FILLING A BOWL WITH A THIMBLE

Temporary mountain living has put some distance between my phone and me. There’s no great reason for this. I get reception for the most part. It may be because some of the “smart” features don’t work. Or, maybe it’s just that I’m not in my regular day-to-day routine.

Whatever it is, my phone has lost its status as virtual appendage.

I’m musing about whether this will help me do more musing.

I’m pretty suspicious about screens, for the same reasons lots of folks are. One of my biggest complaints is they tempt me away from being present. We’re so eager to jump out of our skin—sharing or interpreting the experience before we’ve even really had it! I bet you’ve heard a musician by this point challenge their audience to put their phones away and actually listen to the music. Pretty telling.

But, I’m not interested in wagging my finger at us either. This is partly because I’m as likely as the next to take my phone out at a concert. But it’s mostly because our angst-filled wrangling about technology usually falls out into “oh no, bad” and “oh so good” camps. This divide seems really unhelpful.

There are real neurobiological impacts of our technology saturation. And we’re crazy if we don’t start to learn and think about these so we can make informed choices about what we want our brains to be able to do. We also need to decide what we are okay with them no longer being able to do.

No longer being able to do?

Yep.

When Paul Miller mentions the fact that four months into his year of life without internet he could sit and read 100 pages of a novel without losing focus, he isn’t being quirky. He’s naming something real. The way most of us use technology is literally re-wiring our brains; eroding our ability to concentrate for long periods.

Arguments in the “good” camp usually claim technology is neutral (which, after a nice, nuanced beginning is, unfortunately, where Miller ends up). It’s just a medium like a book or telephone is a medium. It simply delivers content and its “good” or “bad” affects depend only on what we do with that content. “Dead wrong,” the author of The Shallows says (who is by no means anti-technology). He gives a great analogy about how our brains process information to show why.

We can only take in information in a container the size of a thimble and transfer it—one thimble at a time—to a larger container. The larger container is where we absorb ideas, make connections, think with complexity, imagine and create. I have this image of a clear, cold, compelling tinted glass bowl; a vast container out of which to drink deeply from the experiences we’ve taken in.

This process requires time and space.

Now, imagine holding that thimble underneath a bathtub faucet and turning the water on full blast (the analogy for most of our internet use). Water just sprays all over the place.

The Shallows offers other insights. Reading a book on an electronic reader? No measurable difference than reading a book on paper. But, throw in a few hyperlinks? (Yes, this blog = guilty.) Instead of steadily moving water one thimbleful at a time, our brains go into decision-making mode, making dozens of millisecond choices about whether or not to “click.” The result? Complete thought fragmentation. We don’t even notice it’s happening. Amazing.

So, I used to be avowedly in the “bad” camp. While there I bad-mouthed Facebook. A lot. It’s basically a rite of passage to be allowed into the “bad” camp. Eventually I discovered that besides staying caught up with family, I could find great writing, analysis, political discussion, even genuinely funny stuff there. To my greater shock, I found that some (not all!) of the mini-conversations that pop up in response to posts weren’t meaningless or shallow. There are folks I like having contact with who would definitely fall of my radar otherwise given that there are only 24 hours in the day. Sure, I need to not confuse “contact” with “deep relationship” or forget to nurture deep relations in the more physical versions of my life, but as long as I’m clear about this—and about Facebook’s many other perils—I’m a cautious convert.

So I’ve migrated (for more reasons than Facebook). But not to the “good” camp.

I’m in the “let’s muse” camp. More and more I want to have conversations with folks who do use technology—including social media—but who are aware that it impacts us, and care about that fact. I want to avoid the good/bad deadlock and think about “best practices.” Hanna Rosin’s recent piece in the Atlantic was great for this.

Am I right in thinking that people don’t stand in crowded places and talk on their phones at the top of their lungs nearly as often now as they used to? It seems to me we can learn.

Which brings me back to my new relationship with my phone, and musing about whether the practice of more disconnection will lead to more productive, satisfying, steady musing (about things other than technology, which I’m  not actually all that interested in).

My theory: when a child is bored and is allowed to stay bored for more than a moment she almost always moves out of boredom into a game or adventure more imaginative than an adult could plan—one she won’t create if she gets “plugged in” to fill the boredom. I think there’s an adult version of this. What might grow out of those momentary pauses—lulls in conversation, sixty seconds at a counter while a clerk looks something up, waiting for my daughter to re-emerge after I’ve sent her to get dressed—if I don’t fill them in with a quick peek at HuffPost, Facebook, my email?

Could this be time and space allowed to actually be? Give my thimble more chances to catch up, more often? Turn the faucet down to a more deeply satisfying stream? If so, can I learn to actually want this? Time will tell. And if so, my phone just may end up sitting lonely on the kitchen counter more often.

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