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The Tyranny of Toggling

Anyone who has studied the history of technology knows that technological change is always a Faustian bargain: Technology giveth and technology taketh away, and not always in equal measure. A new technology sometimes creates more than it destroys. Sometimes, it destroys more than it creates. But it is never one-sided. –Neil Postman

The internet is arguably the most significant technological advance of the past 25 years. It’s a gift that keeps us in an increasingly paperless, informed, connected, and entertained state. Its impact has been so widespread and ubiquitous that the very idea of living without it is unfathomable. The internet has changed how we meet new people, buy & sell items, acquire media (news, movies, music, television, computer programs, pornography, etc), spend leisure time, express ourselves, conduct research, etc. The list could go on.

The advent of smart phones made the internet portable. It’s normal to be at a restaurant, the airport, grocery store, etc, and see someone lost in a hand held screen and keyboard. One can read the news, send e-mails, get directions, check the weather, find stores, or do any other kind of research on an almost pocket-sized device. It too marks a noteworthy push forward in technology.

I had entered the world of smart phones about two and a half years ago when I was eligible for getting a free Palm Pixi from Sprint. I was hesitant to get something that would disconnect me from my surroundings, but I knew a phone with a GPS would be indispensable when I moved.

Since then I have noticed that I harbor a moderate addiction to my phone. There was a time when the touch screen on the Pixi stopped working, so I activated my old standard flip phone while Sprint fixed it. I felt like I was living in the stone age.

To make matters better/worse, I recently purchased a pretty great smart phone: the Samsung Galaxy Nexus.  I had been putting it off for several months, but the Pixi was starting to give out.  I was reluctant because I didn’t want to fork over the $150 (previously $200 before the Samsung S III came onto the radar). And I didn’t want to get a toy that would consume me.

Unfortunately, it has consumed me to a degree. It’s very well-designed and user-friendly. It’s been great to use the Pulse app and read up on current events in the news, scientific research, astronomy, health & medicine, etc. Browsing Reddit has been enjoyable as well: I’m always learning something or seeing something amusing. It makes me feel in tune to what is going on in the world, and this is positive.

At the same time, I find myself compulsively reaching for my phone. Having the internet everywhere fills up empty time and can dissociate one from the present moment. It makes doing nothing less optional and acceptable. Furthermore, the internet is used like a spice to add to a meal: it has become normal to add texting, web surfing, or navigating  to main courses like watching TV, eating,  conversation, and even driving.

If you add too much flavor, however, then you might not know what you’re tasting. There are busy days where I  find myself in a state of constant expectation: I’m habitually leaping from one thing to the next. Or it’s not enough to be doing just one thing: I’ll want to be eating and watching TV, surfing the web on my phone and eating, etc. And there are times when I’ll find an interesting article that I get excited to read, but when it comes time to delve into it, I have a hard time focusing.

There is research that supports my experience. This infographic sums it up really well and points out other ramifications of technological multi-tasking:

Digital Stress and Your Brain
Via: OnlineUniversities.com

Other studies indicate that multi-tasking diminishes focus and efficiency while fostering anger and prompting the release of stress hormones like cortisol.

As media theorist and cultural critic Neil Postman pointed out, any new technology will be a double-edged sword. The evidence indicates that  overusing the technology meant to keep us up to speed (so to speak) can inhibit our ability manage stress, empathize with others, and work in a relaxed, productive manner.

Perhaps the tyranny of toggling is a symptom of a larger cultural paradigm:  the expectation to be constantly occupied.  I’ve seen the ability to multi-task required on countless job ads. And compared to other industrialized countries, the American workforce makes fewer accommodations for justifiable reasons to miss work (e.g. maternity leave, sick days, and vacation time).

We don’t have any federal laws requiring employers to provide sick days, unlike 145 other countries. And the average maternity leave in America is 10.3 weeks, whereas countries like Sweden, Denmark, and Norway provide anywhere between 52 and 68 weeks paid maternity leave.

U.S. law also doesn’t require employers to offer paid vacation time. Germany and Japan offer at least 20 vacation days. The U.K. offers 28. American have an average of 13 vacations days. And apparently many Americans are okay with this: in 2011, 57% of those with vacation benefits left an average of 11 vacation days unused. They reported having too much work or feeling afraid about taking time off in an unstable job market.

Even our children have to be more regimented with their time because their participation in extracurricular activities is on the rise. Some argue kids are busier than ever.

It seems like “down time” is something to be frowned upon in our society. Tim Kreider wrote a wonderful op-ed piece on this mindset, and his words capture it well:

Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.

It’s no wonder we’re so gadget-happy at any moment; our reliance on an enticing, convenient technology appears to feed into the spirit of busyness. Idle moments are losing their validity.

Unfortunately, the desire to maximize the moment can minimize our ability experience that moment fully. We are lucky to be part of an advanced civilization with sophisticated tools. Let’s hope Postman’s predictions are hyperbolic and the trade-off doesn’t turn out to be of Faustian proportions.


One comment on “The Tyranny of Toggling

  1. Nice post! This idea of balancing connectivity with ‘presence’ is something that nearly everyone will have to grapple with as technologies like smartphones continue their escalation into even more pervasive roles in our lives…. A big one I have noticed is eating. Sometimes I feel like when I surf while eating it’s like I don’t even taste the food. Which is totally stupid. Mealtime should be about flavors, otherwise what is the point of cooking something or paying a little extra at the grocery store for better ingredients? I suppose it all comes back to that core life concept of “mindfulness”…. If you’re not where you are, you’re nowhere, as the saying goes!

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