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Old habits in a new bottle: Is the digital age really changing us?

One hears constantly about how digital media is transforming us. How our attention span and even retention is shrinking. How we now use certain parts of our brain far more than other parts that will eventually dwindle away!

Well, I have always had an attention span issue. As a child, I wouldn’t be able to study the same topic for more than say 15 minutes. During my Boards in Class X and XII, I remember resorting to pacing and reading aloud to myself in the wee hours of the night to stay focused. It was never the subject matter, but the ability to sustain focus that was the big challenge.

Which is not to say that I am fickle or uninterested. I wander away and then return to things I consider important. The process of gleaning knowledge is different and I segue into other topics much like you dip into someone else’s food while eating at a communal table, only to return to your own with even more relish!

There is still a problem. The more serious matter sort of sits around for a while before I come to it. In the good old pre-digital days, it was a print out or a bookmarked chapter that sat at the edge of my study table while other relatively frivolous content (magazines, pictures, letters, cards, easier chapters from easier subjects…you get the drift) would occupy centerstage. On my computer screen, Gmail, WordPress, Facebook and Twitter tabs sit there providing the endless tempting and often unimportant snacks while the article I mean to read occupies a corner tab patiently awaiting its turn.

Now all this makes me wonder if my habits have indeed changed with digital media? It’s just the same tendency playing out on the computer screen, right?

I am also thinking that there is a certain merit in cultivating and sharpening this ability to segue, absorb other seemingly trivial inputs and then returning to consume more serious content (which you must, and give it adequate time and attention too!). Perhaps this dipping and returning adds more dimensions to your understanding and allows you to have a more enriched perspective, which then feeds into your output. Perhaps instead of constantly berating the digital age and shouting out dire warnings, we may just need to adapt a bit?

Is adapting to new technology changing humans fundamentally? – Jan 12, 2012

This is the day I was waiting for and was wondering how far down my blogging project (Project 365) this would happen! Day 12 nearly spelt the end for my resolution, as my Internet connection refused to work. Was nearly giving up and feeling pretty miserable when, on the umpteenth reboot of the modem, it has started working feebly once again!

Our urban lives have become so dependent on technology, especially mobile phones, computers and the Internet, that it is impossible to imagine what life was before! I am pretty tech-dumb and have taken long to adapt to each new technology change. Today, when I am able to figure out a cellphone menu, its only because these devices have become inseparable from us and literally rule our lives.

So does technology only mean that we do things faster and more easily, or does it signify a deeper shift in the way we think, learn, experience and communicate? Up until recently, I had the more conservative, former view. But as I watch my children effortlessly navigate an ipad, I am changing my views on this.

Not so long ago, I read an interview with a gaming technology expert who talked about how gaming, if used correctly, can help in skill development, education, enhancing reflexes, etc. Then, I went blah! Today, I think there might be something to it.

Sam Pitroda, at a curtain raiser to the India Urban Conference organized by Janaagraha, Yale University and IIHS in November 2011, spoke about our inability to adapt to the mind blowing changing that are taking place in technology. Life no longer has to be the way we have practiced it for so long, but since human nature is to resist change, we continue to live life in the same vein. He gave the example of how much energy was wasted traveling to face-to-face business meetings and how much more efficient it would be to do these by teleconference. In the past few years, I have been on the editorial team of an international publication and have used Skype innumerable times to conduct meetings and interviews. Since I have crossed the invisible line of acceptance in this specific context, I didn’t find his suggestion strange. Many in the room sniggered, though!

My concern is with battling with the mental acceptance of technology change as an inevitable reality that we constantly need to adapt to. Is it crazy to lead your entire social life on social networking sites? We all thought so a few years ago, but many of us are actually able to have meaningful conversations with dear long-lost friends and family only because we DO live our lives on FB!

As a parent, its doubly confusing. I have total screen-time limits for my kids per day, which means computer+ipad+TV+cellphone. Right now, its an hour for holidays and half an hour for weekdays and these are increasing as they grow older. Is this too conventional, based on the thinking that staring at a screen is bad for your eyes, that watching mind numbing programming is killing your brain cells? Already, interactive software on ipads and computers (and even TV!) have blurred the lines terribly!

Technology will continue to blur the lines, challenge our business-as-usual attitude, create excitement and shape our behavior. Will it also impact deeper things like our value systems, the depth of our relationships, the tenor of our emotions?


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