If you listen closely (turn off that iPhone and stop checking your email!), you can hear a quiet rebellion against the too-muchness of daily life. I'm talking about the over-stimulation of electronic media and the exhaustion that comes from being always connected. This topic has been getting more attention lately, which suggests that perhaps we have hit a saturation point. People want to learn how to unplug – and re-gain some measure of their humanity.
I first became aware of this trend in 2009, when Professor David Levy of the University of Washington came to speak at Amherst College. (See my blog post here. ) Levy is a rare, committed voice of centeredness in the digital cacophony of our time. An active meditator, he has spent years thinking about how media technologies are contributing to our society-wide attention-deficit disorder.
He points out that we have precious little uncluttered time nowadays. We live in a world overrun with email, Twitter and Facebook messages, always-on smart phones, pagers, text-messaging, and countless other media inputs. Silence and contemplation have disappeared amidst an overwhelming barrage of electronic inputs, both voluntary and force-fed. This has resulted in greater distraction and stress in everyday life, and a diminished capacity for creativity and thoughtfulness.
I like how Levy conceives of his mission – to bring “the spirit of calligraphy to the digital age.” He has organized conferences on “Information, Silence, and Sanctuary” (2004) and “Mindful Work and Technology” (2006), and is working on a book called No Time to Think.
More voices are joining Levy's. Last Sunday, the travel writer and cosmopolitam Pico Iyer wrote about “The Joy of Quiet.” He noted that some of the most creative types in the design business live in remote plays and never watch TV. There are now high-end hotels that pride themselves on offering no TV. In Asia “Internet rescue camps” try to wean kids from their addiction to screens.
This is all good so far as it goes, but it underscores a sick dimension: We now have to pay extra for quiet in order to escape the degradations created by market forces. You have to pay extra for a quiet lounge at the airport; for food that is not laced with pesticide residues; for protection against data-mining privacy violations. It's the ol' "private wealth and pubic squalor" dynamic that John Kenneth Galbraith first identified.
Still, there are some things that we can do voluntarily, and for free. More people are choosing to “forget” their cellphones while at home. A leading critic of online life, Nicholas Carr, cites a series of tests that show that people who spend time in quiet rural settings tend to exhibit “greater attentiveness, stronger memory and generally improved cognition. Their brains become both calmer and sharper.”
These findings dovetail with the observations of Diana Senechal, a New York City public school educator and curriculum advisor. At Salon.com, Senechal was interviewed about her new book, The Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture. Many students' problems in learning, she argues, can be traced to students’ loss of solitude. They no longer have the time or space to think and reflect independently about things. Teaching is so revved up, and curricula so packed with material, and iPhones and Twitter feeds so ubiquitous, that no one has any time to reflect and ruminate. There is too little “free time” in which to entertain and absorb new ideas.
Senechal says that she sees people “having great difficulty sitting with a book for a long time, or with a pad of paper. They want to have the stimulus right nearby – they want access to their email, they want access to their text messages no matter what they’re doing. You see people walking down the street with their phones and just staring at their phones; and you see people holding their phones in all situations – at a concert or when having dinner with a friend – so they can check that they don’t miss anything. Yes, there is a loss of ability to just sit with something.”
This incapacity to concentrate and wrestle with ambiguous or challenging issues has obvious implications for learning. It also has implications for our ability to relate to each other, and to understand ourselves.
As if some sort of synchronicity were going on, Nick Bilton in the New York Times wrote about his obsession to photograph a beautiful Pacific Ocean sunset with his iPhone – taking many, many photos – rather than just sitting on the beach and enjoying it. He did a little reporting and talked with neuroscientist Jonah Lehrer, who states that our brains need to become inattentive to figure out complex issues. Lehrer has a new book coming out, Imagine: How Creativity Works, which discusses (among other things) an area of the brain scientists call “the default network” – which is the area that remains active only when the rest of the brain is inactive. It's the region that has something to do with daydreaming.
Letting the mind wander activates the default network, he said, and allows our brains to solve problems that most likely can’t be solved during a game of Angry Birds.
“Like everyone else, I really can’t imagine life without that little computer in my pocket,” he [Lehrer] added. “However, there is an importance to being able to put it aside and let those daydreams naturally perform the cognitive functions your brain needs.”
Jonathan Schooler, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara who has focused his research on daydreaming, put it this way: “Daydreaming and boredom seem to be a source for incubation and creative discovery in the brain and are part of the creative incubation process.”
Like most people, I love the Internet and its various websites and apps (although I have drawn the line at a smart phone). The point is that we need to be more mindful of how we use technology. Are we using it to enable us to escape from our deeper selves and from more meaningful interactions with others?
The multi-tasking life, says David Levy, “is a dangerous trend for society if it becomes our dominant way of living our daily lives. There's nothing wrong with split-focus for periods of time, but when we're not giving our full attention to anything, it reduces our humanity and our effectiveness.”
Looking for a resolution for the new year? Try silence.