06 October 2010

Yang and Yin of the Wired World

Cynthia Wickens Gilles

I am forever seeking balance in the increasingly complex system of life. Some of you may recall my first TOP talk in November 1996, when I was anticipating potentially fatal surgery. My topic then was “Asking the Question: What Do I Want To Do With The Rest Of My Life?" Today, in an era of extremely rapid change catalyzed in part by our wired world’s amazing evolution, I am addressing that same question from the following perspectives.
Time limits: How long will we live? How can we best make a positive difference in our worlds, remembering to relish being alive, fulfilling our responsibilities, and caring for ourselves and others?

Priorities: What are our priorities in life? Do we consciously choose to allocate our time according to these priorities?

Decision making and mindfulness: How do we decide and to what extent are we usually mindful of these decisions?

Our lives are complex systems: Our life choices are influenced by their context and purpose as well as our priorities and time limits. What things are most important for our decisions?

All men should strive to learn before they die what they are running from, and to, and why.

James Thurber

Balancing potential benefits versus potential costs is increasingly challenging in our complex Wired World. My choices in this world have been influenced by the context of my personal life as well as by knowledge gleaned from diverse sources. My Wired World choices are unique but my questions may pose challenges for others as much as they have for me.

I have more time available now and try to exercise my well earned right to spend more time on myself, despite my long lists of things to do. But I have been a single parent of an adult son with special needs for over 30 years. He continues to become more independent and is a big help in many ways but still needs considerable support and attention. I am responsible for managing our four bedroom home, finances, etc., and other family relationships. I will be 79 in December and need to devote much more time to multiple health needs. I have nearly died six times in the last 50 years and have had two reminders of approaching mortality this year: successful surgery for a breast cancer that was only a 2 on a scale of 1-10, and a one day hospitalization this month for something that may or may not be a serious heart concern. Although my pace of life has slowed, I tend to be distracted more easily and must work harder on being mindful in order to combat creeping CPA, otherwise known as continuous partial attention.

In the department of technological innovations, I am a relatively slow adopter. For example, during the first ten years after I returned to paid work in 1970, I always found a willing secretary to do my typing. My baptism of fire came when my Federal grant proposal for an AIDS Discrimination project was funded. My interagency Board of Directors could not believe how ignorant I was about choosing computer hardware and software, so they chose for me. The attorney I hired for the project and the IT coordinator at our host agency instructed me and I discovered the blessings of computer cutting and pasting. They taught me so well that I was able to type our successful second year continuation proposal unaided!

Considerations that Influence My Wired World Choices

The Wired World has many branches. I prefer to use a limited number of them selectively, as tools to achieve purposes I care about. These include communication, maintaining connections and relationships; collecting, storing and sharing information; researching diverse topics; advocacy and networking; planning and coordinating; writing and other creative arts; continuing education; and recreation. Unfortunately, these beneficial uses can be accompanied by potentially harmful side effects that I prefer to avoid. And my decisions are influenced by emotions as well as reason.

1. Relationships: Intimacy and Trust versus Distance

Relationships can satisfy a basic human need for connection, but their quality is of critical importance. How do you define friendship? I believe that most real friendships take time and effort and face to face conversation to develop trust and intimacy. On Facebook, the number of friends appears to greatly outweigh the quality of relationships in members’ weighting scales. Social networks seem to help people become more interconnected but actually tend to decrease intimacy and community. Friendship needs face time as well as Facebook. Face -to-face contact has far greater impact than any online networking for friendship, politics, advocacy, organizational development, and other purposes. I often see friends and families dining together, or people walking together, with each person separately engrossed in an electronic device. Virtual relationships can keep us from developing real relationships with people who are physically present.

What fuels this need for constant “hyperconnectedness?” It can be a way to escape feeling alone. As Tufts senior Charlotte Steinway recently noted, “The tragic, isolating thing is that we reach for our devices because we don’t want to seem lonely – which is causing us to avoid our peers and actually be lonely.” Texting and talking on an electronic device sends a message to the world that I am not alone. Some people become so involved in their private virtual worlds that they seem unaware of the real world around them and exhibit very rude behavior. And I suspect that some people use these devices to help them feel important as they walk down the street or sit in meetings and ignore the speakers. Of course, some of them may just be addicted!

2. Information Access and Overload

Do you have enough information, just enough, or too much? How many of you think we can’t have too much information? How do you decide who or what to trust? Being able to locate needed information is a great benefit but we are constantly in danger of overload with too much information, often of questionable accuracy and value. To limit information pollution, we all need the Snopes fact-checking website to sort out truths from untruths. Unfortunately, the site has limited scope and its’s managers think that the truth doesn’t stand a chance versus gossip. People can say anything they like without any level of accountability or authentication. Of particular concern are the myriad viral cultures spawned by the Wired World, with their ability to rapidly circulate vast amounts of misinformation.

In contrast, the increasing ability to access and exchange vast amounts of information is contributing to great strides in science, the arts and other realms of knowledge and creativity. And social networks can offer both advantages and harms, depending on their use. With so many information sources available , it is easier to stay with some relatively familiar ones that we consider trustworthy and otherwise desirable. Although I am grateful for the many educational resources available electronically, and enjoy collecting and sharing information, I am mindful that some uses of my time are far more valuable to me than others.

I am minimally signed in on Facebook but decided for personal privacy reasons that I did not want to include a large amount of personal information.– My arthritis fortunately prohibits using Twitter but limited exposure to a small sample of tweets by newspapers, radio and TV suggest I haven’t missed much. – It would be hard to avoid having a Blackberry or similar device if I were still gainfully employed or job hunting, but I am not. Blogs have created a modern Tower of Babel, the whole world talking to itself with many anonymous voices of uncertain quality and value. Even without using these networks, I have access to more information than I need, often the same information from multiple sources - too much already!

My favorite media choices include newspapers, radio, TV, the Internet, magazines, newsletters, and limited TV. I love the look, feel, and smell of newspapers, the ease in scanning pages to find articles of interest. Newspapers are often the best sources of quality journalism, though this is under attack. Reading newsprint is easier for me than reading a computer screen. I delight in scanning the paper while enjoying a cup of coffee at my kitchen table. And I also enjoy trying to stay informed about current information on health and other policy issues using all of the above media. – Electronic media have enabled me conduct some valuable personal research, most recently on several related health problems and medication side effects. Ease of online communication with my physicians also is convenient but I feel rather guilty about being on the benefit side of economic and literacy inequalities that cause disparities limiting access to the Wired World for many people.

3. Mindfulness versus Multitasking

I agree with Mary Oliver that you need to live a good part of your life fully engaged with the real world and people around you to feel alive and happy. Time is life. But being fully present requires a level of mindfulness that can be hard to maintain in the face of distraction overload and resulting continuous partial attention. We really can pay full attention to only one thing at a time, and it takes time to shift from one focus to another.

Recent Stanford studies found that multi-tasking is inefficient and overrated. People who do more multitasking are more easily distracted and less able to ignore irrelevant information than people who do one thing at a time. They also understand less and are less creative and productive. Constantly shifting attention impairs both in-depth learning and retention in memory, and also can impair higher cognitive functions such as effective decision making. Neuroscientisit Eric Kandel observes that only when we pay deep attention to a new piece of information are we able to associate it “meaningfully and systematically with knowledge already well established in memory.” And for me, this becomes harder with increasing age.

Hand held devices offer many benefits, such as coordinating with others, being able to call for help, and being able to work in many different places. But using them while walking as well as while driving can be dangerous. And some new research suggests that cell phone use impairs drivers’ ability to recall information in cell phone messages, and also challenges the idea that conducting important business conversations while driving boosts productivity.

Tony Kamaroff perfectly captures my feelings about distraction overload. He says,”I refuse to use a smart phone. In a world that’s already pulling me in 10 directions at once, I don’t need to be pulled in an 11th direction. I don’t want to be interrupted every few minutes by a signal that says there is a new message for me, because my personality is such that I’ll stop what I’m doing and look at every message. And forget what I was doing just before I got the message. And go crazy trying to remember. And going crazy is not good for your health.”

4. Wired World Devices as Tools versus Traps

Electronic devices and other technology can cause distraction, interruption and addiction, change the way we think, and devour our time, but this all depends on how we decide to use them. I try to remain mindful of the differences between using and being used by electronic media, between independent access and addictive compulsion. I am curious about many things and try to keep well informed and continue to explore and learn, but I have to discipline myself to avoid spending too much time on media.

Electronic devices build invisible walls between us and the people and natural world around us, and it is not just because of work-obsessed lives that demand we be on call 24/7. These devices are fearfully addicting and this is an international problem. South Korea recently classified 2 million of its 49 million citizens as “Internet addicts.” Even
feeling obligated to check all of one’s e-mail and respond promptly to every new message can be a problem. The Internet is loaded with addictive opportunities. Commercial websites are designed to make shopping easy. Even e-Bay has its addicts. I am pleased to have cultivated my ability to ignore intrusive ads which saves not only time but money!

5. Security and Privacy versus Vulnerability

Cyberspace presents personal dangers as well as opportunities. Social networks all carry security risks. Sam Allis has wisely observed that “Once you buy into text messaging and/or e-mail on a cellphone, you’re doomed. You’re always available. You can’t hide. You’ve lost any semblance of a private life. Call it the revenge of technology.” Some dangers are local, national, or international in that cyberspace lends itself both to planning and to trying to foil terrorist and other attacks. We are constantly subjected to a frightening amount of unseen surveillance, not only by governments, but also by many commercial entities, and undoubtedly others as well. And once they have found us, they have few reasons to let us escape their scrutiny. Because I believe that surveillance of our personal information is much broader than most of us can imagine, I will continue to minimize my involvement with social networking sites.

Erving Goffman observed that, “Among all the things of this world, information is the hardest to guard, since it can be stolen without removing it.” Theft of personal and commercial or proprietary information can pose major problems. And I do not entirely trust digital records. They can be accidentally erased or be contaminated by viruses. Hard drives die and Internet providers can vanish, temporarily or permanently. Also, the galloping electronic evolution is hastening hardware and software obsolescence. I have two hard copies of my 1982 doctoral dissertation but am still seeking someone who can transfer it from old 5¼” floppy discs to newer accessible media.

6. Impacts on our Brains and Health

I also am uneasy about some other potential effects of the Wired World on my health and cognition. Several sources, including Nicholas Carr’s recent book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, raise some serious concerns, that the internet may be reshaping our society and our brains in ways that make it more difficult for us to concentrate, to remember, and to think deeply and critically. And some cognitive neuroscientisits believe that the reading brain is slowly becoming endangered.

James Carroll argues that soundbites reduce experience to fragmented episodes without the context essential to understanding. He also believes that PowerPoint presentations, with their shorthand organization, can create the illusions of understanding and of control while inhibiting actual thinking. Brigadier General H.R. McMaster says that “Some problems are not bullet-able.” So consider discarding the laser pointer and just talking to people!

Bill Wasik, an analyst of the rising impact of technology on everyday living, observes that “the challenge is to try to find ways to partially unplug ourselves, to carve out spaces in our lives away from information, away from the constant buzzing of the hive mind...a lot of creative people want to be working on their craft, they want to be thinking big about what they should be doing...but the culture is encouraging them to think small.”

I take great pleasure in the ability to choose being out of reach. I treasure the natural world, solitude and silence. Some physicians write nature prescriptions these days so I’ve been working on one of my own. This summer, I’ve enjoyed sitting in late afternoon sun in our backyard and reading or just observing birds, flowers, and the sky - or sitting in our small plant room in late evening meditating on the soothing cricket songs that vary in intensity with the temperature. Georgia O’Keefe observed that it takes a long time to see a flower. I want to take time to appreciate the natural world around me.

There are no absolutes in our wired world; ultimately it comes down to balancing benefits and harms to individuals, society, and the world, all infinitely complex systems. I have touched on some of the considerations that influence my personal choices of how to spend my time.

When she was dying of cancer, Erma Bombeck wrote, if I had my life to live over I would have cried and laughed less while watching television, and more while watching life. Mary Oliver asks,”Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

I’ll close with the same poem by Naomi Shihab Nye that I used at the end of my first TOP talk.


When they say Don't I know you?
say no.

When they invite you to the party
remember what parties are like
before answering.

Someone telling you in a loud voice
they once wrote a poem.
Greasy sausage balls on a paper plate.
Then reply.

If they say We should get together
say why?

Its not that you don't love them anymore.
You're trying to remember something too important to forget.
Trees. The monastery bell at twilight.
Tell them you have a new project.
It will never be finished.

When someone recognizes you in a grocery store
nod briefly and become a cabbage.
When someone you haven't seen in ten years

appears at the door,
don't start singing him all your new songs.
You will never catch up.

Walk around feeling like a leaf.
Know you could tumble any second.
Then decide what to do with your time.

Naomi Shihab Nye
Originally published in:
Moyers, Bill, editor. The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets.
New York: Doubleday, 1995.

Cynthia Wickens Gilles

02 October 2010

Sanity and Solace

The politics intensify and the clamor of campaigning grows louder as we head toward November 2nd. Where do we turn for sanity?

And as the news of home invasion murders and the Rutgers suicide from cyber-bullying fill our newspapers and television news, where do we go for a glimpse of goodness and normalcy?
It reminds me of the Kingston Trio song of yesteryear, "They’re rioting in Africa,/ They’re starving in Spain,/ There’s hurricanes in Florida,/ And Texas needs rain./ The whole world is festering. . . ."

Jon Stewart got it right on Comedy Central. "Where do we go for sanity?"
As summer turns to autumn, you could think that the only thing happening is politics and campaigning.

But look around you. What is really, REALLY happening is that the natural seasons are TURNING on their deeply habitual but daily spontaneous way from warm to cold temperatures, from green leaves to gloriously multicolor splendor spread out on the trees we scarcely notice when they are green.
In a world becoming more uncertain each year with earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes and other EXTREME weather (which used to be unusual but has now become commonplace), there is still SOMETHING regular and steady and "normal" and "good" in our lives. It is our human context WITHIN the natural world of our planet’s biospheral cycles.

We are ENCIRCLED by the steadiness and the goodness of nature, made vivid even to our "unseeing" eyes, by the turning of the seasons.

No matter who gets elected, no matter who- kills-who in international wars and drive-by shootings, the sun will still rise. And the day will begin. And the season will turn from summer to autumn. And we will be blessed by the abundance of the earth UNTIL in our infinite human hubris and our blind technologies, we figure out a way to kill the planet!
But until then, open your eyes and open up your soul, to rejoice in the wonder and the blessing of the turning of the seasons. The natural seasons may possess the sanity and the solace we all need. 

—Elizabeth Dodson Gray