Practice mindfulness: don’t become roadkill on the information superhighway

I just stumbled across a lovely column by author Pico Iyer in the New York Times on “The Joy of Quiet.”

He discusses how overwhelmed we are:

In barely one generation we’ve moved from exulting in the time-saving devices that have so expanded our lives to trying to get away from them — often in order to make more time. The more ways we have to connect, the more many of us seem desperate to unplug.

I tend to think of us — well, most of us, anyway — as being a bit like early 20th century rubes from the sticks who have just arrived on Times Square, and are dazzled by the displays to the point where we’re a danger to ourselves and others.

I also think this is a transitory phase, and that the tide, in some ways, is beginning to turn. Perhaps that’s not the best metaphor, because while the tide can only go in one direction at any given time, in some respects I think things in the realm of attention and distraction will go in both directions at the same time; you’ll see more people trying to do more multitasking at the same time as you get more people finding ways to withdraw and find an accommodation with the deluge.

Perhaps it’s going to be like the realm of health and fitness, where you see both an explosion of obesity and a rising interest in gyms.

That means that ardent multitaskers may be the informational equivalent of nacho-gorging couch potatoes, while those with a keener sense of the worth of their attention (and the need to preserve it) are more like healthy-eating exercisers. Because multitasking doesn’t really get stuff done, and it has a bad effect on our minds.

I suspect that at some point obesity rates are going to drop, because one way or another they have to. Policies will be put in place or some pill will be found that helps people to keep the pounds off. I don’t think there’s likely to be a pill that helps us develop mindfulness, but there too I think there will be a cultural push to encourage more reflection and down-time. And for the same reason — we’ll have to. I think we’ll have to because people with fragmented minds are incapable of processing information effectively. I’ve seen this in high school students; words just wash over many of them, and if you ask them to restate something they’ve just read they’ll often just tell you something they already know (whether or not it’s relevant to the reading they’ve done) because no learning has taken place. No civilization can survive, no business can thrive, based on minds that are incapable of learning. So that’s why I think things will change.

Here are some signs that I see of the change happening.

Iyer mentions some in his column:

“…those who part with $2,285 a night to stay in a cliff-top room at the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur pay partly for the privilege of not having a TV in their rooms; the future of travel, I’m reliably told, lies in ‘black-hole resorts,’ which charge high prices precisely because you can’t get online in their rooms.”

The wealthy are either the first to realize that they need to protect their attention, or at least have found the most ostentatious way of doing so.

“Writer friends of mine pay good money to get the Freedom software that enables them to disable (for up to eight hours) the very Internet connections that seemed so emancipating not long ago.”

And there are less expensive ways to achieve similar ends. Some people, myself included, use full-screen writing software, some of which is free, like the WordPress software I’m writing on now, which has a full-screen mode. Some people are disciplined enough to turn off their email programs and other alerts in order to avoid interruption.

“Intel (of all companies) experimented in 2007 with conferring four uninterrupted hours of quiet time every Tuesday morning on 300 engineers and managers. (The average office worker today, researchers have found, enjoys no more than three minutes at a time at his or her desk without interruption.) During this period the workers were not allowed to use the phone or send e-mail, but simply had the chance to clear their heads and to hear themselves think. A majority of Intel’s trial group recommended that the policy be extended to others.”

I think businesses are increasingly going to recognize that attention is a resource that needs renewal. Those that don’t will fail.

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A recent article, Multitasking loses its cool; Mindfulness is now in, points out that “Mindfulness training can help people focus, see clearly, work with change, form deeper relationships and more.”

Another points out that mindfulness makes you a better leader:

The practice of mindful leadership gives you tools to measure and manage your life as you’re living it. It teaches you to pay attention to the present moment, recognizing your feelings and emotions and keeping them under control, especially when faced with highly stressful situations. When you are mindful, you’re aware of your presence and the ways you impact other people. You’re able to both observe and participate in each moment, while recognizing the implications of your actions for the longer term. And that prevents you from slipping into a life that pulls you away from your values.

Google is teaching mindfulness to its employees. So is General Mills. And Plantronics.

And talking of Google, the forthcoming Google Glass project — sci-fi style head-up display glasses — are designed not to get in between you and your experience of the world. It’s hard, initially, to see how they are pulling this off, but that’s what have said it manages to achieve.

Technology can help us avoid overload, but fundamentally it’s we ourselves that will determine whether technology is our tool or whether we are a tool of technology. As Iyer puts it,

All the data in the world cannot teach us how to sift through data; images don’t show us how to process images. The only way to do justice to our onscreen lives is by summoning exactly the emotional and moral clarity that can’t be found on any screen.

And so he sees more of his friends turning to yoga, or meditation, or tai chi. I suspect that those who don’t are going to end up as roadkill on the information superhighway — too dazzled by the bright lights of the rectangular screens into which they stare all day to be able to achieve much, and hence unable to survive.

Todd Henry argues that we’re losing the capacity to be bored, and therefore the capacity to be creative.

So I’d say “Meditate: your future may depend on it.”

4 Comments. Leave new

When I see someone with a blue-tooth hanging in their ear, I cannot help but think of the Borg from Star Trek the Next Generation. Seeing Google Glass only strengthens that vision to me. It seems to be true for some that resistance is futile; they have been assimilated.

Steven Caldwell
November 7, 2012 7:52 pm

A thoughtful overview and reflection on an issue that affects many of us. Ironically, your argument was somewhat undermined by the very medium you were using to express the ideas. You were encouraging distraction by hyperlinking in your text. I had to resist the urge to follow each link before reading on. Working ground for myself, perhaps more that yourself.


I know what you mean. If I see interesting links in an article I’ll control-click them to open them in the background in new tabs. That way they’re available for later reading, but I can stay with the current text.

Mindfulness in the 21st century | Wildmind Buddhist Meditation
January 6, 2013 3:44 pm

[…] Practice mindfulness: don’t become roadkill on the information superhighway […]


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