Life after Death Online

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Grave Digger

 

By David Ryan Polgar

Facebook notifications are useful for providing birthday reminders. I can’t say that I’ve ever bought a “virtual gift” to send a friend, but I do appreciate the nudge to send someone a birthday wish. Glancing at the end of the month, I see that my friend Michael will be turning another year old soon. Only problem: Michael is dead.

Do I wish him a happy birthday?

Social media in 2014 includes socializing with the dearly departed. Unfortunately, it is often difficult to separate the living from the dead. In the offline world it is obvious: the living are walking while the departed are confined to coffins or urns. The online world, on the other hand, is more ambiguous: there is nothing to clearly establish that one’s online avatar belongs to a living, breathing person by the same name. They may be dead, the profile may be run by a representative, or, arriving soon, their avatar may be producing original content based on a computerized personality that has been created to mimic the living person.

Welcome to the future of dying. Your soul may get to go to Heaven and the Internet.

As our world is becoming increasingly digitalized, we are erasing the normal boundaries that separated the living from the dead. Throughout the course of history we have been on a quest for immortality, and now we may have made it feasible in certain respects. In the online world you never need to go away. In fact, your post-death avatar can continue to act in ways that suggest that you are still physically living. In the case of Michael’s birthday reminder, it is mentally jarring because I associate Facebook profile photos and birthday reminders to those that are living. I’m being hit with a certain analog versus digital world dissonance.

Two major questions that couples typically discuss regarding their end of life are: Burial or cremation? Also, at what point should you not resuscitate a loved one? Now there is a new question: what happens to their online existence once they are physically dead? Who, if anyone, is going to keep up their Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram account? We tend to laugh the first time we’re posed with this question.

This is not a sci-fi scenario or a joke. This is now. This is a question we are going to have to deal with. Do you want a post-death online presence? If so, in what fashion? Should you have a memorial site on Facebook?

Services are popping up to satisfy a desire to have a post-death social media presence. One that has received a good deal of attention is LivesOn, a system for staying on Twitter after you have passed. Run by an administrator of your choosing, you would create a style now that is utilized to send out 140 character missives after you are long gone. Their slogan is: “When your heart stops beating, you’ll keep tweeting.”

Death, it seems, in no excuse to let your Klout score decrease.

Consider what a major dilemma this is presenting. In a pre-online world, it was safe to assume that if you saw me moving my lips and making words then the words coming out of my mouth we from me. Now that we have moved to an increasingly online world where our bodies are less verifiable, it is less guaranteed that the words connected to my corresponding picture are authentically mine.

What can be mentally confusing about this scenario is that it blurs the line between the start of life and the end of life. It is what noted media theorist Douglas Rushkoff calls the narrative collapse. We are moving away from the strict confines of a clear start and a clear ending (a narrative book versus a video game) and have reached a point of fluidity that alters space and time, the living and the dead.

Let’s imagine that I am diagnosed today with terminal cancer. Do I want to communicate to loved ones after I die? Should I setup a reminder to wish my wife Happy Anniversary every year?

This type of post-death communication comes up in Susan Schoenberger’s novel, A Watershed Year. One of the major plot points of the novel has a potential love interest character (Harlan) die early on from cancer. Unbeknownst to the main character, Lucy, Harlan has set up his email account to send out timed messages to Lucy that start arriving well after he has left the earth. Part of the story is how Lucy incorporates Harlan’s advice into her life, along with the struggle to understand a man who becomes more transparent after he is dead.

Schoenberger came up with the idea back in 2004; well before the concept of post-death emails were a actual option. When I talked to her about the reaction to Harlan’s emails, she stated that most of her readers find the concept romantic.  There is always a fine line between a romantic gesture and crossing the line towards “creepiness,” so it will be interesting to see how society responds to our evolving technology with post-death communication.

In 2014, it is becoming more common to establish timed emails to send out after we pass. The question then becomes, should we?  I asked Schoenberger if she would use a similar technology. “If I knew I was dying and had some time to plan for it, I might write letters to my children or record a message for their future children.”

It’s a natural impulse. New technology is allowing us to add a great deal of texture to creating an enduring legacy. Despite the shifting of time, planned post-death emails offer authentic words from a living individual who is now dead. It’s a more precise message in a bottle that washes ashore on command.

I haven’t heard from my father since January 2013, when he died of pancreatic cancer. No message in a bottle. There are many days that I wish—expect, perhaps—an email from him. Reminders to pick up firewood, plant my tomatoes, or pick his blueberries. For a man noted for his gallows humor, post-death communication would seem to open up a world of comedic possibilities.  Alas, nothing.

But what if I could chat with him right now? Would I?

new endeavor out of MIT will be allowing just that. By using Artificial Intelligence (AI), an avatar is created that is based on the life experiences and writing patterns of the deceased. Their websites asks, “what if you could be remembered forever?”

This is a complicated question we are going to be wrestling with soon. Expanding AI is opening a door into complicated philosophical questions. If I receive an email tomorrow from my father that was written before he died, I can clearly associate it with my once living father. If I chat with an avatar of my AI father, is it really him? If I treat the avatar as my father, is it bothersome that humans can be reduced to an algorithm?

I have a deep sense that we are so much more than an algorithm. Now where do we draw the line?

 

Sherlock Holmes and the Modern Mind

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[Maria Konnikova. Photo credit: Margaret Singer and Max Freeman.]

By David Ryan Polgar

Sometimes I get lost in my own town.

Given the fact that I see the same roads and buildings time and time again, I usually allow my brain to slip into autopilot mode. This isn’t something I’m proud of. It isn’t that I have knowingly decided to not pay attention, but that I have not made the conscious attempt topay attention.

It’s everything that mindfulness is not. If mindfulness is the state of being aware, my brain sometimes toggles to the other end of the mental spectrum—mindlessness.

“It is very easy to slip into mindlessness,” says Maria Konnikova. “Zoning out is the default, paying attention is more difficult.”

Konnikova is the New York Times bestselling author ofMastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes (Viking/Penguin, 2013). She is also a noted science writer contributing influential pieces to The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and Scientific American. Konnikova has a tremendous gift to boil down the latest findings in the fields of neuroscience and psychology into practical advice, insightful commentary, and enjoyable reading. Mastermind has broad appeal because at its essence it is a book that explores ways to become a better thinker, utilizing Sherlock Holmes as the mythological ideal.

Sherlock Holmes represents the ultimate active observer, utilizing heightened senses to deduce any tangled web into a line of logical analysis. His famous sidekick, Watson, is a stand-in for our intuitive mind that is far less aware of our surroundings and mental processes. Holmes is engaged, and Watson is disengaged.

Konnikova’s goal is not to rid us of entering a Watson state, but instead to appreciate how our brain works and hence know when to think like Sherlock Holmes. As Konnikova points out inMastermind, “We don’t notice everything because noticing everything—each sound, each smell, each sight, each touch—would make us crazy.” In other words, sometimes we need extreme focus and other times it’s not necessary.

The mind can often seem mysterious, but Konnikova does an excellent job shedding light on the brain’s biases. By understanding the intricacies of our cognitive function we can become the master of our mind.

One way to better understand our brain, as Konnikova discusses in Mastermind, is to think of it as an attic. Holmes was mindful of the “furniture” he put in his attic, and aware that all information was taking up valuable space. Certain tidbits were worth remembering, while others were purposefully discarded or ignored.

Unfortunately, our brain attic is closer to an episode of Hordersinstead of an issue of Architectural Digest.

In an age when many of us feel overwhelmed by a never-ending stream of information, emails, texts, tweets, pictures, and Facebook updates, Sherlock Holmes stands out as someone who is able to be calm and reflective. “People are becoming exhausted,” says Konnikova. “Sherlock Holmes presents a moment in quiet.”

Picture Sherlock Holmes in your mind: you see a relaxed man sitting in a comfortable well-worn leather chair smoking a pipe.

Picture your average 21st century thinker: you see a spastic individual tapping away on a Word document while checking their Facebook page, switching over to Gmail to send a few messages, and then glancing over at their vibrating phone.

Powerful thinking derives from a quiet mind, according to Konnikova, and our tendency to multitask is hindering our ability to find mental calm. Multitasking is one of Konnikova’s two crusades (the other is our lack of sleep). “Multitasking makes us less engaged,” says Konnikova. Quality thinking, on the other hand, relies on engagement and curiosity.

Many of us struggle with maintaining focus for prolonged periods of time. Besides the countless distractions aiming for our attention, there are ample opportunities to fill any moment that may have formerly been used for active thinking. Technology may not have eradicated poverty or war, but it certainly has eliminated any room for boredom.

While Konnikova values her time without technology, she does not in any shape or form blame technology for its tendency to tap into our default state. “Focus is always difficult, and always will be difficult,” she says. It is up to us to take control.

When Konnikova needs to get work done, she puts her smartphone in the other room. Nothing takes away from a quiet mind like a buzzing phone. 

Konnikova also utilizes a distraction-blocking software called Freedom. Freedom allows a user to block the Internet for a set period of time. By deleting the potential for distractions and time-sucks, the user is free to focus.

Perhaps in order to truly master our mind, we need to master our tech. It certainly helps with quieting our mind and bringing us closer to Holmes.

Maria Konnikova’s website

Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes

21st Century Touch with Marshall Davis Jones

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By David Ryan Polgar

 

“It would be amazing in a utopian world where technology freed up our time to do other things,” says spoken word poet Marshall Davis Jones. “Unfortunately,” continues Jones, “we were not ready for such a major shift in consciousness.” 

Jones intimately knows the benefits and pitfalls of our always-on culture and both the allure and trappings of “being connected.” As a performer with a rapidly growing international profile, he has a strong incentive to spend hours harvesting likes, views, and retweets. But as an artist he has a strong desire to look deeper–a desire to examine how technology is altering how we interact with the world and each other. As he asked at a recent WIRED 2013 Conference (UK) when examining evolving friendships in a social media landscape, “What does it all mean?”

Jones is the creator of the popular and highly influential spoken poem “Touchscreen,” a work that evokes the delicate balance between our expanding impersonal digital connections with our innate desire for authentic human interaction. In a world filled with touchscreens, we still long for the intimacy of human touch. The piece evolved from his frustrations with trying to keep up with an expanding digital world that, instead of freeing up our time, requires countless hours of updates.

“As an artist exposure is important so I had a profile on every social network fighting for supremacy. One day I was completely overwhelmed with how scattered I felt. How lost and futile my efforts were. Thus, I began where it started…that frustration.” Part of Touchscreen goes as such:

my world is so digital

that I have forgotten what that feels like

it used to be hard to connect when friends formed cliques

but it’s even more difficult to connect now that clicks form friends

But who am I to judge?

I face Facebook

more than books face me

hoping to

book face-to-faces

I update my status

420 spaces

to prove that I am still breathing

failure to do this daily

means my whole web wide world will forget that I exist 

Touchscreen isn’t a manifesto—it’s about our internal conflict. It strikes a nerve with our nuanced feelings towards technology creeping into every facet of our life. We don’t want a world without the Internet or social networks, but we are starting to debate how we want them in our lives. We can love our technology without being a tech fundamentalist.   

The poem also explores our existential identity. We are increasingly spending our time curating our online avatars—what effect is this having on the individual behind the persona? You may be noticing a growing trend for online profiles to list a variation of the line, “I am human.” That unusual statement seems to be a reaction towards a world that can seem too artificial for our comfort level. Our digital world makes the verification of authenticity difficult (see Catfishing), so we respond by offering an assurance of legitimacy. It is a modern spin on the classic philosophical pondering: if a tree falls in the woods and nobody hears it, did it make a sound?   

Touchscreen was written in 2010, but recently it has taken on a life of its own. Lately it has been embraced by the tech community as a conversation starter and jumping point to explore technology’s role in our lives. Whereas the question used to be, “What CAN technology do for us?,” it has started to evolve towards, “What SHOULD technology do for us?” 

“At the time it was written we were all still glamorized with social networking and mobile devices,” says Jones. “When it did strike, the conversation was beyond my piece. It was a discussion that the mainstream began to have. I believe the poem was the nerve struck. The ouch resulting from our new environment and the scream for help. In short, it was an idea whose time had come. Only time will tell what will become of it.” 

Jones foremost considers himself a “world-bridger,” an artist able to be provoke meaningful conversations across a broad range of backgrounds. Touchscreen is a rare work that can influence both the consumer and the creator. “The real surprise was when I was asked to perform this piece at a tech conference sponsored by will.i.am and Intel. Not only were the people listening but the minds and hands behind our technology were listening too.” 

Similar to the statement “I am human,” it is crucial to note that everything that is artificial is created by someone that is human. The conversation we have today is influencing what we create and allow as a society tomorrow. As Jones puts it, “Everything we create is a manifestation of our consciousness.” 

The conversation that Touchscreen brings to the forefront is that every piece of technology provides a tradeoff. We have spent the last few years heralding the wonders of our wizardry, whereas now we are beginning to step back and examine the effects. “Technology has advanced us and has always been at the helm of our growth as a species,” says Jones. “Perhaps though, what concerns me is obsolescence. The obsolescence of our intimacy. The obsolescence of physicality and contact. When we all communicate on screens and those screens outweigh our off screen time we could be compromising a very important part of ourselves…emotional intelligence.”

At the end of the day, Jones is an entrepreneurial artist who embraces the many benefits of smartphones and instant connections while also being mindful of how he is around others. He can create all of his work on his smartphone, but also realize it’s time and place. “When I’m working on a project, I’m in constant contact. But when I am with my daughter, I am with her. When I am with my friends, I am with them. The mobile device has to sit somewhere far away. Or else, psychology kicks in and kicks my ass.”  

Marshall Davis Jones, above all, is human.

Taking Back Control of Our Tech

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[Daniel Sieberg / credit: Rafael Jimenez]

An interview with Google spokesperson and TV personality Daniel Sieberg

By David Ryan Polgar

Arthur C. Clarke, famed writer of2001: A Space Odyssey, once said that “[a]ny sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This was one of Clarke’s Three Laws, deriving from his 1962 essay “Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination.” Given the extraordinary technology that now fits in our palm or pocket, it is no wonder that we have broadly adopted major advances in technology without always considering some inherent tradeoffs. Who isn’t dazzled by a little magic? 

The magical honeymoon may be over. 

“When smartphones became popular there was a lot of gee-wiz,” says Google spokesperson and TV personality Daniel Sieberg. “People are now thinking a little clearer about their tech.” Sieberg is the author of The Digital Diet: The 4-step plan to break your tech addiction and regain balance in your life. The main thrust of Sieberg’s book is that the user needs to regain a semblance of control in their tech consumption. A person should be enjoying the wonders of technology as opposed to feeling enslaved or hollowed by it. Sieberg lays out some initial questions to determine where you are on the spectrum: 

·         Do you find that your family can be in the same room but not talking to one another because you’re each interacting with a different device?

·         Do you sometimes feel the urge to pull out your smartphone when someone else is making a point in conversation?

·         Have you ever felt that something hasn’t really happened until you post it on Facebook or tweet about it?

·         Do you feel anxious if you’re offline for any length of time? 

As an employee of Google who oversees media outreach efforts, Sieberg is obviously a tech guy. He was also the host of the ABC News program Tech This Out!, which reviewed all the latest gadgetry. This creates a certain level of mental dissonance for people who expect their tech use advice to give given by those far outside the industry. As we have seen with the advocacy of tech balance by Randi Zuckerberg, an early Facebook employee and sister of Mark, those within the ecosystem of Silicon Valley are increasingly becoming the champions of finding a new way. Sieberg cites a sea change in how the industry is thinking.    

“I like Randi’s approach a lot [both aimed at kids and adults] and I think it’s an increasing sentiment within the tech community. It’s no longer a contradiction to be in the tech space and want to have that sense of moderation. I point to the Wisdom 2.0 conferences as a key piece of evidence. For me, it’s always about loving my technology– just not unconditionally.” 

The Wisdom 2.0 Conference was founded by Soren Gordhamer, an author whose 2009 book (Wisdom 2.0: Ancient Teachings for the Creative and Constantly Connected) sought to interweave mindfulness techniques into our hyperconnected world. Leaders from tech companies like Google, Twitter, and Facebook, and Apple explore the conference’s mission to “not only live connected to one another through technology, but to do so in ways that are beneficial to our own well-being, effective in our work, and useful to the world.” The genius of the title Wisdom 2.0 is that it is reminiscent of Web 2.0, and it implies that there is a fundamental shift in how we are viewing our tech consumption.     

Sieberg notes that more and more businesses are recognizing the importance of having mentally fresh employees. He emphasizes that the future is not necessarily about working more or always being on, but working smarter. “Being connected all the time will only create a workforce of exhausted and stressed workers. At Google, we also get perks like massages and time to play games, etc. I think tech companies recognized early on that 24/7 just doesn’t work for everyone, even if the company is in the digital space. Now how employees actually take advantage of that is another story. The onus is still on us.” 

At Google, though, it does seem like many employees are taking advantage of this new approach. One of the most popular programs internally is a free seven-week class called “Search Inside Yourself.” The focus of the class is on building increased emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is something that can easily go by the wayside in today’s increasingly online world with potentially decreased levels of authentic connection. 

Sieberg’s watershed moment was when he realized that although he was surrounded by photos, friends, and comments online, he was increasingly becoming less attached to the most important people in his life. “Remember that we all share our best moments online. I fell victim to that. I ended up liking that person better.” 

Unbeknownst to Sieberg, his sister had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. It was a wake-up call that social media has its limitations. Mostly, there is certain private information that is not appropriate to share online and is only discovered through direct conversation. “It’s a reminder that we don’t need to live our lives solely through social media.” 

Sieberg had to resort to the decidedly low-tech option of picking up the phone and calling his sister. Since then he has altered his relationship with tech—making sure that he is using it instead of being used by it. It’s about trying to extract the benefits of connectivity while being cognizant of its ability to take us away from the moment. Most of all, like any food diet, it is an evolving struggle to find a happy medium. “It’s not easy but I’m managing much better now than I ever did. Part of it is because I want to ensure I’m present as a father and husband.” 

Part of the allure of living a life fully online is that it is ever-changing, vibrant, entertaining, fully controllable, and offers a constant form of validation. The trap is that one can get caught in a never-ending loop of brand curating and life comparing. Or, as Sieberg now notices in hindsight, “I was terrific at broadcasting but terrible at communication.” 

I imagine you know a lot of people who are wonderful broadcasters online but terrible at authentic communication and friendship in real life. Perhaps you’re falling into the trap. If so, it’s time to take back control.

How to Think Like Malcolm Gladwell

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By David Ryan Polgar

Malcolm Gladwell is one of the most prominent thinkers in the world. Weaving together novel research in the social sciences with interesting stories, Gladwell has delivered four highly-influential bestselling books–The Tipping PointBlinkOutliers, and What the Dog Saw. He has a gift for boiling down complex ideas into an entertaining narrative laced with insights and counter-intuitive surprises. This has led to countless accolades and millions of fans across the globe.

On Thursday, November 21st Malcolm Gladwell will be coming to Hartford as part of Connecticut Forum’s Big Thinkers event at the Bushnell Theater. The Connecticut Forum is a live, unscripted panel discussion that brings together a diverse range of noteworthy experts and celebrities for a lively and unpredictable discussion. Gladwell, who just released his latest book David and Goliath, will be joined by historian Douglas Brinkley and moderator Michel Martin (NPR’s Tell Me More).

So, what makes Malcolm Gladwell a big thinker? How does he reach a deeper level of thought in a world saturated with information and distraction that often keep others on the proverbial surface? I reached Gladwell by phone recently to discuss the issue and explore how we can be original thinkers.

“The most creative and innovative people have no fear of disapproval,” states Gladwell. “They are people who don’t need to be in agreement.” Gladwell affirms that he might have a certain level of disagreeableness that allows him to challenge the status quo of established understanding.

Most important, however, is the quantity and quality of time that one points towards considering an idea. When asked about how he approaches a topic, Gladwell asserts: “It takes a lot of time. You have to be very methodical in challenging your own conceptions.” Above all, “You can’t be in a hurry.”

The problem that many of us face today is not necessarily the quantity of time we have to put towards a certain task, put the quality of the time we are giving. High cognitive tasks require a deep level of thinking that comes about through extended periods of contemplation. This isn’t easy to do with the buzzing and beeping and multiple forms of entertainment at our fingertips via the Internet.

“We have never had as many potential distractions as we have today.” In discussing this issue, Gladwell puts the onus on the thinker to remove the all forms of distractions when you are trying to mindfully consider a topic or problem. “You have to be alone with your thoughts.”

Gladwell emphasizes the infancy of the Internet and how we are currently feeling our way through how it is used. He brings up the invention of the telephone and how it took many years to establish rules of normal behavior about how we relate to the product. “By comparison the Internet has only been around for a nanosecond.”

That doesn’t mean that Gladwell possesses a hidden secret or Jedi-like level of discipline. “I have been struggling with this as much as anyone else.” In discussing areas that may draw his time and attention, Gladwell points out that “Twitter is the great temptation.”

One practical solution that Gladwell uses in his own creative process is to schedule activities according to his peak levels of brain performance. Since he is most productive early in the day, he schedules all of his low-skill tasks for when he is mentally burned out. “I do all of my email at the end of the day.”

Certain tasks, like writing a book, require prolonged periods of being alone with your thoughts. I ask Gladwell what he does when he needs to write. “I go away for chunks of time.” Gladwell has taken an extended trip to write each one of his bestselling tomes. For his latest book, David and Goliath, Gladwell rented a house in Italy with his brother and his brother’s family.

Another key to Gladwell’s success has been flipping conventional wisdom on its head. In David and Goliath, he challenges our preconception that David was the underdog and Goliath the clear favorite. Instead, Gladwell uses the simple paradigm of the children’s game Rock, Paper, Scissors to illustrate the contextual nature of advantages and disadvantages. Does Rock have the advantage? It clearly beats Scissors but loses against Paper. So, does Paper have the advantage? Not against scissors. It all depends on the match up.

Given that conventional wisdom is often wrong, I ask Gladwell why we are so prone to accept it without reservation.  “The world is so complicated and there is so much to know.” He adds that modern day complexities have upped the ante with how much we need to know. “It is a demanding task to be intelligent about an issue, so we use shorthand.”

I point out that the Internet has theoretically made it incredibly easy to be highly knowledgeable about any given area. Gladwell tacks on the fact that the Internet has dramatically equalized our access to information. No longer is the quality of information relative to the stature of your university or size of your town.  “The Internet has removed the barriers to getting smarter.”

Therein lies the rub. Will the infinite access to information allow us to know more and become deeper thinkers, or will the vast amount of information overwhelm us and lead to shallower thinkers? Gladwell again emphasizes the newness of the Internet and how our relationship to it is constantly evolving. Right now, “We are working on how to use it.”

Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be iPads

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Should an infant be using an iPad?

The medical community firmly states no. The public, however, is increasing saying yes. Content producers are creating apps, games, and TV programming specifically targeting the 0-2 demographic. Something has got to give.

The American Academy of Pediatrics(AAP) has stated:

“Television and other entertainment media should be avoided for infants and children under age 2. A child’s brain develops rapidly during these first years, and young children learn best by interacting with people, not screens.” 

If the AAP was chiming a warning bell, it got lost with all the other pinging, ringing, and dinging that forms a cacophony of noise around us. A recent New York Times article, “New Milestone Emerges: Baby’s First iPhone App,” makes clear that there is a large disconnect between recommendations and reality. A new study by Common Sense Media points out that 38% of children in the 0-2 age group now use mobile devices such as iPads and iPhones.

Is an iPad for a toddler a toy or educational tool? The more parents consider it an educational tool, the more apt they are to allow their toddler screen time. Also, how active do we consider a toddler who is using an iPad? Parents are increasingly making a distinction between the passive-nature of television-watching versus the perceived interactive-nature of using a touch-screen.

The concern is that children under the age of two undergo a massive amount of brain development that may be adversely impacted by exposure to screens. Does giving an iPad adversely affect their social skills along with reducing their attention levels? That’s the million dollar question that’s being debated from scientific forums to parenting groups.

It is easy to fall into the “Hey, this is educational!” trap. It is visually impressive to see a toddler swipe a smartphone. We may imagine the diaper-clad multitasker as a mini Zuckerberg or Sandberg. However, it is long established that toddlers benefit most from human interactivity and solo play time where their brain can wander. The 0-2 set do not learn the same way adults learn.

Baby Einstein videos are a case in point. A lot of parents buy the DVDs with the hope that it is beneficial to their baby’s intellectual development. In 2009 Disney, the owner of the franchise, removed any mention of “educational” from their advertising and reached a settlement to offer earlier purchasers a refund. It is interesting to note that the actual Einstein was notorious for daydreaming by staring out windows for hours at a time. Would Einstein have become Einstein if he grew up with Baby Einstein?

Of course, many parents are happily giving their toddlers iPads. In a development that is both slightly amusing and slightly creepy, the use of iPads and iPhones by toddlers is starting to alter how that child views fixed mediums like a book.  There are multiple videos of frustrated little ones tapping and swiping at books. Is this a harmless sight gag or the dangerous hard-wiring of the next generation?

We assume that the most tech-savvy parents will want the most tech-savvy children, but that is not always the situation. Many of the parents out in Silicon Valley, the epicenter of tech, send their children to schools without a heavy emphasis on using technology in the classroom. Many of the people saturated in tech understand the time and place for tech.  

The point is that our focus should be on raising children with the greatest amount of social skills, motor skills, cognitive function, and attention levels. Baby tech wizardry may give us the illusion of raising geniuses, but it might just be that—an illusion.

Forget Your Phone

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Imagine two friends are sitting at a bar drinking a beer. Clanking their glasses together, they go about trading stories from their week. They laugh, argue politics, needle each other about their respective sports team, and occasionally have philosophical meanderings. It is a moment of joy and connection.

Now take those same two people and place the focus solely on the beer consumption. Instead of laughing, their attention has shifted primarily to drinking. Each frosty pint delivered by the bartender offers endless possibilities that slowly dissipate with each gulp. Despite their physical proximity of nearly touching, their engulfment in alcohol borders on loneliness. The scene is sad and desperate.

Alcohol, as most of us are aware, can often be a springboard to joy OR a pathway to misery. It is all about how you are using it (or, if it is using you). Smartphones deserve the same nuanced view. They can offer a tremendous source of personal connectivity that paradoxically leads to disconnection and alienation if, like the example above, they are abused.

There is a wonderful video that is making the rounds on the Internet called “I Forgot My Phone” that illustrates this point quite succinctly. The main character, without her phone, walks through a world with people obsessed with texting their whereabouts, recording special moments instead of feeling them, taking pictures of champagne flutes instead of enjoying it, and giving virtual friends status updates while ignoring actual friends. Lying in bed with her boyfriend, he seeks outside connection while being oblivious to the missed connection in his arms.

As the video makes clear, something is fundamentally changing about how we not only live life but how we view life. Are we living our life or are we observing our life? Somewhere along the line many of us have been experiencing what media theorist Douglas Rushkoff calls “present shock.” Present shock is our inability to bridge the gap between our online and offline identities. It’s a dissonance between being elsewhere and being in the present moment.

Our smartphones, if abused, can take us out of the present moment. For example, a concertgoer who takes out her smartphone to snap a few photos of the band is using the phone to supplement her experience. If, however, she keeps the phone out for the entire show to take pictures, videos, send tweets, and check-in, she becomes a viewer to her own experience. She would need to see her pictures, watch her videos, and read her tweets to later experience her own missed experience. She moves from being an active participant to a casual observer—in her own life.

Our fascination with real-time updates may be getting in the way of our real-time living. Frankly, it seems more shocking in 2013 to see two people engrossed in conversation than two people engrossed in their smartphones. On one hand it can seem comical: two friends texting other friends to update them about the wonderful time they are having. Their longing for connection juxtaposed with their inability to actually connect beyond the superficial.

So next time you are sitting at the bar with your friend, keep the focus on the actual moment. If someone sends a text to ask you where you’re at, you can politely respond with a double entendre before putting your phone away—I’m here.

Fear of Missing Out!

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The_Scream

Imagine that there is a boisterous party going on in your house. As you sit in your bedroom, you can hear a mixture of conversation, laughter, and singing. You overhear two people discussing a recent trip to Bali—from what you gather, it sounds as if they are showing pictures of their trip to the group located right next to your bedroom. Do you join the group?

Of course you do. You don’t want to be left out.

The internet is one giant house party. It’s exciting and loud, filled with interesting people who are constantly conversing. Being that we are a pack animal, it stands to reason that we would join the party. If there is something going on, we want to be there. We want to be in the know.

Enter a malady of modern day—the fear of missing out (FOMO). Our ever-increasing ability to be connected has created a situation where we feel left out when we are not at the party—a party that is always within reach. No longer is there a clear separation between our analog and digital life. For many people, they are intertwined.

We are constantly changing our conception of the internet. In the age of dial-up, it was a virtual world that we visited (or the Information Superhighway that we drove down). While there were strong reasons to want to visit (message boards, information, email, pictures), it was still viewed as a distinct entity from one’s real life. The comparative difficulty to be connected created an ignorance of what we were missing—therefore we had no reason to miss it. For example, you didn’t feel like you were missing out on updates from high school classmates because never really gave it much thought. Now they are always smiling at you.

Most of us are now aware, thanks to updates and near permanent connectivity, that there is a tremendous amount of activity going on. It’s so easy to join the party. The hook for sites like Facebook is that the ongoing stream of updates, pictures, and videos promotes a feeling of missing out when you are not on the site. The danger, however, is that it can be mentally exhausting to always be on. In addition, studies have shown a negative correlation between time spent on Facebook and user happiness. We tend not to feel good about ourselves when everyone else seems to be having more fun.

The dirty truth is that most people are not as cool, attractive, wealthy, witty, or wise as they appear on Facebook. It’s a curated projection of self which is often miles from the authentic person. As a viewer, however, we can feel uncool, ugly, poor, dull, or dumb by comparing ourselves to these curated projections.

The fear of missing out has created a paradox: we are often so worried about not being at the proverbial party that we become unable to appreciate the activity that is going on in our bedroom. As you forget about the party for a little while, you start to notice the details of your bedroom. There’s a harmonica on the night stand and a beautiful painting on the wall. Looking to your left, you notice your significant other sitting on the corner of the bed. You certainly wouldn’t want to miss out on that…

Fear of Missing Out

The Power of Boredom

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Bored

[Photo by joshme17; Creative Commons license through Flickr]

Imagine you are standing in a long line at the grocery store. You’re frustrated by how slow the cashier is moving and curious as to why the person in front of you bought so many fish sticks. Do adults still eat fish sticks? Perhaps he has kids. Is there a real Captain Gorton? Hmm…I wonder what would happen if he fought Chuck Norris. My money is on Gorton…

You’re getting bored! As this curious feeling starts to take ahold, you reach into your pocket and grab your smartphone. What a lifesaver. Having a smartphone or tablet means you never have to be bored. But before you break out the champagne, you should consider just what you are giving up by removing every moment of possible boredom. You’re giving up the potential for creative sparks and real-time social interactions.

Think about what you did yesterday. How much of your time do you spend doing, and how much time do you spend being? The rise of ever-present smartphones and tablets has allowed us to swap every idle moment in our life with moments of action. Stuck all alone for twenty minutes? Not to fear, our smartphone can transform this time of solitude into a moment of action-oriented connectivity. We are treating this feeling of disconnection or boredom as something that needs to be eliminated as opposed to embraced. The tradeoff is that we are becoming less and less present of the authentic world around us.

The good news is that the pendulum is starting to swing the other way. Although technology will continue to get more and more ubiquitous, creating challenges for a healthy online/offline existence, a growing number of people are starting to question the always-on culture. We want to embrace technology, not be engulfed by it. We want to enjoy the many benefits of being connected to the virtual world, while also maintaining a strong connection to the real world.

Who is leading the charge to reframe our relationship to technology? The most tech-savvy individuals who occasionally reach a breaking point with maintaining a robust Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, and Tumblr account. A recent New York Times article outlined the growing movement towards recognizing the value of not always being plugged in. Individuals who were awash in status updates, tweets, and viral videos made their way out to Navarro, California to stay at Camp Grounded—an overnight camp for adults where no smartphones were allowed.

So next time you are at the grocery store and get bored, embrace it. Allow your brain to both wander and wonder. And if you are wondering why that guy is buying fish sticks, ask him. You might just strike up a real-time conversation that is both random and refreshing.

You Talkin’ to Me?

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There is an iconic scene is the 1976 movie Taxi Driver where Robert De Niro, manically pointing a gun at a mirror, utters the now well-worn phrase: “You talkin’ to me?” The statement carved its way into pop culture as a bit of chest-thumping rhetoric, where the question was a line of bravado without an intended answer. Today, with the rapid adoption of wearable technology like Bluetooth headsets, the phrase is more likely to be asked in a genuine manner: “You talkin’ to me? Are you talking to me?”

This is a frustrating trend. We are only beginning to address the intrusion these devices create in public places and spaces. The social norms of how and when we use devices like a Bluetooth are still being established. The conversation will become livelier if Google Glass, wearable technology that resembles racquetball goggles, is embraced by the general public when it’s fully released next year.

One unusual sight is seeing a person keep their Bluetooth device in while NOT using the device; wearing the Bluetooth as if it were an earring or baseball cap. If you scan around a restaurant next time you are out, there is a decent chance that you will see a person keeping an electronic device in their ear—while maintaining a conversation with their tablemate. The device stuck to their ear sends a pretty strong nonverbal cue:   “Where I am and what I am doing now is not where I actually am or want to be.”

Consider, for a minute, why as Americans we place such a high level of importance on eye contact. How does it feel when someone is talking to you without making eye contact? You find the person disinterested, distracted, or emotionally detached. Likewise, it can feel extremely uncomfortable to be next to a person with a Bluetooth still stuck in their ear. They are not fully present and that bothers us.

The Bluetooth-wearing individual may be triggering certain psychobiological safety and survival mechanisms that create this feeling of unease. It disrupts our ability to fully understand what the person around us is doing. Wearable technology alters our normal space and time construct that allows us to appreciate our surroundings.  It has created a crop of electronic phantoms that are physically, but not mentally, present.

It has yet to be seen how far social norms will bend with wearable technology. What was once seen as rude behavior (i.e. taking out your smartphone in a meeting) can later reach the point of acceptability. The pendulum swings both ways, though. We have seen this in case entertainment venues that are creating stricter policies to prevent the annoyance of a ringing/buzzing phone during an event. Likewise, many of us are getting awfully tired of having to do our best De Niro impression. Next time, let us know when you’re talking.