Engaging Journeys, Engaged Journalism

The Evolution of Electronic Angst


Which came first, the technocentric parent or her plugged-in child?

During a recent holiday debriefing with a friend, I learned that a colleague of hers was feeling guilty because she and her husband were unable to afford an iPad for their daughter. Nodding and sipping tea, I was vaguely sympathizing while trying on the idea of buying a macaroon from the bakery where we sat. It was the tail end of the report that barged into my brain and preempted all pastry speculation: “Her daughter is two years old,” said my friend.

I just stared, scrambling to update brain circuits. Yes, I know that kids are vastly superior in technical know-how than I. I understand that their world is both enlarged and circumscribed by electronic options, and I read the story about the teenager in Sacramento who set a record for fielding 10,000 text messages a day for a month. But I hadn’t heard about this new step in our bizarre and ever-accelerating dance with information overload. Apparently, since recent reports seem to point toward the educational benefits of an early acquaintance with cyber-reality, parents are pushing mobile devices on their infants as acts of conscientious parenting.

That seems to run counter to another rumble heard elsewhere in the human camp. Or maybe it’s just the same story seen from an adult perspective: Many grown-ups would love to unplug but often find themselves hard-wired to compulsive, technocentric lifestyles.

Five years ago, an Intel engineer named Nathan Zeldes spearheaded a pilot project at the company that granted four hours of electronic freedom a week to a group of employees. During that time e-mails and instant messaging were turned off, along with the phones. Even face-to-face meetings were discouraged. The four hours were a gift of silence, meant to help the employees soothe frayed nerves and focus on creative tasks. At the end of the pilot, 45 percent of the participants described the approach as effective, and 71 percent said it should be extended to other Intel groups.

“Information overload has been making knowledge workers ineffective and miserable since the mid-1990s,” says Zeldes, who has gone on to start a forum called the Information Overload Research Group. “But until a couple of years ago, most organizations had been in denial about it. Now, at long last, we’re seeing interest, solutions, literature, and a determination to do something about this problem.”

In “Overloaded Circuits: Why Smart People Underperform,” a 2005 article in the Harvard Business Review, psychiatrist E. M. Hallowell coined “Attention Deficit Trait” to describe what Zeldes’ group hopes to combat:

“It isn’t an illness; it’s purely a response to the hyperkinetic environment in which we live,” says Hallowell. “When a manager is desperately trying to deal with more input than he possibly can, the brain and body get locked into a reverberating circuit while the brain’s frontal lobes lose their sophistication, as if vinegar were added to wine. The result is black-and-white thinking; perspective and shades of gray disappear. People with ADT have difficulty staying organized, setting priorities and managing time, and they feel a constant low level of panic and guilt.”

I wonder if ADT would be first cousin to the guilt that drives parents to provide iPads to two-year-olds.

While we’re staring down the barrel of self-generated stress, consider the measures that South Korea, probably the most wired nation on the planet, is taking to curb what it sees as an epidemic of Internet use. The country has established 140 Internet-addiction counseling centers, 100 hospitals to treat the problem, and most recently, the Jump Up Internet Rescue School, a sort of boot camp for the web-obsessed. About 90 percent of households there take advantage of the country’s inexpensive, high-speed connectivity, but it comes at a rather steep, nonmonetary price: An estimated 30 percent of its under-18 population is considered at risk for Internet addiction.

“Korea has been most aggressive in embracing the Internet,” says Koh Young-sam, head of the government-run Internet Addiction Counseling Center. “Now we have to lead in dealing with its consequences.”

I’m not sure that taking the lead with what could be called an after-the-fact reaction is really the way to go, although at least they are acknowledging there might be a problem.

Meanwhile, over in Australia, journalist Susan Mauhart decided to stage an exclusive boot camp for her three teenagers and herself. The Winter of Our Disconnect (Tarcher, 2011) chronicles their six-month experiment living through an enforced “screen blackout”—no cell phones, iPods, PCs, laptops, game stations, or television. Here’s an excerpt:

“There were lots of reasons why we pulled the plug on our electronic media… or, I should say, why I did, because heaven knows my children would have sooner volunteered to go without food, water, or hair products. At ages 14, 15, and 18, my daughters and my son don’t use media. They inhabit media. And they do so exactly as fish inhabit a pond. Gracefully. Unblinkingly. And utterly without consciousness or curiosity as to how they got there.”

It’s the last sentence of the quote that sums up the issue for me. I don’t really understand why we’re so passive about technology’s pervasive presence in our lives. We seem to accept as a given that we’re at the beck and call of our devices. We forget that our eight digits and two opposing thumbs give us a very real power over these really very powerful  tools: the ability to shut them off.

“We have become far more proficient in generating information than we are in managing it,” says Jonathan Spira with chilling accuracy in “Information Overload: We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us,” a white paper recently published by Basex, the self-styled knowledge economy research and advisory firm. “And we have also built technology that easily allows us to create new information without human intervention.”

Mind you, I’m not proposing voluntary screen blackouts on a global scale. For one thing, it simply isn’t possible, and it’s certainly inadvisable. I couldn’t have written this article—or I couldn’t have written it in the slim margin of free time carved from my online work life—without using the very technology I’m suggesting we build a little downtime around. Believe me; I’m aware of the irony. I even considered scrapping this piece entirely, maybe offering instead a blank page with a short explanation: “This is a public service brought to you by Quality Digest and Up the Road. Spend the few minutes you’d normally take to read this article on walking around the block. It will do you far more good.”

So no wholesale blackouts, but maybe a few more strolls outside the office, leaving our smartphones behind.

A couple of summers ago, a handful of neuroscientists took a rafting trip down the San Juan River with a similar intent in mind. Tagging along, The New York Times’ Matt Richtel described the journey as “a primitive trip with a sophisticated goal: to understand how heavy use of digital devices and other technology changes how we think and behave, and how a retreat into nature might reverse those effects.”

From the outset the scientists were divided into those who thought nature would prove a positive influence, and those who thought it would make no difference one way or the other. By the end of the trip, the skeptics, although not converted exactly, did find that the trip had changed the way they thought about their projects, and even how they thought about technology. It was as if the time away from their digital dramas had recalibrated their brains and allowed them to offer fresh insight.

A Google search for “unplug from technology” turns up more than seven million results. My commentary will now increase that figure by one. Reading all of them would be impossible in a single lifetime. What do you suppose we should do about these voices crying in the cyber-wilderness? Some of them offer ways to manage information overload; one reminds us that March 23, 2012, is a national day of unplugging.

Here’s what I recommend: Turn off your electronic keepers long enough to figure out how you might go about reducing, even if just a little, your dependency on technology. Then take a walk. Listen to your heart beat.

This article first appeared in Chico’s own Quality Digest online business magazine, www.qualitydigest.com.

Photo of techno-kiddos taken by Aaron Francis for The Australian.

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