The situation is dire — We’re losing our ability to know who we are and what is important to us.
No 2533 Posted by fw, October 22, 2019
In March of this year, MIT physicist Alan Lightman delivered a 20-minute talk to students about the dire impact smartphones, and other communication technologies, are having on our lives. We have, he says, become addicted to the ‘digital flow’. Here is my synopsis of Lightman’s talk. An embedded video of the talk appears below along with my transcript.
“In a recent talk to students, MIT physicist Alan Lightman, tells how, on a visit to Cambodian village, he was startled by a woman’s disinterest in time — startled because her disinterest contrasts so sharply with our frenzied lifestyles in which not a minute is to be wasted. ‘We have to be plugged into the grid at all times,’ he says. We live in a time-driven existence, regulated by the speed of communication technologies. Our goal-oriented use of time trumps a more reflective non goal-oriented lifestyle. The fault is not just the technology – It’s us, for we created this high-speed monster. What have we lost by living this hyper-connected life? — Our frantic lifestyles threaten our creative activities. We have endangered the replenishment of mind. We’ve lost something of our inner selves. We are prisoners in a connected world. And the price we pay? — A marked increase in depression among young people. The main driver of this increased depression is non-stop connection to ‘the grid’. The young, especially, are terrified of aloneness that comes with non connection — the FOMO syndrome – Fear Of Missing Out. Moreover, we have become addicted to the ‘digital flow’. Spread out on restaurant tables are the diners’ smartphones, the equivalent of ‘mini oxygen tanks of emphysema patients.’ How did we get here?, Lightman asks, prompting us to look no further than the speed of our communication tools. In a world where “time is money”, every second counts. The situation is dire, he declares. We have created a global machine in which each of us is a mindless gear. So what can we do? Can we change our habits? Can we liberate ourselves from this cage of connectedness? If we can change, we will give ourselves a gift, an honoring of that ‘quiet inner self’.” —Alan Lightman, MIT Veritas Forum
MIT’s introduction to Lightman’s talk included an excellent introductory passage, an excerpt of which I include here:
“In The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf shares with Frodo a timeless suggestion: ‘All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.’ In a distracted modern age of ever-advancing economic opportunity, technological progression, and perceived urgency, the decision of how we should best use our time is becoming an increasingly complex one. Many in today’s busy Western cultures feel as though the decision itself is constantly being made for us by the technologies and schedules which rule our lives. While “wise” use of time may seem an apparently universal human virtue, questions concerning what valuable time usage actually looks like are rooted in a broad set of cultural, moral, and economic factors which heavily bias our decision making in numerous ways.”
By the way, the “525,600 minutes” in Lightman’s title equals one year.
For those who prefer to watch the video on You Tube, click on the following linked title. Alternatively, watch the embedded video below along with my transcript which includes added subheadings, text highlighting and images.
On a visit to Cambodia, Lightman is startled by a village woman’s disinterest in time
Not long ago I found myself in a small remote village in Cambodia. The inhabitants of this village from Unkarum live in one-room huts. They cook over open fires. They have no electricity or plumbing. And they support themselves by growing rice and watermelons and cucumbers. Each morning the women of the village ride their bicycles to a market which is about ten miles away on a very rutted, red, dirt road. And through a translator, I asked one of the women how long it takes her to ride her bike to this market, which she does every day. And she got a puzzled look on her face and said – “I never thought about that.”
In contrast, people in developed countries create frenzied lifestyles in which not a minute is to be wasted
And I was totally startled by her disinterest in time — and envious. We in the “developed” countries have created a frenzied lifestyle in which not a minute is to be wasted. The precious 24 hours of each day are carved up, dissected and reduced to 10-minutes units of efficiency. We become agitated and angry if we have to wait in a doctor’s office for more than 10 minutes. We’ve become angry if our printers don’t spit out at least 5 pages per minute.
“We have to be plugged into the grid at all times”
And we have to be plugged into “the grid” at all times. We take our smartphones and our laptops with us on vacations. We go through our emails at restaurants. And when we take walks in the woods we’re looking at our smartphones. And the teenagers I know check their smartphones every 3 or 4 minutes – maybe some of you do as well. At night many people sleep with their smartphones next to their beds or under their pillows. And when the school day ends, our children are rushed through piano lessons and dance classes. And their university curricula are so crammed full that they don’t have time to digest what they’re learning.
And I plead guilty myself. If I take the time to look at what I do myself for a 24-hour period, I realize that from the moment I get up in the morning to the moment I go to bed, I’m at work on some project. The first thing I do when I get up is I look at my email. And if I have an extra hour in the day, I will work on an article that I’m writing or prepare for a class. If I have an extra few minutes I will check email. If I have an extra few seconds I might look at telephone messages.
Unconsciously, without thinking about it, I have divided my day into smaller and smaller units of efficient time use until there are no holes left – there are no breathing spaces in the day. I rarely goof off. I rarely waste time. And certainly I would never, never ride a bicycle for 2 hours on a red dirt road without knowing exactly how long the trip took, or listening to an audio book the way.
We live in a time-driven existence, regulated by the speed of communication technologies
There are many aspects of today’s time-driven, wired existence. But they’re all connected. And all could be traced back to technological improvement and increasing prosperity. Throughout history the pace of life has been regulated by the speed of communication. And the speed of communication in turn is part of the technological advance that has led to the Internet, social media and the vast, all-consuming network that I just call “the grid.”
Our goal-oriented use of time trumps a more reflective non goal-oriented lifestyle
That same talk-technology has been part of the great economic process that has increased productivity in the workplace. And when that increased productivity is combined with a time = money equation, we have a heightened awareness of the commercial and goal-oriented uses of time at the expense of the more reflective, free-floating and non goal-oriented uses of time.
The fault is not just the technology – It’s us, for we created this high-speed monster
Technology, however, is only the tool. It is human hands that work the tools. It’s us. And I think that our entire way of thinking has changed over the last 50 years – our way of being in the world — our social and psychological ethos. Many of us cannot spend an hour of unscheduled time. We cannot sit alone in a room for 10 minutes without external stimulation. We can’t take a walk in the woods without a smartphone. And these behavioral syndromes are all part of the hyperconnected, splintered, frantic, high-speed world that we’re living in now and that we created ourselves.
What have we lost by living this hyper-connected life?
And what I want to ask is what have we lost by this frantic hyper-connected life that we’re all living? What have we lost? If we no longer have time to let our minds wander and imagine – if we no longer have time to think about what we’re learning – what have we lost?
Our frantic lifestyles threaten our creative activities
Well certainly – and I’ll speak about myself now because I plead guilty, I do have a smartphone although I don’t carry it with me very often – certainly I’ve threatened my creative activities. Psychologists have long known that creativity thrives on unstructured time – on play, on divergent thinking, on unpurposed, on non-goal oriented ramblings through the mansions of life.
Gustav Mahler, the composer, routinely took 3- or 4-hour walks after lunch with a notebook where he would jot down musical ideas. Carl Jung, the psychologist, had some of his greatest and creative thinking when he took time off from his frenzied practice in Zurich to go to his country house on Bollingen [Switzerland]. And in the middle of a writing project, Gertrude Stein wandered about the countryside looking at cows.
We have endangered the replenishment of mind
Another thing that I’ve lost by living this frantic lifestyle that we’re all living now is I’ve endangered the needed replenishment of the mind that comes from doing nothing in particular – from taking long walks without a destination, from simply finding a few moments of the day away from the noise of the world. The mind needs to rest. The mind needs periods of calm. And this need for rest and calm of the mind has been recognized for thousands of years. It was described as early as 1500 BC in the meditation practices of Hinduism and later Buddhism.
We’ve lost something of our inner selves
But I’ve lost something more than my creativity and the replenishment of mind — I think I’ve lost something of my inner self. And by inner self I mean that part of me that imagines, that dreams, that explores – that’s constantly questioning who I am and what’s important to me. The inner soil that roots me to me, to my inner self, is solitude and personal reflection.
We are prisoners in a connected world
When I listen to my inner self, I hear the breathing of my spirit. And those breaths are very tiny and delicate. You need quiet to hear those breaths of your inner spirit. You need slowness, you need privacy. And without the breathing and the voice of my inner self I am a prisoner of the wired world around me.
And the price we pay? — A marked increase in depression among young people
The number of depressed, distressed young people in the United States – and I think in other parts of the world – I was talking to somebody who’s Chinese and she said it’s the same in China – the number of distressed, depressed, young people has been increasing in recent years. According to the National Institute of Health, from 2010 to 2015 the fraction of adolescents who reported being severely depressed increased from 8% to 13%.
The main driver of this increased depression is non-stop connection to the grid
And of course there are many factors causing this increase of depression, but some experts say the main driver is the massive and pervasive influence of the grid, with little desire to disconnect.
The young are terrified of aloneness that comes with non connection
So what’s the problem with non-stop connection to the grid? I have a friend, Ross Peterson, who is a New England psychiatrist, and he sees a lot of young people, and he told me that in his view the source of the increased depression and anxiety in teenagers is their terror of aloneness. Modern teenagers who live in the world of Facebook and Snapchat and Instagram, they find it nearly impossible to be alone. They’re always connected.
The FOMO syndrome – Fear Of Missing Out
And Dr. Peterson mentioned something to me about a syndrome called FOMO, which stands for “Fear Of Missing Out”. And what are we missing out if we aren’t intravenously connected to the grid? We’re missing out on that vast squirming, unceasing, ubiquitous explosion of images and words, stories, messages, connections, real news and fake news, happenings – all of that is on the grid.
We have become addicted to the digital flow
And it’s an addiction. It’s an addiction. We can get another hit just by pressing a button. And like any drug addiction, there’s never enough. We are dependent on the digital flow. We’re always waiting for the next hit. We’re always running to catch up. We’re always behind. FOMO.
Spread out on restaurant tables are equivalents of “mini oxygen tanks of emphysema patients”
I went out a couple of years ago with my daughter and her friends – they were all about 30 years old – a birthday party, and when we sat down at the dinner table all of the young women took out their smartphones and laid them on the table – like mini oxygen tanks of emphysema patients.
How did we get here? Look no further than the speed of our communication tools
So how did we arrive at this point in the history of the world? Well, as I mentioned earlier, the pace of life has always be regulated by the pace of business, and the pace of business has always been driven by the speed of communication. In 1881 there was a physician, George Beard, who warned about American anxiousness caused by the new technologies in 1881. And at that time it was the railroad and the telegraph. And the telegraph in 1881 could communicate about 3 bits per second. When the Internet was in first available for public use around 1985, the Internet could communicate about 1000 bits per seconds. And now it’s over 1 billion bits per second. And just remember, the pace of life is regulated by the speed of communication.
In a world where “time is money”, every second counts
Much of the pace and stress of the workplace, which eventually carries over to the rest of life, is caused by the relationship between time and money. The urgency to make every second count comes about when we’ve got increased productivity and we’re making more money per minute.
The situation is dire – We have created a global machine in which each of us is a mindless gear
I think that the situation is dire. Just as in global warming, we may already be at the point of no return. The syndrome that I’m describing is not quite as visible as global warming, but I think that it’s just as real, Invisibly, we are losing ourselves. We’re losing our ability to know who we are and what is important to us. We are creating a global machine in which each of us is a mindless gear, relentlessly driven by the speed and the noise in the artificial urgency of the world around us. It’s an artificial urgency.
So what can we do?
So what can we do? I want to end on a positive note, and you have to have some optimism. Can we change this? Well I think that we need to create new habits of mind as individuals and as a society. We need a mental attitude that values privacy, stillness, slowness. A mental attitude that honors the inner self. And I have a few recommendations.
Can we change our habits? Can we liberate ourselves from this cage of connectedness?
Although changing habits of mind is difficult, it can be done. We did that with tobacco and smoking. It took 49 years but we did manage to change our habits of mind. And I think we can do it also with how we spend our time if we have the will.
If we can change, we give ourselves a gift, an honoring of that quiet inner self
What we need is recognition of the problem and a personal commitment. But with some determination I think each of us can find a way to spend half an hour a day without any goal, without any external simulation. And when we do that, if we can do that, we give ourselves a gift. It is a gift to our spirit. It’s a gift to our sense of self. It is an honoring of that quiet inner whispering voice. It is a liberation from the cage of the wired world. It’s freedom.
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