I’m driving down the road and I see a woman with a baby stroller. She is staring at a little something in her hand, I can only suppose it is a telephone of some sort. She is probably reading a very important text message from a friend on her phone. Could be the tenth or twentieth very important message that she has received from that same friend today. Meanwhile I note that it is a beautiful autumn day, mild breeze, cool temperature, leaves of many colors and shapes scattered round the stroller where her infant lies, ignored.
The problem with much technology is that it takes us out of context. I wrote several months ago about running with earplugs pumping music into my head. In doing so, I missed things like birdsong and the whispering of breezes in the trees that line the road. I have never liked the idea of running on a treadmill. It’s tedious and artificial compared to actual running outdoors, where I get fresh air and experience the changes of the seasons. But carrying a little radio in my pocket and listening to music while I run removes me one step from the experience at hand.
I read an article yesterday about productivity at work. One of the techniques the productivity expert recommended was to leave your mobile phone or your Blackberry (he called it a ‘crackberry’) at home one day of the week. He suggested Saturday. I wonder how many people truly have to be advised to stop their constant communication with work during the weekend hours? What kind of life is it if you are always, more or less, ‘on call?’
But the thing is, it’s not just work. Increasingly, all of us, all the time, are on call. Almost everyone I know carries a telephone. They turn around and drive back home if they discover they’ve left for any outing, no matter how brief, without it. Then there’s social media, Facebook, Twitter, et al. The classic line in a postcard sent to friends or family, when someone is visiting a place remarkable for its scenery or architecture or just its climatic ambiance is ‘wish you were here.’ Now, we try to make them be here, in real time. We send tweets or post updates to Facebook saying, ‘I am hiking in the forest,’ or ‘I am walking on a beautiful starlit beach’–to which I want to respond, well, you were, but now you’re typing messages on your smart phone.
I am not the biggest fan of e-books, but I do read some. I use a Nook, a simple Nook that is only an e-reader. But already, people are starting to read on iPads and other devices that do many more things. People who really dislike e-books complain that they provide none of the tactile, almost sensual experience of holding a paper book and flipping pages. I understand the feeling, though I think I can get past it. What I can’t get past is the thought of diluting the intellectual and emotional experience of engaging with a text for an extended period because the device I am reading it on can also take me online to send messages, receive updates, and play games.
At work these days, I am in the middle of a project to build a new library. I attend weekly meetings with the general contractor, the architect and the construction manager. Each of these people sets a telephone on the table at the start of the meeting. They are courteous enough to turn off their ring tones, but you see them, during the course of the meeting, tapping its screen, checking on incoming messages, barely able to wait to get onto more important meetings than this one. I am the only person who is fully here, engaged only with what is happening in front of me.
We need to preserve context, which is a way of saying we need to try living in the moment we’re in. In my work and study about the seasons, I am always urging people to learn ways to live in the seasons, to observe the changes of the yearly cycle, to get out and experience them, even if only in small ways. It can enrich your life. It slows things down, makes it seem less like life is just zipping by in an endless round of work days and errands. But we are moving in the opposite direction. When we read, we are also somewhere else. When we talk with friends, we are also somewhere else. When we are working, eating a meal, watching a movie, grocery shopping, doing almost anything imaginable, we are also somewhere else. We are out of context in everything we do. How will we ever learn to experience nature in our daily lives, if we cannot even experience a conversation with a friend without it being diluted by technological intrusions?
And don’t think that I am unaware of the irony that as soon as I finish this post, I will post it to Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin, in addition to WordPress. When I say ‘we,’ I mean we. I’m working on it. I truly am.