Oh, I hope this doesn't come off sounding like a rant. Because I'm talking technology here, and that's a subject that can easily inspire wrath.
I know you've all got your own hair-tearing stories. Me, I've been dealing with a balky internet connection for a several days. Thanks to a lengthy phone session with a charming and patient young tech support guy named Brandon (I'm confident saying "young," because Brandons, Ethans, and Austins are always young, right?), it's working again. Sort of. Sometimes.
These bollixes never happen on days when my online needs are purely recreational. It's always when I'm trying to do Important Things. In this case, I had spent weeks polishing submission materials and was all fired up to start sending out queries to a painstakingly-researched selection of literary agents, hopeful that the just-right agent that I know is out there will offer to represent me and my memoir, Mango Rash: Survival Lessons in the Land of Frangipani and Fanta.
Now, however, the time I'd planned to devote to that endeavor is being eaten up with tech support, shut-downs, and reboots. I could go on—and on, and on—venting about my particular problem, but that's really not my purpose in this post. Instead, what I want to discuss is how technology affects our lives when our devices and connections are working just fine.
I've been considering this matter more than usual after coming across several articles on the subject.
One, titled "Smart Phone, Lazy Brain" grabbed my attention with its title. Written by science writer Sharon Begley and published in Mindful magazine, the article describes a number of studies aimed at understanding how all our Googling, surfing, and flitting from app to app affects our brains, as well as our productivity and creativity.
Perhaps you've heard of the Google Effect? If you can't quite remember what that is or where you heard about it, just Google it.
Ha! Gotcha! Instead of wracking your brain for that information, you let Google do the work. In the process, you undermined your ability to recall a week from now what you just looked up. That's because when you use your brain to remember things, you follow a path of mental stepping stones. Every excursion down such a pathway strengthens connections between neurons and makes future travels on that path go more smoothly. As Begley puts it, "The very act of retrieving a memory therefore makes it easier to recall next time around. If we succumb to the LMGTFY (let me Google that for you) bait, which has become ridiculously easy with smartphones, that doesn't happen."
Then there's the matter of attention. Begley cites this astonishing statistic: Computer users spend an average of only three to five minutes working on an actual task before peeking at Facebook or some other appealing website. Such fractured attention makes it difficult to accomplish anything. Yet ignoring those tempting distractions saps brainpower, too—the same kind of brainpower needed for judgment and problem-solving.
What to do? Author Stephen Elliott took the drastic step of disconnecting from the internet for a full month and described the experience in an article in Poets & Writers magazine.
First came a period of withdrawal, quickly followed by crushing boredom. "I realized I hadn't been bored in years because I'd gotten in the habit of never giving myself the chance," Elliott writes.
Avoiding boredom may sound like a good thing, but boredom leads to daydreaming, which enhances creativity, research shows. In one study, subjects who were bored did better on creativity tests than participants who were relaxed, elated, or distressed. In other research, half the participants were asked to copy numbers from a phone book, while the other half were spared the dreary task. Then both groups were given a creativity exercise. Who came up with most creative solutions? You guessed it: the ones who'd been given the boring chore beforehand.
Elliott didn't resort to copying phone numbers to fill the time he'd previously spent online. Instead, he found himself spending hours absorbed in activities he'd been too scattered to engage in before: reading the New York Times cover to cover, tackling challenging books, writing for hours without interruption.
"I could feel my attention span lengthening," he writes. "I would think about problems until I figured them out."
Eventually, Elliott got back online. The 370 emails that had accumulated during his month of disconnection were mostly junk, but he did appreciate having once again an easy way to promote a fundraiser he was hosting and communicate with contributors to an anthology he was editing. Still, he didn't plunge right back into his old habits. He came up with some guidelines for himself and anyone else who wants to rein in the constant-connection habit and actually get something done:
As for that smartphone that's become like an extra appendage, you don't have to give it up. Just pay attention to how you're using it, suggests University of Michigan psychology professor Ramaswami Mahalingam. His research, featured in a recent article in U-M's LSA Magazine, shows that whether your smartphone use affects your life positively or negatively depends on how mindful you are when you're using the device.
"On the one hand, there is a humanistic impulse to say, 'Oh, it’s awful. The machines are in control,'" says Mahalingam, who teaches an undergraduate course in mindfulness. "But the challenge lies in creating an awareness about how you think about everything, so when you do something habitual you become much more aware of it. As you become more deliberate, you use the phone more deliberately, too."
He recommends loading apps that prompt you to notice and record thoughts, feelings, and things happening around you, especially instances of kindness and generosity. Students who do this find themselves feeling less compelled to look at their phones. That frees up their brains to think about other things and have deeper face-to-face interactions.
"Ultimately," says Mahalingam, "technology creates a broader set of tools to foster interconnection. It should help us see the expanse of who we are, and to adapt to changes with magnanimity and grace."
Is technology a tool or a trap for you? Have you made any changes in your online habits? How's that working for you?
All images used with this post are stock images.
Written from the heart,
from the heart of the woods
Read the introduction to HeartWood here.
Nan Sanders Pokerwinski, a former journalist, writes memoir and personal essays, makes collages and likes to play outside. She lives in West Michigan with her husband, Ray.