This week we look at the relationship between stress, technology and the modern worldview's apparent disconnection from reality. We have one new speaker, William Powers, author of Hamlet's Blackberry, and Heather Menzies speaks for a second time after her first appearance three years ago when we first looked explicitly at this area in episode 514.
Thanks to Active Ingredients for the William Powers talk.
Three years on, we return to the broad area of "information overload". Our first speaker, William Powers begins by describing how he got started on his book, "Hamlet’s BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age". The book provides a useful historical perspective by citing a range of historical figures who were able to give some personal insight into the effect of new information technologies on their users. For example, the Roman philosopher Seneca, whose quote gives us this week's title.
"The merchant goes home after a day of hard work and excitement to a late dinner, trying amid the family circle to forget business, when he is interrupted by a telegram from London directing perhaps the purchase in San Francisco of 20,000 barrels of flour and the poor man must dispatch his dinner as hurriedly as possible in order to send of his message to California. The businessman at the present day must be continually on the jump." — W.E. Dodge, ~1850
Powers seeks neither to suggest that modern technology is an unalloyed benefit nor to minimize the benefits of universal connectedness. Rather, while carefully avoiding blanket prescriptions, he describes how much he has benefited from a conscious effort to limit his connectedness and he suggests that we are best able to appreciate the benefits of modern technology when we retain a detachment from modern technology. Citing Thoreau, he recommends that we nurture our inner lives and make it a priority to spend time instead with the people we love.
Heather Menzies speaks about stress and why people seem so busy. She characterizes modern North American culture as an "attention deficit culture". Nearly 50% of Canadians, she says, are overwhelmed by stress, either "often" or "most of the time", i.e. they suffer symptoms such as insomnia, memory problems or depression. What makes people overwork chronically? Menzies suggests a dark side of the 'efficiency' of the new economy, especially of information technology systems:- their relentlessly functional nature accompanies the ever increasing speed which is expected of their users, having a disengaging effect, leaving technology users in what she refers to as an "anaesthatized" state - i.e. they are insensitive, somewhat like sleep-walkers, going through the motions but unable to make sense of their world. Institutions, too, are vulnerable just as the people who make them up - so that administrators end up relying on statistical performance indicators and other quantitative data which they falsely believe to be sufficient to analyze the institution's real world performance.
Looking at the effect of such disengagement on children, Menzies echoes the ideas of Gabor Maté - that chronically stressed parents inevitably pass on problems to their children, such as ADHD or an inability to empathize and socially connect with others. She notes that such unfulfilled people while suffering as individuals nevertheless are an overall boost the economy, through pathological behaviors such as compulsive shopping, gambling or workaholism. Does this explain some of how money appears to be able to motivate insane activity, whether it is felling rainforest, building ghost malls in China or radiologically polluting the planet on which we live?