Thursday, October 17, 2013

Losing our humanness - the age of distraction and the loss of imagination

I choose to think that if someone instinctively and repeatedly picks up a mobile device to consume media while engaged in another activity, then the person is not engaged or immersed in the first activity completely due to either boredom or due to lack of stimulation. We see this behavior happening all the time - recently I attended the performance of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night at the legendary Prithvi Theater in Mumbai, India. This theater is very strict when it comes to the audience using the mobile phone within the auditorium and the ushers are known to vocally point out people and throw them out. Even at the cost of being caught, there were at least half a dozen grownups who constants checked their phones. One of these was seated next to me and ended up asking what he missed when the audience roared with laughter. So much for the good old bard and his art and nuanced performance of the actors on stage. It is not engagement, it is being distracted.

We are bored because we are used to this constant attention that the phone provides. We get fidgety and jittery when we do not have a notification or a message or an email that beckons us to leave what we do and escape to that red blinking LED. The syndrome is similar to that experienced by people addicted to a drug - the withdrawal symptoms which includes physical and mental stress. Maybe it is because we want acceptance from our peers and want to not lose out on the whirlwind of news and events going on around us. 

A few of us might use the excuse that we are trying to be engaged with the event happening in front of us. I cannot justify what engagement would take place if you are tweeting whats going on on screen or updating a status message, and very quickly thereafter keep checking for responses while the nuance, the flavor and the essence of the event occurring at that moment is lost to us. Instead of deeping the engagement it creates a layer of technology interference. I have often spoken of the second screen being as important as the first, one assumes that the people using the second screen are not using it while the main act is being missed on the main screen. It would be downright stupid.

Technology reshapes the landscape of our emotional lives, but is it offering us the lives we want to lead? asks Sherry Turkle in her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other

Overwhelmed by the volume and velocity of our lives, we turn to technology to help us find time. But technology makes us busier than ever and ever more in search of retreat. Gradually, we come to see our online life as life itself. We come to see what robots offer as relationship. The simplification of relationship is no longer a source of complaint. It becomes what we want. These seem the gathering clouds of a perfect storm.

We are beginning to behave like Pavlov's dogs - we need attention and the phone seems to provide it in easily doses, and we say we are bored.

I hear from friends and coworkers that their kids spend a lot of time using the tablets and mobile phones, that these 7/8 year olds are experts in using these devices. My question to them usually is whether their kids read a 20 page book with pictures at a stretch or can they listen to a story narration without getting distracted? I get weird looks. And therein lies the problem, we are so distracted that it is the normal for us and hence it is the normal for our children. Unfortunate that the next generation would not know what it is to lie under a banyan tree and watch the clouds go by and not have the compulsion to let the world know that they saw a dragon and a rabbit being chased by a mouse in the sky.

Further reading:

The crisis of Attention mentioned by Joe Kraus in "Slow Tech" which in the initial minutes illustrates how distracted we really are due to the mobile phones which are constantly buzzing and not letting us complete any one thing in its entirety.

Technology reshapes the landscape of our emotional lives, but is it offering us the lives we want to lead? asks Sherry Turkle in her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other

Bruce Friedman, who blogs regularly about the use of computers in medicine, has described how the Internet has altered his mental habits. “I now have almost totally lost the ability to read and absorb a longish article on the web or in print,” - illustrates the loss of ability to absorb nuances and depth in any subject.

(I had to write a shorter version this essay for my assignment for a course that I have taken on - by Professor Owen Youngman, it has been tough to do it when all the phone does is vibrate)

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