“Instead of blaming our discomfort on outer circumstances or on our own weakness, we can choose to stay present and awake to our experience, not rejecting it, not grasping it, not buying the stories that we relentlessly tell ourselves. This is priceless advice that addresses the true cause of suffering – yours, mine, and that of all living beings.” -Pema Chodron
By definition, the technological revolution is changing the way we think—for better and worse.
Thanks to word processors (and blogs!), we no longer need to plan essays before starting to write. The revising and editing process has been simplified. GPS removes our need for the ability to decipher maps. Getting from place to place is a cinch. Twitterers think in terms of instant 140-character publications. Proclaiming your status is a daily norm for millions. Wikipedia has made plagiarism easier than ever. Why come up with your own ideas when there are already so many out there?
Stumbling upon a moment of silence and peace is a rare and precious occasion. Giving our minds a break throughout the day is essential to productivity, yet we are constantly inundated with data from every direction. Humans of all ages are hooked to our Blackberrys and iPods like the comatose to an IV. Why read a boring old book when you can tweet about what you ate for dinner and browse latest headlines on CNN and listen to new songs on NPR and see photos of your childhood friends’ oodles of babies and look up movie showtimes for tonight—at once?!
According to… er, Wikipedia… “infomania is the debilitating state of information overload, caused by the combination of a backlog of information to process, and continuous interruptions from technologies like phones, instant messaging, and email.” Obviously, children and teenagers are most susceptible to this level of distraction, though grown ups certainly aren’t immune. They have known no other way of life. Not watching TV, taking digital photos, emailing, text messaging and instant messaging is, like, totally unthinkable.
As a substitute teacher in San Jose, California back in 2004, I was appalled to hear the cacophony of digital rings coming from students’ pockets and backpacks. I wondered then if we as a society were breeding a new wave of stress monkeys. From my vantage point now, the answer is, unfortunately, a resounding yes.
As a high school teacher in 2010, I witness infomania in action. The hustle of twenty-first century lifestyle quickly turns obnoxious when you’re standing in front of a classroom of twenty teenagers, half of whom cannot focus on the sound of your lilting voice for long enough to absorb a simple set of directions. We are all so connected, ever-seeking (and finding) entertainment.
But what is this constant, instant gratification doing to our brains?
Social networking websites have gained vast popularity over the past several years. The relationships chronicled and sometimes ended on MySpace a few years ago are now chronicle and sometimes ended on Facebook. Friendships can be judged by the history of their online connections. (Remember Friendster?) Some of the most obsessive users of these sites are adolescents who are still developing and growing. A February 2009 Daily Mail article about attention span announced, “Social websites harm children’s brains.” In it, Oxford University neuroscientist Baroness Greenfield wonders “whether real conversation in real time may eventually give way to these sanitised and easier screen dialogues, in much the same way as killing, skinning and butchering an animal to eat has been replaced by the convenience of packages of meat on the supermarket shelf.” Clearly, this is the direction in which we are headed.
Scientists have learned what users already know — technology is a drug.
A recent New York Times article, “Attached to Technology and Paying a Price,” notes that the human ability to focus is being undermined by bursts of information. The stimulation of receiving a new message (email, text, voice, you name it) provokes excitement — a “dopamine squirt” — that can become highly addictive.
In the 2008 article, “The Myth of Multitasking,” Christine Rosen chronicles the history of multitasking, a term and concept that became popular in the 1990s. She cites ADHD specialist Dr. Edward Hallowell, who calls multitasking a “mythical activity in which people believe they can perform two or more tasks simultaneously.” According to Hallowell, “Never in history has the human brain been asked to track so many data points,” and this challenge “can be controlled only by creatively engineering one’s environment and one’s emotional and physical health.”
Our culture’s obsession with multitasking and heightened productivity is giving way to the realization that information overload and attempting do more than one thing at once only makes our output less effective, our work sloppier. Technology can be used as a tool or as a toy. Users of all ages must determine how to effectively mine the Internet and its limitless supplies of information, how iPods and cell phones can be used appropriately and for personal organization and educational enrichment, and just how much is too much social networking.
We must balance use of technology with time spent away from it, in genuine, face-to-face conversations with other human beings. In nature. In meditation.
This year, I meditate with my creative writing students for a few minutes at the beginning of class each day. Some of them snicker and fidget. I cannot punish them. I cannot force them to meditate; I can only force myself to. (Though I have already threatened to take away the privilege of meditation from one class.) Every workshop, I read them a poem, then we spend three minutes in silence. I let them sit on the floor or stay in their seats. I give them a new technique each week: breath mindfulness, mantra, simple visualizations.
I meditate too, sitting on the chilly tile floor of the classroom cross-legged, hands on my knees, palms face up. They probably think I’m totally weird. Some of the boys snicker uncontrollably. But they are generally getting better, little by little, each week. I give them a different technique each week. I hope that they will practice on their own time. Some will; some have, they tell me.