In a relatively short period of time the advancements made in communication technology has enabled millions of people across the globe to communicate instantly in ways unlike anytime in our history.
We are not only able to shoot a photograph with our mobile phone; we can email it with a stroke of a key, we can SMS/text someone instantaneously anywhere on the planet or next door, and we can receive real time stock quotes or the current international news wherever we may be. We can even transfer bank funds and connect with friends or business partners on a video conference call while sitting on a park bench using our handheld smart-phone.
For those of us “plugged in,” the immediacy of events unfolding before our eyes and ears exposes us to the world’s currents with very few filters. It is a global phenomenon from Falls Church, Virginia to London, Mumbai, Shanghai and beyond. Many of us are exposed in ways as never before to the unfolding of humanity’s drama via online news. Our friend’s incoming text message informs us what they are listening to on their iPod or iPad. One needs only to look around and notice how many of us are “engaged” in some form of electronic technology, particularly smart-phones. With 24/7 news reports, blogging, Skyping, text messaging, accessing social media such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, the tragedy, ecstasy and coverage of local and global events and the discussion of them is at our finger-tips instantaneously with the arrival and wide spread use of this technology.
The unfolding rawness of the human experience is being reported the world over. This open window to our collective journey, path, struggle, challenge or celebration connects and exposes us to each others’ lives as never before. We can view, listen or read a story about a successful Indian rice harvest celebration and then hear about the accidental death of 19 German concert goers, the speed at which President Honsi Mubarak was deposed in Egypt, or the heart breaking reports of Japan’s devastating earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crises. For many of us this can be numbing. We are experiencing a cascade, a delude of information, and communication options which can be overwhelming. This input begs us to consciously choose how to engage with this 24/7 connectivity.
Choosing how to take this all in, let alone how to be with this 24/7 mobile communication is and will be a key to our individual mental and physical well-being and that of our local communities and global family. How to handle this daily media exposure, its impact on us, and our participation in its use is a challenge to those of us plugged in.
The power of this connectivity has tremendous ramifications. For example, in an editorial by Mohamed ElBaradei in the 2/13/11 issue of The Sunday Express (India), he wrote: “…Young Egyptians, gazing through the windows of the Internet, have found in social media a way to interact and share ideas, bypassing, in virtual space, the restrictions placed on physical freedom of assembly…” Another example of its influence is how the world has become flat, a metaphor which the author and syndicated columnist Thomas Friedman has coined. With the simple stroke of a computer key or smart-phone, virtual teams are connected and working “together” from all parts of the
globe, effectively creating an even or flat playing field for all businesses.
This process of flattening can also bring with it many challenges. For instance, as a result of the global rise in the use of outsourcing, Missourians who have traveled no farther than 500 miles from their home may find themselves interfacing with Indians who come to them daily through their computer screens and telephones. In many cases, basic communication can become compromised. Cultural nuances, assumptions, language differences, behavioral expectations and habitual patterns of how to work and communicate are thrown into question, making the doing of business often times laborious, awkward and unpredictable at best. Besides having to meet deliverables, an additional layer of stress accompanies most cross-cultural interactions.
Another ramification of this prolific technology use is the way that many people are choosing to communicate on a daily basis. Texting and emailing are quickly becoming popular across all generations and cultures. According to a 2010 Pew Research Center report, among mobile phone owners, 95 percent of those between 18 and 29 years old, nearly 60 percent of those between 50 and 64, and 19 percent of those 65+ send and receive text messages. Opting to text as a preferred method of conversing rather than having a face to face or even a telephone exchange has taken the personal touch out of the communication process. Consequently, the advancement of this technology is driving a default use towards low context styles of communication where meaning and emotional content is being replaced by quick, functional and impersonal exchanges; the art of building and maintaining meaningful relationships is being challenged. Think of instances when someone does not answer their phone, yet responses immediately to a text.
There are many perspectives being offered in the dialogue concerning the exposure and use of electronic communication, and the impact it is having on people. One consequence of this continuous media/technology exposure is the occurrence of a phenomenon in which most of one’s attention is on a primary task, but where one is also monitoring several background tasks just in case something more important or interesting comes along that one does not want to miss out on. Consider the number of times we check emails, send a text or even connect to the news while we are sitting in traffic, or worse while driving.
There is actually a name for this behavior. The term “Continuous Partial Attention” (CPA) was coined by a former Apple and Microsoft executive named Linda Stone in 1998. She uses CPA to describe how many of us use our attention today, separate from multi-tasking. The two are differentiated by the impulse that motivates them. When we multi-task, we are motivated by a desire to be more productive and more efficient. We are often doing things that are automatic, that require very little cognitive processing. We give the same priority to much of what we do when we multi-task — we file and copy papers, talk on the phone, eat lunch; we get as many things done at one time as we possibly can in order to make more time for ourselves and to be “more efficient” and “more productive.” To indulge in CPA is to pay partial attention continuously, which is motivated by a desire to be connected. We want to effectively scan for the best opportunities, activities and contacts in any given moment. To be busy — to be connected — is to be alive according to Stone, and is to be recognized, to matter and to not miss anything.
For years now, articles have been addressing the virtues, challenges and controversies surrounding the use of communication technology. In a recent issue of the AARP Bulletin, Cynthia Ramnarace reports on the risk of what she refers to as “overindulging” in the use of communication devices such as smart-phone technology by the young and old alike. She presents the case: “…when you hear your iPhone ding, you wonder: Pictures of your brand-new grandchild? A text from your office? Or yet another ad for cheap Viagra? Only one way to know — scroll and look…” Because of this increasing tendency by most who own and use smart-phones, she reports that many psychologists have concerns: “Do smart phones rob us of real relationships? Have they eliminated our ability to experience the reality of the moment? Have we forgotten the pleasure of being idle? And are the new phones the ultimate mask for our insecurities?” She quotes a New York psychologist Stacey Rosenfeld as saying, “People are in some moment, but they are not in the moment.” According to Golden Gate University’s chair of the Department of Psychology, Kit Yarrow, “You have to live a good part of your life fully engaged with your surroundings, and most particularly with other people, in order to feel the most alive.”
As a result of this endless flood of media exposure and smart-phone usage many people are beginning to ask questions such as “Why can’t I just seem to get ahead? And why does it seem more complicated now? What’s going on? Why aren’t there 30 hours to a day? It wasn’t like this before; what happened to the good old days? I seemed to do just fine before having a phone with me at all times; what gives?”
In addition to our individual choice of how to ride and engage with this connectivity, the larger question is a societal one. For those of us fortunate enough to have a choice, Ms. Sheryl WuDunn (author, lecturer, business woman, Pulitzer Prize Winner, and co-author of Half the Sky, a book on global gender inequality) dares us to act by saying,
“…We’ve all won the lottery of life (being born into fortunate life circumstances, into privilege). The question then becomes one of how to discharge that responsibility. Find a cause and join in…” Perhaps as urgent though is the importance of how to engage in the care of ourselves and community. How can we be of help if we ourselves are not in a place, a healthy state of mind to genuinely lend a hand without causing more confusion? One may want to first decide how to settle one’s own state of mind as one rides this electronic communication demand, exposure and input.
Many years ago, I began practicing a meditation technique which sharpens one’s experience of mindfulness. This practice has provided me with a simple tool to ride this seductive connectivity. Why not explore a mindfulness discipline such as meditation, yoga or Chi Kung in the process of taking care of yourself, participating in this 24/7 world and navigating your path through this unavoidably raw journey which is full of unpredictableness, blessings, transitions, adjustments, routines, pain, demands, choices, and for many of us, the opportunity to personally answer the question of how to show up authentically and be present?