There are a lot of things to grumble about thanks to the cultural changes smartphones are imposing on our society. People dangerously texting and driving; people not paying attention to conversations as they mechanically check their device instead; people ignoring what superficially seems their primary activity while giving attention to something less important because it comes thru their device. These are all negative byproducts of the wonderful, magical technology that gives us seemingly the entire world with the swipe of a finger or utterance of a question.
Beyond these more obvious negatives, the prevalence of our “always-on” culture has some more fundamentally negative impacts that, while subtle, promise to truly harm us over the long term. In the aggregate, we are less mindful and less present than we used to be. While each of these is a unique and important consideration, they also nicely overlap.
Benjamin Franklin felt mindfulness was among the most important virtues an active, thinking citizen can employ. The questions he began and ended his day with:
Morning: What good shall I do this day?
Evening: What good I have done to-day?
What an interesting and – at least for me and many people who I know engaged at the vanguard of technology and knowledge work – novel concept. Speaking now only for myself, I careen from one thing into the next, with little-to-no preparation or framing. My day is a cascade of crashing-into-the-next-thing. While I certainly get a lot done, some great degree of that can be ultimately considered simple churn. The quantity is significant, the superficial quality, as well. But thinking about Franklin’s approach to his day, I’m struck by how very much is lost.
While now an anachronism, there was a time where – before a pre-arranged meeting – you would reach out and “touch” the person again, both to confirm the arrangement but also reinforce the purpose. Then, after the meeting, you would think back on the interaction, apply it to a broader context, and follow up in thoughtful ways, likely sending a hand-written note. My friend Dave uses an elaborate checklist system to try and cultivate just these behaviours today.
More than social niceties or simple ritual, these intentional acts enable you to macerate in the person, the interaction and the shared purpose. This has two benefits. First, it makes the most out of the activity. One of my favourite movie lines is from “The Hunt for Red October”, when a wry sailor comments that they are moving so fast their sonar wouldn’t even be able to hear his daughter’s – presumably ear-splittingly loud – stereo. His concern was that they were moving so fast they were subverting the very purpose of their mission: to listen.
The speed with which we consume and move beyond experiences at best threatens to lessen the benefit and appreciation of those experiences, and at worst puts the purpose of the experience at risk altogether. The benefits – doing more – is offset by the reality of getting less from each. While I don’t have some magic calculus with which to precisely evaluate where the point of diminishing returns lies, I have increasingly come to believe that in most cases, slowing down and employing a more thoughtful and systematic approach will more likely provide the greater benefit for ourselves, for the other participants, and for the shared objectives overall.
All of this goes hand-in-hand with being present. Almost 10 years ago now, my friend Brett told me that his best professional skill was being present (Brett is a therapist). I was struck by the notion of “being present” at the time, not having thought about interactions in that way before. Of course, in the subsequent years our personal technology has made all of us ever-less present with the people around us. Whether that means other people walking on the street, a cashier at the grocery, the business colleague we are sitting next to, or our spouse telling us about their day, we choose instead to “multi-task” and give our device and the people or bits and bytes on it our attention instead.
The beauty of being present is that it creates deeper and more meaningful moments. Similar to being mindful, being present is about increasing the quality of experience. Particularly when I was younger – less so now that I am perpetually multi-tasking – people commented on how much I made eye contact and engaged them fully and authentically. I was instinctively being present. Now, my instinct is to try but it takes a great deal of effort not to swing my eyes down and read that text, queue up my email, or even skim an article on the Internet. Why on Earth am I skimming some random article that I will forget about in half an hour, rather than committing myself to the people I am physically there with?
As I have written about before, much of our more destructive smartphone behaviour does come down to how we use the devices, not anything inherently wrong with the devices themselves. The challenge, however, is that the way the devices work naturally taps into our addictive tendencies and literally compels us to anti-social and unproductive behaviours. These realities of the hardware and software aren’t going to change anytime soon, leaving us to struggle against a gravity well of inattention of bifurcation.
There aren’t easy solutions. Ultimately I think the devices are more good than ill, and the turbocharged lives we lead are masses of potential. However, given that theoretical potential – imagining how we could be at our best in the world empowered by these devices – we aren’t anywhere near enjoying that promise. We move too quickly without being mindful, and we give our attention to the magic box in our hand as opposed to the living people in our environment. As humans are wont to do we’ve swung from one extreme – being alone with our thoughts and temporal reality – into the opposite. Now, we are overly focused on data from devices that is often mundane and far too often not resonant. Given that there are benefits to this extreme, and the chemical rewards our bodies permit us for following the habit, making change is non-trivial.
As for me, I am increasingly conscious of not being mindful, and not being present, and have a growing understanding for how important those things are. I’m going to really work on my willpower, to resist the urge to give myself to the magic box. Instead I’m going to try and implement Benjamin Franklin’s method into my own life. You will certainly still catch me sneaking a peek at that shiny little screen every now and again, but if I am successful this will occur increasingly less and finally, perhaps, cease altogether.