Don’t listen to the voices

June 13, 2011

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“The current explosion of digital technology is not only changing the way we live and communicate, but it’s rapidly and profoundly altering our brains.” –Gary Small, UCLA prof. of psychiatry, author of Your Brain On Google

I’m in a Hamilton big-box electronics store. I think I’m going crazy. It’s the voices.

John, a technician in home theatre, helps me with my universal remote. He’s personable and we talk. I mention I’m writing about technology.

He complains how we’re getting terribly rude to each other while we carry on with our digital toys in public. “It’s getting worse,” he says.

I don’t mention I haven’t reactivated my cellphone since returning to Canada over a month ago. I’m not worried about brain cancer. Just haven’t got around to it.

And I don’t mention the voices, the machines, how they whisper in my ear like a lover. “Gotta have it,” they say. “Thom, you gotta have it.”

I don’t hear them in the developing world. By choice, we don’t have a television in our Ugandan home. Satellite is less common there. DVDs? Sure.

And plenty of music and books.

But the kids are often out in their playground, where African monkeys run at sunrise.

Of course, even impoverished countries have gadgets. Yemen, where I lived for years, is a place with fun electronics for kids. But for now slow Internet speeds in developing nations keep technology tame, life unhurried and a more personal sense of community.

I tell John how Uganda leapfrogged phone land lines. Never had them. Now everyone has mobiles.

“You’re charged only for outgoing calls,” I explain. “So Ugandans call you, then hang up so you can call them back.”

“I’d like to do that,” John says.

The voices continue. “You gotta have it. You won’t be happy without it.” That’s what they say. That I won’t be happy. I don’t always hear the voices. Don’t hear them when I’m, say, with my kids in Hamilton’s forests.

Just in places like this cavernous store. Or during commercials.

The machines are so desperate to bed me. Why? I’m made for intimacy of another kind, for skinto-skin contact. Why would I rip myself off with some cheap, plastic imitation? Why would I live so dangerously?

I tell John how someone close to me once drove while texting on a quiet road outside of Hamilton.

BANG! The two young men in the other car? Dead.

Then there are all the other potential crashes. It’s the other day at the Dave Andreychuk Arena. I’m teaching my kids to skate. A young man is texting someone while he’s skating nearby. Backwards.

Yeah, we’re all so connected.

And all so alone. One recent study says a typical Canadian teen now spends up to 10.5 hours with one screen or another, including multitasking, plus another 90 minutes texting — every day.

OMG. What’s really happening?

The machines won’t shut up. Our brave new rudeness is hardly the worst of it. We’re leaving a certain reality. We’re distracted. Preoccupied, not just losing embodied contact, but losing a core human capacity — to focus.

That’s what the researchers say.

You think you’re getting more done, that you can somehow sit and stand and walk all at once?

Wrong. Multitasking, apparently, accomplishes less. Choose a life of so-called efficiency over depth and end up with neither, just a self-inflicted attention deficit disorder.

Then there’s that dependency. When we get digitized contact, even for goofy reasons, our brains get a buzz, a little shot of dopamine: Ah, someone wants me.

Here’s the thing. The clinicians say that just keeping our screens on — just knowing contact from someone might come sometime — fuels the brain’s addiction.

“Gotta have it. Come on. You know you gotta have it.”

I’ll get my remote sorted out.

And I’ll get my mobile active sometime. That’s all fine. Technology is not inherently evil. Never has been.

It has led to good places. But if we don’t pay attention, it can take us down the garden path. It can hand us a net loss.

So when you hear those voices, don’t go with them. Don’t drink the Kool-Aid. Ignore the machines.

Do what I tell my kids when they hurt each other. “Give space!” You’ll stay human.

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June 13, 2011 • Posted in ,
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