Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Extinction of Deep Thinking & Sacred Space

In "Modern Times," Charlie Chaplin cast a wry look on life in the Industrial Age.  His Little Tramp works an assembly line, a mere cog in the factory machinery.  As efficiency and speed take the place of dignity and the legitimate need for a break, he's the guinea pig for a feeding machine that malfunctions.  When the assembly line is thrown into high-gear, the Little Tramp goes haywire, screwing in nuts anywhere and everywhere.  I wonder what movie Chaplin would make about life in the Digital Age.


“With technology allowing nearly 24-hour media access as children and teens go about their daily lives, the amount of time young people spend with entertainment media has risen dramatically, especially among minority youth, according to a study released today by the Kaiser Family Foundation.  Today, 8-18 year-olds devote an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes (7:38) to using entertainment media across a typical day (more than 53 hours a week).  And because they spend so much of that time ‘media multitasking’ (using more than one medium at a time), they actually manage to pack a total of 10 hours and 45 minutes (10:45) worth of media content into those 7½ hours”  (The Kaiser Family Foundation).
Even at M.I.T, one of the world’s most prestigious universities, students and teachers diverge widely on the value of laptops and multitasking.  Is it really possible to cram more activities into every hour, or are we just fooling ourselves?  What happens to the brain when it’s exposed to a constant stream of media stimulation?  The issues raised by living in a wired world are so compelling that Frontline devoted a multi-segment feature to exploring just that.


What we do know, is that in an age when information is more and more available, what will set the “better” minds apart will be their ability to think creatively and in divergent ways.  How can we foster those abilities?  One way is to make space for the “creative pause” – that moment when our conscious rumination fades away and our subconscious untangles the knot or provides that answer we so doggedly sought.   Some ways we make space are by doing an activity that engages the body but frees the mind – such as washing dishes, showering, walking.  All of these provide something for the conscious to focus its attentions on, while allowing the subconscious to roam free.  But with the digital world we live in, this is becoming harder and harder.  Technology eases our life, but also brings the world into our livingroom – or brain, making it harder to find the mental space for our subconscious to play.
In South Korea, dubbed “the most wired place on earth,” 90% of kids use the internet as a regular part of their life.  But at least 15% of them find that once they start playing, they can’t stop.  Entire days disappear, weekends find them up all night.  These kids experience ringing in their ears, eye strain, feelings of anxiety and stress if their parents try to curtail internet time.  The problem has gotten so serious that the government has established an “Internet Rescue School.”  The low-tech approach has kids take a “technology fast” without cell phones, laptops, internet or wifi of any kind.  Instead, they engage in some old-fashioned fun: climbing trees, ropes course, tug-of-war, walking.  The school also seeks to help students build stronger emotional connections with those around them by sharing feelings, talking, and active listening.
For Carl Honoré the issue wasn’t technology per se, but the pace of modern life.  His wake-up call appeared as he pondered buying a collection of One-Minute Bedtime Stories to read to his kids: “Suddenly it hit me: my rushaholism has got so out of hand that I’m even willing to speed up those precious moments with my children at the end of the day. There has to be a better way, I thought, because living in fast forward is not really living at all.”  This led Honoré to write In Praise of Slowness: How A Worldwide Movement Is Challenging the Cult of Speed.  Honoré’s feelings about work are supported by Judith Schor’s research, which finds that in the last two decades the average worker has added on an extra 164 hours – the equivalent of a full month – to their work year.

But what neither the Kaiser Family Foundation, nor South Korea, nor even M.I.T. addresses is, why are we so addicted to media, work, and speed.
Scott Belsky ponders just that.  He posits that we sacrifice our mental space because that void is frightening.  The inner chatter which has been stilled by the hubbub of the world around us suddenly gets louder, capturing our attention.  So we choose distraction over the pause that might become creative, because of fear of the unknown.  A second reason – and the underlying reason for the popularity of social media sites – is our need to feel like we belong, that we have friends.  Seeing how many “friends” we have on Facebook makes us feel liked.  When someone hits the “like” button, we feel validated.  Sadly, the connection between hours spent on social media sites and feelings of loneliness and alienation is a negative one. 
As digital media becomes more and more ubiquitous it will become increasingly harder to disconnect.  How can we protect ourselves? 
One way is by carving out sacred spaces and sacred times – creative pauses.  The Sabbath Manifesto, which just initiated a national day of unplugging (sundown to sundown March 4-5) offers ten principles for observing a weekly day of rest.  Among them: avoid technology, connect with loved ones, drink wine, eat bread.  It’s clear that people are hungering for meaning, connection, release, and a sense of control of our time.  Shabbat offers us all that: an Oasis in Time.

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