Experiencing “life instead of information” (part 1)


Do you find that, in our lives on the virtual frontier, we regularly need to press the pause button? If we don’t stop and reflect, I wonder, will that doomsday scenario of the many sci-fi adventures we (I !) grew up reading, eventually come to pass? You remember those stories of computers taking over the world?

There’s a certain inevitability in life: “if you don’t set the priorities, they’ll be set for you, and they won’t be good ones”. This ‘law’ seems to apply not only to, for example, parenting and personal goals, but also to our technology. Either we learn to master it, or it will master us. And I, for one, refuse to give up the option of pressing that pause button…

This reminds me of an astonishingly prophetic Newsweek article written by David Brooks over fifteen years ago. Way back in 2001 to be precise. It was called ‘Time to Do Everything Except Think’. We were then living in the Netherlands, and for about a year, I used this article while giving English lessons to Dutch business folk, (admittedly, the more advanced students), as a comprehension exercise and discussion starter. I saw it not only as a brilliant, imaginative piece of writing, but also as a great ‘conversation provoker’. It presented such a weird view of the future; that we’d be our own worst enemies in not even allowing ourselves enough time to think. Then I misplaced the article and completely forgot about it. About five or six years later it turned up while I was going through old lesson material. And that’s when the astonishment hit. What Mr Brooks had written about was not some kind of paranoid, science-fiction joke. Far from it. Far, far from it. It was prophetic, it was true, it was already happening. In fact, if anything, he had underestimated the scope of the thing: it wasn’t to be just the business people entrapped by their devices. It would be… everyone.

Anyway, before I give everything away, have a read for yourselves… And tell me that this isn’t a warning – dressed in delightful humor, by the way; a warning that only grows more relevant by the day:

(Not the complete article.)
“Time to Do Everything Except Think; 
Multitasking, checking your e-mail, operating at peak RPMs: you’ve become addicted to wireless life – and it has a cost. By David Brooks (NEWSWEEK, 30 April 2001)

Somewhere up in the canopy of society, way above where normal folks live, there will soon be people who live in a state of perfect wirelessness. They’ll have mobile phones that download the Internet, check scores and trade stocks. They’ll have Palm handhelds that play music, transfer photos and get Global Positioning System readouts. They’ll have laptops on which they watch movies, listen to baseball games and check inventory back at the plant. In other words, every gadget they own will perform all the functions of all the other gadgets they own, and they will be able to do it all anywhere, any time….

Never being out of touch means never being able to get away. But Wireless Man’s problem will be worse than that. His brain will have adapted to the tempo of wireless life. Every 15 seconds there is some new thing to respond to. Soon he has this little rhythm machine in his brain. He does everything fast. He answers e-mails fast and sloppily. He’s bought the fastest machines, and now the idea of waiting for something to download is a personal insult. His brain is operating at peak RPMs.

(While on holiday:…) He sits amid nature’s grandeur and says, “It’s beautiful. But it’s not moving. I wonder if I got any new voice mails.” He’s addicted to the perpetual flux of the information networks. He craves his next data fix. He’s a speed freak, an info junkie. He wants to slow down, but can’t.

Today’s business people live in an overcommunicated world. There are too many Web sites, too many reports, too many bits of information bidding for their attention. The successful ones are forced to become deft machete wielders in this jungle of communication. They ruthlessly cut away at all the extraneous data that are encroaching upon them. They speed through their tasks so they can cover as much ground as possible, answering dozens of e-mails at a sitting and scrolling past dozens more. After all, the main scarcity in their life is not money; it’s time. They guard every precious second, the way a desert wanderer guards his water.

The problem with all this speed, and the frantic energy that is spent using time efficiently, is that it undermines creativity. After all, creativity is usually something that happens while you’re doing something else: when you’re in the shower your brain has time to noodle about and create odd connections that lead to new ideas. But if your brain is always multitasking, or responding to techno-prompts, there is no time or energy for undirected mental play. Furthermore, if you are consumed by the same information loop circulating around everyone else, you don’t have anything to stimulate you into thinking differently. You don’t have time to read the history book or the science book that may actually prompt you to see your own business in a new light. You don’t have access to unexpected knowledge. You’re just swept along in the same narrow current as everyone else, which is swift but not deep.

So here’s how I’m going to get rich. I’m going to design a placebo machine. It’ll be a little gadget with voice recognition and everything. Wireless People will be able to log on and it will tell them they have no messages. After a while, they’ll get used to having no messages. They’ll be able to experience life instead of information. They’ll be able to reflect instead of react. My machine won’t even require batteries.”

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