Last Friday I „lost“ my cellphone somewhere between work and home and was unable to retrieve it until today. I spent a good part of my weekend frantically turning the apartment upside down to my partner’s chagrin, because the potential loss of my phone is the stuff of nightmares. Years of messages, personal notes and photographs from all over the world could’ve ended up in some ditch or worse, a stranger’s pocket. The fact that my car battery also decided to die on me yesterday morning on my way to work didn’t make things better – I have no other phone line beside my cellphone and so I ended up emailing people at work like some maniac (there is the assumption that everyone has a phone and therefore must also be able to use it, no pressure!) while rushing to the local car garage on foot at 8am. And I am not a morning person, mornings are for other people.
When I was finally able to recover my phone at work today, where some fairy must’ve found it and put it in my personal locker, I cried proverbial tears of joy. Dear phone, I MISSED YOU SO MUCH! In this day and age we’ve come to rely on our mobile communication gadgets in a way that frightens me a little. What is all this doing to me?
On the erosion of patience being the erosion of skill
While I was still jubilating my phone’s recovery during coffee break, I came across an interview with Nicholas Carr, bestselling author of “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains”, in a weekly feuilleton I like to read and which is literally the last remnant of print media in my life. Carr critically discusses the omnipresence of digital media and our reliance on and obsession with connectivity. So far, not exactly a fresh angle on the internet age. However, the interview became more interesting when he started referencing studies on what the ever increasing speed of information and interaction does to our brains: how we expect faster reactions and feedback from webpages/email/people, how our frustration threshold for wait times is decreasing as we grow more demanding yet less focused, valuing instant gratification while losing our ability for patience.
And unlearning the ability for patience/focus or never exercising it in the first place, is a bigger issue than one might think. It’s not just about dealing with all the extra (peer) pressure created by new media. Carr goes on to explain the skilldrain accompanying this age of technology, where gadgets have stopped enabling or improving personal growth and skill development but rather replace them entirely. Instead of learning from an early age that acquiring and exercising certain skills takes time for practice and repetition, we are tempted to leave such effort to technology altogether, especially if it’s faster. This is the case when kids can’t do mental math anymore but require a calculator to add two-digit numbers together or when we’re incapable of navigating traffic without a GPS device. These are not positive examples of technology improving our lives but instead, examples of them taking over. It creates a dependability that is risky and potentially harmful. Which is not to say that technology doesn’t do an awful lot of wonderful things, too – it should however not make the education of a versatile and well-trained mind obsolete.
This is where I am personally grateful that I grew up before the complete takeover of mobile tech and uber-connectivity. I consider myself a digital native due to my upbringing around video games but I was in my late teens when the internet happened. I am also part of a now bygone generation of “classically trained” college students within the Swiss academic system. That means I was part of a crowd that primarily learned to question, interpret, analyze and debate with strong focus on language learning, literature, art, history and other humanistic disciplines such as philosophy or religion/theology. I spent 7 years studying latin along with three other language majors (plus all the natural sciences and art subjects) before moving on to specialize at university. I sat in archways in the beautiful city of Bern sketching old church towers and got to spend time in museums and dusty city archives. Thanks to all of this, I believe I am a pro at educating myself; I am very fortunate and privileged that my school was still the “we help you to help yourself”-kind and that there was diversity taught for the sake of diversity. Of course I didn’t quite see it that way at the time.
I realize that with growing economic pressures too, schools are less and less allowed that much room for “frivolous subjects”. There’s a plethora of studies and articles out there right now on how the school system is old-fashioned and not in tune with modern times and demands. Apparently productive adulthood can’t start soon enough, which is somewhat ironic given that we only just discovered the importance of childhood in the early 20th century. Where is this going? Without all this time and patience for learning in my curriculum, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. I wonder if I’d play games differently too – after all, there’s a very strong parallel here to the more slowed-down and exploratory playstyle I prefer in MMOs, as opposed to bite-sized themeparks full of reward and achievements that require shorter attention spans. Maybe my gameplay preferences too are shaped by my upbringing? I don’t know, I am thinking out loud here.
As an ex-educator, it does concern me that schools offer less time for children to focus on developing their own skillsets from scratch, rather than being productive and job-ready as fast as possible. But maybe this is really the times we live in and there’s no point in fighting the takeover by technological optimization (it’s already happened to manual work). Maybe being impatient is the new green and I am sounding like my grandparents. Or maybe “go with the flow” is some defeatist thinking right there.
What I do know is that every time I have willingly unplugged during holidays in the past, it was simply amazing. There are few times a year when I don’t read email and hardly use social media platforms, reducing all social stimuli to a minimum except for the ones of my immediate environment. Once the transition is done and I am sitting at a lake somewhere breathing the sun, it feels great – like a huge weight lifted off my shoulders. It’s as if my outward senses are recovering. And yet these are connections I do treasure and maintain around the year, which is the conflicting part. How do these things fit together? What’s more real?
I think I need to get back to answering some emails.