It is hard to imagine that we have already come full circle in our relationship to technology. The relentless drive for more access, smaller devices and ever increasing speed is hitting a wall for many of us. Yet, it isn’t so surprising that the wonder has worn thin when you consider the sheer number of hours that Americans spend in front of a screen. Between 2005 and 2009, our time spent in front of a screen doubled to include at least 8.5 hours per day. Television viewing, likewise, has also steadily increased Nicolas Carr, in his revelatory best-seller; “The Shallows” has documented how these technological trends are shaping not only our days, but the very wiring of our minds.
I have witnessed this burnout in my relationship toward my own technology devices. Many a Friday night, I leave my computer bag by the door, often untouched until Sunday evening. It isn’t for lack of work or even a waning desire to write, but rather a visceral need to unplug and live more in real time, focus on the people around me, or do the stuff of real life. Daily tasks that were once tedious chores, such as stocking the pantry, cleaning, or taking long walks with the dogs are rejuvenating. I remember again what it feels like to follow a slow train of thought as it meanders through my head on a hazy afternoon. These moments of discovery often disappear when one is constantly immersed in an endless stream of information and digital stimulus. When faced with hundreds of emails and texts a day, the beauty of solitude is lost.
I think about this topic often since reading the New York Times article, The Joy of Quiet, which I have been carrying around with me ever since it was published on New Year’s Day. It is the only essential re-thinking of my life that I have held onto since the New Year and now in retrospect has become a kind of un-stated New Year’s resolution. I intend to live more fully in the amazing and beautiful world we inhabit. I am happy to know, from the article, that I am in good company, as this is also the new trend of the very wealthy as they now search for “black hole” resorts, destinations where you pay more to get unconnected. Who knew that the power of inner stillness was what the most original and ingenious designers today credit their innovative creativity and pride themselves on the unconnected and uncluttered lives they lead.
Even Intel has come to realize that the relentless pace of high-speed technology comes at a high cost. It is amazing to have a computer company experiment with creating a mandatory weekly block of four hours of uninterrupted quiet for their engineers. Not surprisingly, the majority of the 300 in the control group recommended extending this program company-wide. It is good to note that most workers routinely get no more than three minutes at a time without digital interruption.
The human brain needs quiet time and still space to process and hear its own thoughts. As Carr points out in ‘The Shallows,’ extensive neuroscience research has demonstrated that our neural processes, which involve deep thinking, developing empathy and building relationships, are inherently slow. To relinquish the depth of our human experience in exchange for the constant distractions coming at us makes the gains of computer technology worth considerably less.
Our technology was built to serve humanity, and yet, as Einstein noted, “It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.” The paradox in all technology is that it comes without an instruction manual. Increased access to information does not equate to wisdom. Faster communication does not necessarily create connection. We need our innately human capacity of emotional interpretation and moral clarity to discern the best use of our technology.
The best way to come back into yourself is to find quiet green space with someone you love. Give yourself a day, maybe even Earth Day, to live screen-free. Dive deep into your natural surroundings and listen for birds or to the wind. Follow your train of thought to the end of its meandering stream and soak for a minute in silence. Be a kid for a couple of hours and practice the old skills of play and wonder. Let your curiosity go unquenched without a Google response. Heck, just mow the lawn and remember the first time you smelled fresh cut spring grass.