Spevak: Driven to distraction by technology's siren

By John SpevakJanuary 25, 2013 

Let's look in on a typical American home today: six people gathered in one room to get together and socialize -- but there is no talking.

Two are teenagers who are texting, maybe each other. One is an adult looking at email on his laptop. Another adult is playing a word game on a cell phone.

A young child, about 7 years old, is playing a video game on his Nintendo DS. An even younger child, not yet 3, is navigating quite well through numerous icons on his mother's phone.

I see this scene more and more as I get older. And it still surprises me. But then again, I'm old enough to remember the days before cell phones, before laptops, before desktop computers. And I scratch my head.

Gone are the old days, it seems, of conversations, discussions and dialogue. Here, instead, are the new days of technological distractions.

I am tempted to rail at this. Whatever happened, I am tempted to shout, to gathering around a kitchen table or a living-room coffee table and just talking?

But then, just before I start throwing some virtual stones, I realize that I live in this technological glass house, too. I find myself, in the midst of a family gathering, looking at my laptop or cell phone, focused on a screen rather than the eyes of people around me.

We seem to be a much different society today than we were 10 years ago, five years ago, even last year. Our personalities seem to be changing. But have they really?

Maybe not. Maybe as humans we have always sought distractions. After all, our minds work much in the same way they worked 50 years ago, 100 years ago, even 2,500 years ago, at least according to the writings of the ancient Greek philosophers, poets and dramatists.

Dozens of thoughts seem to bombard our conscious and subconscious mind each minute: recollections and anticipations, problems and solutions, worries and daydreams, whimsical thoughts and grave concerns.

With all of this miscellaneous debris floating within our mind, it's no wonder we seek distractions. They are part of the human condition, and they help keep this surging stream of consciousness from drowning us.

If we return to the opening scene of this column, and go back in time 60 years, we would find the six people gathered in the room equally involved in distractions -- newspapers, magazines, crossword puzzles, Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs, a radio broadcast.

Does that mean, then, I'm not worried about today's technological distractions? On the contrary, I am.

I think the technological "screens" -- on cell phones, laptops, desktops and hand-held games -- are much more addictive distractions. Screens have a way of almost hypnotizing us. In the last century, we saw this first with movie, then television screens. In this century the hypnosis continues with smart phones and Nintendo Game Boys.

To be fully human, we need time and space to think in depth and breadth, difficult to do with a screen in front of us. To be fully human, we also need to regularly interact with others.

Unfortunately, we 21st century humans have found it's often more tempting to isolate ourselves and be entertained by a screen.

I don't consider myself a Luddite against all technology. Technology and technological screens enable people to do amazing things today, especially in the worlds of medicine and business.

But we have to be wary of technology controlling, even hypnotizing, us rather than us controlling technology. We have to at some point deal with our ceaseless streams of consciousness and channel them into original, helpful and creative thoughts.

My advice to all, old and especially young, is brief: Devote time in your day away from screens. Let your mind, body and heart roam -- indoors and outdoors. Enjoy and absorb the conversation and laughter of family and friends.

On another note: A belated happy birthday to Rose House, who turned 90 on the first day of 2013. Although her body is moving a little more slowly than the day she started Rose Marie Studio in Los Banos 60 years ago, her mind is still as sharp and her musical abilities still as remarkable as ever.

Comments on the writings of John Spevak, an Enterprise columnist for 29 years, are encouraged, and can be sent via email to john.spevak@gmail.com.

Comments on the writings of John Spevak, an Enterprise columnist for 29 years, are encouraged, and can be sent via email to john.spevak@gmail.com.

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