The Common Good
August 2011

Are You Paying Attention?

by Brittany Shoot | August 2011

How do we find ourselves and God in the midst of media overload?

Advertising and social media often imply that we are each the center of the universe. In her most recent documentary, award-winning Norwegian filmmaker Tonje Hessen Schei reminds us that going outdoors is the simplest way to gain perspective on what tiny pieces of the universal puzzle we really are.

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In Play Again (Ground Productions), Hessen Schei pulls six teenagers away from their gaming consoles and smart phones to document a weeklong wilderness adventure. Many of the skeptical teens spend five to 15 hours in front of a screen each day and have never spent extended time in nature before. One girl, Paige, has a hard time leaving her computer because, she says, "MySpace is like my other family." But freed from online gaming and Internet-based relationships, some of the youth delight in their newfound freedom outdoors. They learn to build fires, construct bows and arrows, and make up campfire songs. A few enjoy their connectivity reprieve so much that upon returning to their everyday lives, they engage in voluntary media fasts, spending more than a week away from TV, video games, and the Internet. Aleks compares nature to a first-person shooter video game, noting without irony, "When you're outside, it’s so much more realistic."

The teens in Play Again are more than a cautionary tale about losing touch with the natural world. Their stories also represent a growing interest in combating media overload. While many of us regularly battle communication and information avalanches -- flooded inboxes, compulsory social media status updates, an unceasing 24-hour news cycle -- fewer may consider how so much knowledge and connectivity at our literal fingertips is affecting our relationships and shaping our world.

In her newest book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (Basic Books), sociologist and renowned MIT professor of technology and culture Sherry Turkle addresses similar concerns. She asks whether we can engage in enhanced self-awareness, perception, consciousness, and original thinking when we're so constantly wired to -- and yet disconnected from -- one another. To answer her own questions, she interviews teens who feel phantom cell phone vibrations during class, despite leaving their smart phones in their lockers. The same young people lament that they compete for their parents’ attention alongside machines and devices, with the adults in their lives absorbed in texting and email, even during traditionally family-centric times such as dinner. Turkle profiles elderly men and women who are desperately lonely without human connection and turn to robot pets or their computer monitors rather than seek out human or animal companionship. She looks at adultery online and questions why intimacy is easier without physical bodies.

While she paints an arguably bleak picture of connectivity and closeness, she also forces important philosophical questions: What is intimacy without privacy? If you don't learn how to be alone, won't you always be lonely? Why, as the book title asks, do we expect less from our loved ones? How and to what extent is technology altering our interpersonal bonds?

In a way, Turkle also poses another question in Alone Together: Is technology exacerbating our weaknesses? Are the tradeoffs truly worth it? Many people might agree that reconnecting with a long-lost friend on Facebook is a benefit of our ability to network across time and place. Fewer might consider the insidiousness of revisiting high school-era jealousy when the popular kids won't "friend" you as an adult. Spiritual communities flourish online, but so do hate groups. Infidelity can be facilitated by the secrecy of online lives, though in fairness, partners seeking an adulterous outlet have never had much trouble finding one. Even Internet addiction remains a disputed subject, despite evidence that many teens and adults are hooked on connectivity. In other words, we're always available but forever distracted. If we can't be alone for even a few minutes, how can we make mindful, respectful time for our relationship with God?

Much as it's easy (and sometimes fun) to do, arguing about the tradeoffs of technology and modernity accomplishes little in the end. There may not be a way to effectively sidestep or wholly opt out of communication and media that are quickly becoming the pervasive norm, but there are ways to detox from media overload. Not unlike food fasts and religious retreats from the comforts of everyday life, Dr. Thomas Cooper has led media fasting seminars since his own first abstention from mass media in 1989. A student of many faiths and religions and a professor and scholar of ethics, mass media, and culture at Emerson College (and, full disclosure, once my own graduate thesis adviser), Cooper was inspired by friends who happily lived off the grid for years at a time, completely without access to media.

In his new book, Fast Media, Media Fast: How to Clear Your Mind and Invigorate Your Life In an Age of Media Overload (AuthorHouse), he pays homage to these friends as he outlines practical degrees of fasting. His varied methods can enable people from all walks of life and belief systems to take a temporary and arguably much-needed break from the strain of modern communication. For example, what Cooper dubs "blackouts" are attempts to remove all media from your life. Another type of fast, a practical fast, includes the option to still check work-related email. He also proposes diets on specific addictive media, such as leaving Facebook for a week if you compulsively check friends' walls, or blocking access to Wikipedia if you're unable to get through a day without fact-checking yourself in conversation by looking up a bit of history or pop culture trivia. As with fasting from food, he also recommends re-entering your wired life slowly. Consuming media in small quantities again as you readjust from your time away can ease your re-entry shock.

It's easy to romanticize the notion of unplugging from the grid, but Cooper points to the ways in which it is also a tool for reflective, spiritual mindfulness. In his research, he lived with a number of people who never use or consume media. He hunkered down with the Old Order Amish. He spent time with the Kogi people in Colombia and the Rapa Nui on Easter Island, people wholly engaged in their communities and with complex belief systems that honor a higher power. In reflecting on the potential of quiet reflectivity, of the possibilities available to those living without modern communication tools, Cooper reminds us that many of the wisest thinkers in history, including Jesus and Moses, "largely derived their inspiration from other than mass communication."

In their own ways, Hessen Schei's thoughtful documentary, Turkle's accessible academic polemic, and Cooper's humble handbook beg the question: Are we living deliberate, examined lives? Or do we force those around us to compete with the roar of the Internet and a near-constant onslaught of information? If you can't make yourself wholly available to yourself or your loved ones, how can you shut out the world to be fully present in your relationship with God?

Turkle writes about a friend in her 70s "who has meditated on a biblical reading every morning since she was in her teens. She confessed that it is ever more difficult to begin her spiritual exercises before she checks her email; the discipline to defer opening her inbox is now part of her devotional gesture." It's worth considering how this dilemma shapes a younger generation of believers and how we can intentionally push back against losing our collective ability to be mindful and still.

Brittany Shoot, a writer currently based in Copenhagen, received her master’s in visual and media arts from Emerson College.

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