Contributed by Ronald Baecker, who is an Emeritus Professor of Computer Science at the University of Toronto, author of Computers and Society: Modern Perspectives, co-author of thecovidguide.com, and author of the forthcoming Digital Dreams Have Become Nightmares: What We Must Do.
Approximately two months ago, I had brunch with a friend and colleague — Fred, not his real name — who I had known for over 40 years. I had not seen him in six months. Over the space of an hour, he received at least six calls on his cell phone from family members. Based on what I could hear of his responses, no interruption dealt with an urgent matter.
Several times a year, I have dinner with dear friends of over 30 years, a vigorous professional couple in their 70s with accomplishments in the arts, the sciences, and public service. Ann — also not her real name — is constantly using her phone to google for facts that will contribute to the conversation. Her fact-checking is typically interesting, but is there a cost?
When Fred is constantly being interrupted, when Ann is deep into the web while participating in a dinnertime conversation, what are the effects on the art of conversation? Over my adult lifespan, several friends have said to me … “Don’t be always in your head. Stay in the here and now. Be present.” Are Fred and Ann present? When I walk down the street, or ride on city transit, and see most people deep into their devices, are they present?
I am not a luddite, but I refuse to do email on my phone. My phone is for emergency calls, for coordinating meetings outside of a home or office, and for navigation, especially when I am lost. Occasionally, when I wrapped up in the Toronto Blue Jays or Raptors, it is for getting the score of a game. But it is not for time-consuming and absorbing research or conversation.
I consciously absent myself from the state of constant connection. What am I doing when I am not absorbed in my technology? I look around in the world. I see sights that may be interesting or mundane. I observe people who may seem beautiful or homely, interesting or boring, conventional or bizarre. I am present in the world, and sometimes even engage directly with people in the world. Or, if not, I am deep in my own thoughts, in a rich conversation with myself. I am in my personal space and not in cyberspace. I am grateful that this is still possible.
What do you typically do when you immerse yourself in your own personal space?
Note that I am not speaking of the kinds of absorption in one’s technology that is now routine but is pathological and dangerous — texting while driving, playing a mobile game while biking, or arguing with one’s spouse over the phone while crossing a street. A discussion of such threats to personal and societal safety appears in Computers and Society: Modern Perspectives, Section 8.4, Attention and Distraction. There are also recently published thoughtful accounts of our increasing addiction to technologies such as smart phones, Facebook, and Google.
FOR THINKING AND DISCUSSION
What limits might you place on your own use of technology to allow yourself personal space to be absent from the connected world, and to immerse yourself in tranquil contemplation, introspection, meditation, or observation?