Digitally Distracted

Posted July 20th, 2012 at 7:13 pm (UTC-4)
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Are We Controlling Our Gadgets, Or Do They Control Us?

Doug Bernard | Washington DC

Think for a quick moment, assuming you can put down your mobile phone for that long.  How many texts did you send today? Ten? 100?

Or this one: how many emails did you read and respond to? Tweets? Facebook updates and Hulu video views? In short, how many hours today and every day of your week are you wandering somewhere in the digital landscape?

Chances are it’s a lot more than you realize…and perhaps more than is good for you.

“Frequent mobile phone use was a prospective risk factor for reporting sleep disturbances in the men and symptoms of depression in both sexes,” writes the University of Gothenberg’s Sara Thomee in a just released study:

“Intensive computer use (“intensive” in terms of duration of use or continuous use without breaks) was a prospective risk factor for reporting sleep disturbances in the men and stress, sleep disturbances, and symptoms of depression in the women. Combined intensive computer and mobile phone use enhanced associations with mental health symptoms.”

That’s academic speak for “Our gadgets are driving us crazy.”

Recent Newsweek cover for their lead story “iCrazy”

Now if it seems that every few months a tremor goes through the media, getting journalists all worried and bothered about the web’s pernicious effects, that’s because it does. Witness the recent lengthy Newsweek article “iCrazy: Is The Onslaught Making Us Crazy?” (Short answer: probably not.) And, we admit, we’ve written several times before about the Internet’s ability to drive us to distraction, or worse.

But it’s also true that anecdotal evidence appears to suggest our multiple devices, platforms, apps and streams are at least rattling our ability to focus on one subject, or person, for any length of time.

” I have two cell phones, two iPads, two laptops, and a desktop,” lists Maggie Dennis, a community liaison with the Wikimedia Foundation. We met Dennis and a number of other Wikipedians (their term) at the annual “Wikimania” conference, held recently in Washington DC, to promote and expand shared “wiki” platforms like Wikipedia. Not surprisingly, she was far from the only hyper-wired attendee we met.

“Uh, one laptop, one desktop, another one that’s retired, two phones and a tablet,” counts Sage Ross. “Four phones,” replies Sami Mubarak, right before we just stopped asking.

This constantly-in-touch, never-off-line group may be unusual in degree, but not in connectedness. Although numbers vary nation to nation, average daily hours spent online for individuals is approaching 14 hours in many places; even more in tech hotspots like Korea or Japan. Facebook is creeping inching toward 1,000,000,000 registered users, and reliable estimates of the total number of mobile devices in the world is well past 5 billion. Connectivity like this may bring greater knowledge sharing, but it can also turn our lives into one unceasing interruption.

To a person, everybody we spoke with at Wikimania acutely felt this tension in their own lives. “That definitely hit home with me,” says Ross:

“It’s part of the learning curve; you need to learn how these things fit into your life, and you need to self-consciously set limits. Because having it in your pocket all the time, it’s compelling. You always have something interesting to turn to; you never have to be bored.”

For Pavel Richter, occasionally being bored is something he intentionally seeks out. “I believe there are two answers to this question,” says Richter, executive director of Wikimedia Germany, in answering how he manages technology overload:

“First, turn them off. Just turn them off. From time to time I do this at times in my life, be it just for an hour, and be not available…Once you open your eyes in the morning, you get information, and it doesn’t stop. It really isn’t a question of the gadgets you use…the world is full of information. I don’t see technology as being special, it’s just another way to get information.”

Richter also says he occasionally adopts old technologies to purposefully slow down. For example, for immediate communication, email works best. For speech writing, Richter pulls out paper and pen.

Of course, disconnecting from the Internet umbilicus isn’t always an option, especially if your business is online information and data. Mubarak, co-founder of the Arabic site Taghreedat, says each one of his devices serves a specific purpose. “In our field we really need to be able to see information as it happens, we need to be able to catch up and respond,” he says. The key, he notes, is knowing when your device is controlling you, instead of the other way around:

“So all these things are a must for us, it’s not a choice. The solution is really not to let go of the devices…but to actually find a way where you can manage these in a safe way, or a productive way, either by online tools or by your own tricks.”

Happy Wikipedians at a recent gathering in Washington DC (image: Helpameout, Creative Commons)

Colleague Mina Takla is also a Taghreedat co-founder and, along with Mubarak, working to increase the quantity – and quality – of Arabic contributions to sites like Wikipedia. In Takla’s nation of Qatar, mobile phone penetration is at least 160%, meaning that many Qataris have two or more phones or wireless devices. “People think they manage it well, but actually it really impacts their social life,” says Takla:

“For instance, in restaurants in Qatar, you’d find couples or families sitting together, but all of them are just looking at their phones. So while that person might think he is really managing his social life, he really isn’t, because he’s not actually looking at his wife or his kids. You need an outsider to really assess whether that person is really managing his social life.”

The common thread running through all this is fairly simple: control yourself. Give your thumbs a rest. Unplug occasionally, and chances are pretty good that your iPad or laptop isn’t going to make you mentally unhinged. (There’s a corollary for journalists: stop trying to frighten people that the Internet will steal your sanity. Like anything, in excess it can be harmful, but by itself it’s only as positive or negative as the person using it.)

Perhaps Maggie Dennis summed it up best. “The important thing is to control your devices, not let your devices control you.”

As for information overload, notes Dennis, the only thing she has more of in her home than electronic devices are books…each offering up its own unique distractions.

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The Internet, mobile phones, tablet computers and other digital devices are transforming our lives in fundamental and often unpredictable ways. “Digital Frontiers” investigates how real world concepts like privacy, identity, security and freedom are evolving in the virtual world.

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