My Hesitation with Technology

I recently read a piece in Art of Manliness that perfectly summarizes the ambivalence I have towards technology.  Technology is great.  I’ve catalogued it’s benefits before on this blog.  This blog is made possible through technology.  But there’s always a trade off, and typically the trade-off is hard to avoid, especially for the young.  As a teacher at a public high school, I see the alter affects of being over-immersed in technology every day.

The context of the relevant passage (bolded below) is on being fully present as a man.  It’s good stuff, so I quote the context at length. AoM gives a good challenge at the end, and it’s one I recommend to the reader (the full article has links giving evidence of their claims, so go read the whole thing):

Being fully present in all aspects of our lives-emotional, physical, and mental-is a manful way to live. It involves the self-control necessary to focus and engage body and soul with the world, while avoiding being distracted from what really matters. And it requires the bravery to face the world head on-to open oneself up to both unmitigated pain and undiluted joy. The easier path is to pursue every shiny thing that crosses our way or to numb ourselves and sleepwalk through life. But the easy path is not the path of true manliness. Isn’t it about time you started showing up for your life?

Have you ever been cruising through a book, only to realize that you don’t remember anything from the last five pages you read? Have you ever conversed with a friend only to have them call you out on the fact that you weren’t really listening at all? A lack of mental focus is the reason you’ve got a dozen half-finished projects lying around the house. Dabbling in many things is easy; focusing on one is difficult. But great men of history knew that one of the keys of success was the power of concentration and the ability to hone in on a singular aim and see it through to completion.

Your wandering mind not only keeps you from achieving greatness, it also makes you less happy as well. Psychologists at Harvard University recently conducted a study on the relationship between our activities and our happiness. Using an iphone app called trackyourhappiness, they randomly checked in with the study participants from time to time, asking them what they were doing, thinking, and feeling at that moment. Not so surprisingly, they found that people were happiest during sex and exercise (activities in which we are fully present in our physical bodies!), while those engaged in commuting, working, and grooming felt the least chipper. But what was really interesting was the finding that not only were 47% of people daydreaming at any given time, but that the more a person’s mind wandered, the less happy they were. Focusing on the activity at hand increased a persons happiness. Of course some daydreaming is quite healthy for our minds and our creativity. But there is something to be said for giving yourself over to something-mind, body, and soul.

In our time, technology is unarguably the greatest challenge to being fully present in our lives. It affects each of the areas we just discussed. Socializing online can stunt our real world emotional growth and our ability to empathize with others. It’s harder to get outside and experience our physical bodies when there’s a 3-D flat screen television to watch and Black Ops to play. And it’s difficult to focus on writing the Great American Novel when you’re checking your email ten times an hour.

Technology can also greatly impact our ability to be fully present in social situations. When I see a man looking at his phone while his woman is trying to talk to him, I want to smack the chump upside the head. Everywhere you go, you see people staring at their phones, nominally present in social situations but really focused on these screens. They talk on the phone while surfing the web, text one friend while conversing with another, keep the television on while eating dinner with the family. The lure of the glowing screen can keep us from really listening to and experiencing each other, can prevent us from being completely present with the people in our lives.

What I personally find most fascinating is the way “social media” can affect our ability to be fully present in the moment by encouraging us to frame our lives for consumption by others. Online communities like Facebook provide new opportunities for connecting with friends and family. But it is a different form of communication. Instead of revealing ourselves to others in real time, we can very selectively pick and choose the version of ourselves we wish to show the world. Our pictures and tweets, our updates and avatars, are chosen not simply to express our personalities, but to create an image of how we want others to see us. But crafting this image can start interfering with our real self. In a column entitled, “I Tweet, Therefore I Am,” Peggy Orenstein explored this new phenomenon:

“The expansion of our digital universe… has shifted not only how we spend our time but also how we construct identity. For her coming book, ‘Alone Together,’ Sherry Turkle, a professor at M.I.T. interviewed more than 400 children and parents about their use of social media and cellphones. Among young people especially she found that the self was increasingly becoming externally manufactured rather than internally developed: a series of profiles to be sculpted and refined in response to public opinion. ‘On Twitter and Facebook you’re trying to express something real about who you are,’ she explained. ‘But because you’re also creating something for others’ consumption, you find yourself imagining and playing to your audience more and more. So those moments in which you’re supposed to be showing your true self become a performance.’”

With the over-consumption of social media, you may find yourself already framing how you’ll share an experience with others, while you’re still having the experience. If you’re already thinking, “Wait until my friends see this!” you’ve left the realm of being present in the moment.

AoM Man-Up Challenge: Pick three ways you can be more fully present in your life this week. Go for a run, talk with your wife, turn off the phone, block your favorite website (even if it’s ours!).

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