Monday, January 24, 2011

Sanity Police! Put down the tech and move away slowly...

That's what your brain and body are telling you, according to Linda Stone, a former VP of Microsoft and current executive at Apple. In a rather interesting case of 'uncommon' sense, her 21 minute lecture at the SIME 2009 conference informs us that a shortage of truly original ideas and an overabundance of stress and cognitive dysfunction can be laid squarely at the feet of an over reliance on information distribution technology like Twitter, email, RSS feeds and the like. Granted, that's my subjective paraphrasing on the content of the lecture, and she does have a bit more detail to add to that picture, but in the end, it's what neo-luddites like myself have been saying for ages.

You can see the lecture given by Ms. Stone here, but to sum it up, she  believes that most of the people in the modern world suffer from Continuous Partial Attention, a term she coined to describe the addlepated state most folks in modern society walk around in all day due to trying to concentrate on too many things at once. It goes beyond a simple inability to focus attention, however, and it turns out that folks suffering from CPA (which includes almost everyone in the  fast paced world we live in, in my opinion) live in a state of constant crisis in which their 'Fight or Flight' response is constantly switched to 11 (those who do not know what '11' references probably don't have this problem). This of course goes a long way to explaining the incredibly aggressive behavior certain individuals (myself included) tend to involuntarily display on an almost daily basis.

It get's worse. This state of enhanced excitement, in which we hunch over, holding our breath for the next text or response to our constant information exchange can actually cause what she refers to as 'Email Apnea.' You breathe improperly, and as oxygen is essential for good brain function, your attention span suffers even more, along with your ability to process and remember information. Addiction to information exchange is actually as bad for you as snoring.

I'm screwed. I've got sleep apnea AND I just caught myself holding my breath as I typed that. My poor brain is sitting in the equivalent of a plastic bag with the top tied shut and that explains a lot. Especially the last few weeks (or decades if you ask some of my snarkier friends).

She goes on to discussing the evolution of our relationship with technology, and there is a lot of interesting stuff in there that would actually make for three or more good posts, but what really concerns me at this point is the physical response to information technology. One of the subjects I'm interested in exploring for my Master's Thesis is how to have our humanity keep pace with our technology, but is that really possible if we have such a poor relationship with it? It's almost like an abusive spouse who wails on us, berating us for being out of the loop, driving us like a slave-master when we try to keep up and then leaves us empty, exhausted  and unsatisfied with our lot, wishing for better but unable to see any other life outside of the one we are trapped in. Keep up, or drop out seem to be the only choices (and I dreamed up several scenarios for the later before entering grad school to do the former).

Ms. Stone seems to think that the method of dealing with this lies in Yoga and other 'breathable' moments. She speculates that the reason so many folks get their best ideas in the bath is the very fact that taking information tech into the bath is not good for the technology (or you if were talking your desktop), so we tend to leave it out and our brain gets a breather. I think she is partially right here, and I, myself, find that hobbies like painting models tends to do the same for me. The problem is that she doesn't see the long-term solution. Sure, as an adult, we can take abath and feel somewhat refreshed, but as soon as we're out, the technology takes over and 'BAM' you're right back into an agitated and aggressive (or downtrodden) state.

What's needed, I think, is a more long-term educational solution that focuses on handling our relationship with our tech. Something that can be taught from childhood, side by side with technical training, something that puts us in the habit of detaching almost instinctively, as a reflex, when we need to focus on a problem or relax form our heightened state of CPA. I have some ideas on some training methods that could be developed for this very purpose, a few of which that came to me, not in the bath, but as I was being affected by the methods themselves in real-time. But, that, I think, is fodder for a separate post...


  1. I would have to agree with this as I find my self waiting for Emails or having to check checking in on FB as part of a near daily ritual.
    If someone hasnt replied to an email I start to wonder why even if the person lives the otherside of the world and then wait even more for a reply, now when added to MMO's its a downward spiral of having to have the "online" connection.
    Hell I have an Android tablet always on hand even when away from my laptop or netbook.


  2. It's frightening how quickly it happens, too. I got a FB account, this blog, a Twitter account, and, just to drive the nail in my mental coffin, a Droid X Smartphone and now I'm more stressed out than ever.

    Just a year ago, all I had going was email, Skype and a cell-phone and I thought that was a ball and chain. My how times change...