Odds are that almost every adult American remembers a few lines from Thoreau's Walden, "Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify, simplify! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumbnail." When mixed with a bit of John Donne's Devotions upon Emergent Occasions ("No man is an island"), some musings from Cervantes' Don Quixote, and a dose of Shakespeare's Hamlet ("To be or not to be") it was a perfect storm of teenaged angst and ennui. (Truth in advertising: I have always preferred Macbeth for tragedy, but I realize that puts me in the minority.)
How, pray tell, doeth such musings inform technology and its societal implications? Perhaps it is all sound and fury, signifying nothing, but I think not. There are lessons here, if we but reflect and learn.
Multitasking and Thrashing
In an August 24, 2010 New York Times article, "Digital Devices Deprive Brain of Needed Downtime," Matt Richtel noted that when we multitask nearly continuously, we forfeit the downtime historically used to think and remember. He went on to quote a University of Michigan study, which "… found that people learned significantly better after a walk in nature than after a walk in a dense urban environment, suggesting that processing a barrage of information leaves people fatigued."
Last week, I found myself dealing with an important issue at work, dashing to the airport, and then being grateful the airplane at WiFi service so I could continue working. In the digital age, most of us are have multitasked, whether it be reading email at the grocery store (guilty), working on vacation (guilty) or bouncing among multiple electronic activities (guilty).
In that spirit, when did the operating system term multitasking enter the common vernacular to describe concurrent human activities? Perhaps we should make people more aware of another operating system term, the one that describes what happens when the number of tasks exceeds available processing capacity and the time slice assigned to each approaches zero. We call it thrashing. Unfortunately (or fortunately), one cannot get a brain hardware or operating system upgrade.
A Different Drummer
I am no technological Luddite or troglodyte. Far from it, I am a frequent blogger, social network denizen and a lover of electronic gadgets. I have always been – and always will be -- a passionate proponent of technology and its power to enrich and enable innovation and human discovery. Yet there are times when I think we need to step back, consider the social implications of these technologies and ask when and where they are best used to our advantage.
Had Thoreau had a smartphone, he would not have been texting his best bud, Ralph (Waldo Emerson), about the joys of solitude, nor would he have been tweeting or posting photos of his house construction. I am rather more confident he would have espoused the healing virtues of periodic digital seclusion and contemplation.
Tis true that no man is an island. Nearly all of us are connected by an electronic web of shared communications, social networks and intelligent devices. However, sometimes being an island of solitude – even for a few minutes – can be a blessing. Sometimes we need to disconnect, contemplate, remember and imagine – reinventing and discovering. This is no quixotic quest; it is what drives discovery.
Simplify, simplify, simplify, indeed.
I'd write more, but I need to catch up on my email.