This is the fourth and last post in a multiple part series. For the introduction and table of contents, see part 1.


The Always-On Trance

The growing popularity of connected devices like computers, tablets, and smart phones, is both a boon and a challenge. On the one hand we have constant access to unimaginable stores of knowledge and can easily share in the lives of friends and family despite the otherwise fragmented nature of modern living. On the other hand, constant distraction, the inability to stop and take a step back from the constant barrage of email, tweets and status updates and the intrusion of the digital stream into our in-person relationship space are presenting us with new struggles. For many, this has become business as usual (or the new normal) but a growing body of evidence is exposing the cost of the always-on trance.

A recent study by Rosen, Carrier and Cheever (2013) found that students spent less than six minutes before switching tasks while studying. Participants who accessed Facebook had overall lower GPAs. Foerde, Knowlton and Poldrack (2006) showed that a demanding secondary task reduced declarative learning about the primary task. Meanwhile, multiple studies document the prevalence of exactly such multitasking in the classroom. For example, Kraushaar & Novak (2010) found that students engage in non-class related multitasking about 42% of the time, and Martin (2011) found that 80% of students sent at least one text message during class and 15% sent more than 10.

Beyond the classroom and the workplace, computers and mobile phone are a part of our every waking moment (and sometimes in sleep as well). Alex Soojung-Kim Pang describes this experience in his book, The Distraction Addiction (2013).

Digital life can be great but it also has a price. Keeping up with everything that everyone’s sharing can become overwhelming – not just the sheer volume of material, but also the obligation to stay on top of it. These are your friends (or “friends”) and if you don’t keep checking in on what they share, you might miss something. The little buzz from a new e-mail or text message is nice, but it’s also disappointing when you hit Refresh and there’s nothing there.

The ongoing feeling of overwhelm and the obligation to stay connected lead to experiences of anxiety and even dread. In order to lessen these effects some have turned to what amount to a digital diet. Some practice a digital sabbath and even go on digital detox retreats. Do these practices actually get at the core issue? Rebecca Rosen suggests that these digital diets lay the blame on the technology itself and allow us to, “absolve ourselves of the need to create social, political, and, sure, technological structures that allow us to have the kinds of relationships we want with the people around us.”

Like Rosen, Howard Rheingold (2012), who has been writing about the cultural, social, and political aspects of online media for almost 30 years, takes a larger view of what’s at stake here.

Digital literacies can leverage the Web’s architecture of participation, just as the spread of reading skills amplified collective intelligence five centuries ago. Today’s digital literacies can make the difference between being empowered or manipulated, serene or frenetic. Most important, as people who are trying to get along day to day in a hyper-scale, warp-speed civilization that seems so often to be beyond anyone’s control, digital literacy is something powerful we can learn as well as exercise for ourselves and each other. (p. 3)

The automatic nature of our relationship to technology comes through in Pang’s, Rheingold’s and Rosen’s writings. Pang and Rheingold also offer frames of practice geared toward de-automatization of this relationship.

Rheingold’s (2012) concept of digital literacy includes such aspects as controlling one’s attention, critical thinking, and the power of participation. Digital literacy, according to Rheingold, requires that we be aware of the way the digital world works so that we’re better able to tap into the collective intelligence of the network. The skills and attitudes Rheingold includes under digital literacy not only allow us to see the digital world in a new way (de-automatizing our assumptions) but also invite us to reinvest attention into the way we consume media and the way we participate online.

Pang (2013) describes a practice he calls contemplative computing which offers a new way of relating to and using technology. The principles of contemplative computing ask us to recognize the unique depth of our relationship with technology and to accept that if we want to keep that depth, we must face the distracting nature of today’s world and take control of our environment, becoming calmer and more purposeful in how we use information technologies. As an example we can look at some of Pang’s rules for social media. Notice how these rules ask you to create a new and more conscious relationship with social media.

  • Engage with care. Think of social media as an opportunity to practice right speech.
  • Be mindful about your intentions. Why are you going into Facebook or Pinterest?
  • Remember the people on the other side of the screen. Remember that you’re dealing with people, not media.

Summary

I’ve described two frameworks for practice in daily life. These frameworks focus on aspects of modern life that many find challenging: food and information technology. Following Chögyam Trungpa, I suggest that we can use these frameworks as a way to engage the “man on the street” in transformative practice that is conducive to waking up from what Arthur Deikman called “the trance of daily life.”

References

Martin, C. (2011). In-class texting behaviors among college students. University of New Hampshire. 2011.

Foerde, K., Knowlton, B. J., & Poldrack, R. A. (2006). Modulation of competing memory systems by distraction. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 103(31), 11778-11783.

Kraushaar, J. M., & Novak, D. C. (2010). Examining the Affects of Student Multitasking with Laptops during the Lecture. Journal of Information Systems Education, 21(2), 11.

Pang, A.S. (2013). The Distraction Addiction: Getting the Information You Need and the Communication You Want, Without Enraging Your Family, Annoying Your Colleagues, and Destroying Your Soul. NY : Hachette Digital.

Rheingold, H. (2012). Net smart: How to thrive inline. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Rosen L.D., Carrier L.M., Cheever N.A.(2013). Facebook and texting made me do it: Media-induced task-switching while studying. Computers in Human Behavior, Volume 29(3), May 2013, Pages 948–958.

 

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