. Even as private companies mine and harvest everything we do, gaining much more intimate information from us through the services they provide us. Even as government steps back, making it more difficult to provide services we pay a great deal of taxes for efficiently and effectively, private companies step forward to fill the void.
This is something we should all be conscious of, but I think we find much easier not to consider, as it is often joined with a sense of helplessness. Either we connect and provide aggregate data for companies, or cut ourselves from the services that we depend on. From an information science perspective, I find it very fascinating to have our physical and digital presences twinned and inspected, that a more complete picture of our existence can be mapped. For many, this kind of analysis can be very unnerving.
As I continue this series I’ll cover some of the highlights of William Powers’ book, starting with his explanation of “Hamlet’s BlackBerry”, and also write about some strategies I’ve found as I work through finding balance between online and offline time.
Confused. Disappointed. Anxious.
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!