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Slow down, you're just in time


Clock face reads 'Time for a break'More is expected of us in ever-smaller amounts of time as we strive to keep our productivity at pace with unending advances in technology. We are expected to be connected to more people more often, be across more information and be contactable more of the time (if not all of the time).

If this isn't enough, we can easily become buried in more data than we can process and more sensory stimuli than we can register. In a manic social media environment, with overbearing communications technologies and an unhealthy obsession with efficiency, an even greater issue than heightened stress is the resulting sense of meaninglessness as things become measured not by their significance but by how much they cost in our most valuable currency — time.

Nowadays there seems little chance to thoroughly reflect on anything. No 'spare' minute can afford to be wasted — it must be filled with the 'convenient' use of our devices. And of course we end up feeling like we have less time.

'Our perception that we have 'no time' is one of the distinctive marks of modern Western culture,' said writer and broadcaster, Margaret Visser. How true this is.

When our minds have little opportunity for reflection or downtime, we can fall into the habit of simply reacting to life. Gone are pockets of unfilled time, rainy afternoon boredom or opportunities to daydream or consider the 'bigger picture' at length.

On my way home on the tram recently, I observed the scene around me. The only two passengers not entranced by their phones were a man and a woman of the baby-boomer age bracket. I watched as they made eye contact (which was in contrast to everybody else who remained oblivious to their surroundings) and joked about the failings of the myki system. They connected, however briefly — and it seemed to put them both at ease.

Meanwhile, the other passengers seemed to be entirely elsewhere, mentally. One woman did occasionally lift her eyes from her iPhone — but only to do something on her iPad.

Do we lose touch with those actually around us in the attempts to maintain the endless streams of second-rate contact electronic communication allows us? In effect, this would mean that our communications technologies result in less real communication between people.

Before Facebook, people would usually find out about engagements and births and job promotions directly from the person — or at least through a mutual friend. A person also had more time to digest such news before his or her mind was consumed by the next thing.

Psychology recognises that at a certain point, emotional and mental overstimulation leads to a sort of detachment and emotional numbness as the brain and central nervous system can only respond to so much. Is the bombardment of stories, information and communication allowed by modern society having the effect of desensitising us?

'All media of communications are clichés serving to enlarge man's scope of action, his patterns of associations and awareness,' said Marshall McLuhan in his book From Cliché to Archetype. 'These media create environments that numb our powers of attention by sheer pervasiveness.'

Take the Greek myth of Narcissus — a wood nymph who was obsessed with himself through his own reflection. The word Narcissus is from the Greek word narcosis — or, numbness. With enough dopamine hits from 'likes' on Facebook, and adrenalin spikes from sensationalised news stories, one's emotions can become blunted. That is, with the notable exception of general irritability borne of expecting one's real life to be as fast-paced as one's online one.

From a broader perspective, how many of us find the time to really consider the full implications of the daily (let alone hourly) news that passes through our consciousness? My generation seem more preoccupied with responding with lightweight, lightning-quick tweets than with deep reflection. Twitter, which demands an immediate response to a topic if the response is to be at all relevant, is one example of the way that some technologies have simply led to higher expectations of what one person is capable of.

Serious modern day problems such as climate change, asylum seekers and mental illness should engage our emotions and thoughts for longer than five minutes. Creative and powerful solutions happen through breakthroughs in deep thinking, not surface thinking and knee-jerk reactions.

One day, a friend of mine told me how he and his toddler daughter had spent their time together on the weekend: my friend browsing social media and websites on his smartphone, and his daughter next to him watching movies on her own child-friendly version of a laptop. I struggled to stop an involuntary look of alarm from creeping over my face.

I was disturbed. Not because he is an uncaring father — he's not — but at the thought that this might be a typical situation. It is true that his daughter will be using more technology than we can dream of by the time she's an adult, and he probably thought it best to get her familiar with it from a young age. But I felt worried for her generation. Not for fear they will be uncared for, but that they will grow up, ironically, disconnected.

I wonder how much of my friend and his daughter's time together that day was spent giving their attention to their gadgets rather than each other. Receiving some undivided attention is a need we all have — for children, it is particularly vital to their wellbeing.

As technology advances further, so too does the degree of mental or emotional disconnect possible between people in the same room — or even in the same bed. According to proponent of the Slow Movement and author of In Praise of Slow Carl Honoré, there is evidence that around one fifth of Americans now interrupt lovemaking to attend to their phones.

The significant advantages of technological advancement are, of course, easy to list. We all benefit from the ability to instantly communicate at a distance (particularly in an emergency), use global positioning systems, have our information stored on computer records for the various services we access, and discover mind-boggling amounts of information about our health from medical machinery. The list goes on.

But our individual and collective attention spans are at an all-time low. Which is no surprise, given that our brains are bombarded with potential distractions from the moment we wake up until the moment we plug our touch-screened lifeline into its charger at the end of the day.

While reading The Winter of Our Disconnect by Susan Maushart (an account of the six months her family spent 'unplugged' from technology), I decided to abandon Facebook and Twitter for one month. At first, I experienced withdrawals from my social media world. But it didn't take long before the cravings subsided and I began to feel a sense of calm, wellbeing and a deeper connection to my home, the things I was doing and the people I was with. It was an eye-opening experiment.

Since then, I've become more aware of the effect that social media has on my life — so that when I hit electronic communications overload, I know to take a breather.

This issue is one that arguably affects our problems, big and small, across the board. From mental health and politics, to family relationships and stress-related illness — not to mention spirituality. Henri Nouwen, Catholic priest and writer, once wrote: 'Somewhere we know that without a lonely place our lives are in danger. Somewhere we know that without silence words lose their meaning, that without listening speaking no longer heals, that without distance closeness cannot cure.'

Advocates of the Slow Movement challenge us to take control of our pace, to recognise that it is possible to choose to slow down. In the eyes of many, this emerging movement could not come soon enough.

I am making efforts to take the lead from this movement by simply taking time to pay closer attention to what is actually happening around me 'IRL' (that's cyber-speak for 'In Real Life'). Perhaps sit quietly in a park, or — as foreign as the concept may be — even choose to do nothing now and then. For a 20-something in this day and age, this is not an easy shift to make. But it's a worthwhile one.

I'm also encouraged by the words of artist William Wiley, who said: 'I wish I could have known earlier that you have all the time you'll need right up to the day you die.'

Human beings need time to ponder, switch off, unplug and simply breathe. Slowing down doesn't mean stopping (it is called the slow movement, after all). By all means, take action — but perhaps try taking your time, too.

Megan Graham headshotMegan Graham is a Melbourne based writer, journalist and occasional blogger. Megan won the 2013 Margaret Dooley Award for Young Writers for the above essay. 

Judge's citation:

In the Christian tradition, a prophet is not someone who has magical knowledge of the future. Instead, a prophet is someone who truly understands the current reality, who warns us of dangers present in it, and who advises us how we must change if we are to avoid these dangers.

I write all this to make clear that this article is genuinely prophetic. Its author warns that overuse of information technology, communication technology and the social media can leave us overloaded, numbed and detached. If we are to avoid this danger, we must learn to limit our use of all these technologies.

This warning is relevant to people of every age. The Margaret Dooley Award is given to young writers aged 30 years or under, and this warning is perhaps particularly relevant to people in this age group. It is therefore pleasing to see a young writer addressing an issue which is especially relevant to his or her peers.

The author draws on an impressive variety of sources. These range from pop culture to Greek mythology, from the author's own observations of the world to an impressive (and somewhat eclectic) selection of contemporary writing. At the same time, the author is able to use these sources effectively, so that they contribute to the argument without overwhelming or dominating it. In this regard, it is an impressive piece of writing.

This prophetic warning about a very real danger in today's world truly merits First Prize in the 2013Margaret Dooley Award for Young Writers.

'Time for a break' image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Megan Graham, Margaret Dooley Award, Margaret Visser, Marshall McLuhan, Narcissus, Facebook



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Existing comments

Wonderful essay. One of my favourite Leunig cartoons is of a man with a backpack and a walking stick standing on top of the highest mountain in a mountain range staring at a sign which says "Have Your Say. Make A Comment."

Pam | 10 September 2013  

This essay mirrors my thoughts; so often I watched in wonder as young lycra-clad bodies stride purposefully through beautiful parks, "wired"into their electronic devices, staring zombie-like fixedly ahead, seemingly oblivious to the natural beauty around them.

Paddy Byers | 11 September 2013  

I applaud the judge's citation which names this article as "prophetic". A remarkably mature insight into the dangers to our humanity when we become captive to what is essentially a tool for our use. Is our captivity a form of idolatry?

Rod Horsfield | 11 September 2013  

People take a wide berth around me when I say I rarely use my mobile phone, disbelief all over their faces. It has been my personal stand against the vapid social media interactions most people - of all ages! - seem to live for. Your beautifully balanced and insightful exploration of the topic deserves a wide audience. Shame it won't fit on Twitter... Congratulations!

Karen Wilmott | 11 September 2013  

A timely reminder. Thank you

Bmpermie | 12 September 2013  

A truly brilliant essay. Congratulations! As a high school teacher I witness daily the ramifications of over exposure to technology. Diminished attention spans, shallow imaginations and a frightening inability to empathise are but a few of the symptoms which, sadly, seem to be spiralling out of control. It's true - the modern world coaxes us to turn our backs on contemplation - and, we are poorer for it. I often wonder, what will be the ultimate consequence of our addiction to screens? Megan, you construct a compelling argument as to why it is imperative we all slow down.

Jonathan Hill | 16 October 2013