Friday, January 22, 2010

Plugged in, Turned on, Tuned Out

Findings published from the third installment of the Kaiser Foundation’s research project on children and their use of media shocked technophobes and -philes alike. According to the report, kids ages 8-18 spend more than seven and a half hours a day plugged into an electronic device (such as an ipod, smart phone, computer, or television). This figure does not include an extra hour and a half spent texting or talking on cell phones; time devoted to homework, or an extra three and a half hours of media exposure accrued by multitasking.

As one commentator concedes: it no longer makes sense to debate whether such technological use is good or bad. We need to “accept it” as part of children’s environment, “like the air they breathe, the water they drink and the food they eat.”

Must we equate ipods with oxygen? Debates over the morals and merits of technology are as old as human civilization. There are questions to ask that move us beyond good and evil.

1. Are we using our tools in ways that weaken the sensory capacities they extend?

Every human invention extends a set of basic bodily capacities in a direction farther than it could otherwise go, and in effect, reduces our need for developing those skills and sensations.

Recall Socrates’ debate, for example, over the act of writing, as an extension of our capacity to remember. When we write something down in order to remember it, aren’t we giving ourselves permission to forget?

2. Who is using whom?

The tools we use organize our patterns of physical and mental movement; shape our thoughts; space and time our tasks, and map our sensory awareness. Using tools grants us a sense of ourselves, and what we can do. It structures our relationships to other people, places, and elements. Whether pencil or plow, book or boat, ipod or iphone, the tools we use use us to make them work. We learn, in using the tool, what turns us on.

The issue these questions share concerns our participation in the rhythms of our bodily becoming. The movements we make are making us. But how? As we invest ourselves in this technology, are we cultivating a range of skills and sensibilities that aligns with our ongoing health and well being?

Answers are trickling in for kids who are plugged in. Regarding the sensory education such technology use provides, evidence is emerging of a correlation (at least) between hours spent consuming media and pounds added consuming calories. However, the causal factor between childhood obesity and screen use, believe it or not, does not seem to be sitting.

While researchers point to food advertisements as encouraging excess intake, the issue may have more to do with how screen use educates our senses. While watching a screen, regardless of whether we are in a chair or on an exercise bike, we train our attention away from what our bodily selves are doing and towards what is coming to us through the monitor. Tuned in we tune out. We reinforce the sense of ourselves as minds over bodies that causes us to override the wisdom of our bodily selves in all realms of our lives--including in our ability to follow the arc of our eating pleasure to a sense of enough.

Moreover, in using these devices we not only train ourselves to think and feel and act as if we were minds in bodies, we train ourselves to desire this sense of ourselves as itself a primary source of pleasure, accomplishment, and even health. Our dopamine level surges when we override our bodily discomfort to check email, harvest soybeans in Farmville, or receive the latest tweet from our favorite star.

As for how our tools are using us, commentators regularly comment on the enhanced multitasking ability of the techno-savy. However, it isn’t the multi in this formula that is new. Humans have been manipulating complex maps of parallel and entinwed processes for millennia in order to survive. What is new is the sensory and kinetic range of the tasks: since media use occupies a smaller swath of bodily selves than the tasks of, for example, making all our own food and clothing, we can indeed train ourselves to tolerate more of them.

So what difference does it make if our kids use these technologies in ways that reinforce their sense of themselves as minds over bodies, and reduce their sensory range?

I offer three points, knowing there are more.

First, Rodolfo Llinas' recent book argues that how bodies move influences how brains develop. One implication, anticipated by Nietzsche in Human All Too Human, is that when we train ourselves to still our bodily selves in order to think and read and write, we cut ourselves off from a primary realm of our creativity—our senses—and the source of materials through which we think at all. It is not an accident that Nietzsche’s Zarathustra is a dancer.

A related vein of inquiry concerns empathy. As the Blakeslees document, people with a greater visceral awareness—that is, a heightened awareness of their own feelings and sensations—demonstrate a greater capacity to empathize with other humans. Such empathic qualities correlate regularly with the ability to create and maintain mutually life-enabling relationships. One implication is that bodily practices that train our attention away from our sensory selves—even in the name of networking—may diminish our capacity to form strong, mutually beneficial relationships with other humans. (In what sense are fellow Facebookers friends?)

A third line of concern is one Richard Louv raises in his book, Last Child in the Woods. Louv diagnoses a nature-deficit disorder among our children, precipitated in part by an increased use in technological devices. As kids train their senses away from the natural world, they don’t learn how to be in the natural world—how to open to receive it. They think that “nature” is what they see in their wildlife videos, and get bored with the real thing.

Louv asks: where is the next generation of environmentalists and natural scientists who will be able to notice and care about the destructive impact humans are having on the very web of life that enables them to be?

Whether we are talking about the relationship to our bodily selves, to other humans, or to the natural world, then, the logic is the same. We may be losing our ability to sense and enact what we need in order to be able to create relationships that will support us in our ongoing sensing and enacting. Nietzsche called such a state decadence.

We do know that the question of how to cultivate relationships with ourselves, each other, and the natural world is a primary challenge we confront in the 21st century. It is also clear that electronic devices are not about to disappear.

The question that arises then is this: what kind of practices can or must we engage alongside our electronic device use, so that we can be sure to develop the sensory awareness we need to engage and use this technology in ways that enhance our ability to thrive?

Next week: what kind of movement matters?

Friday, January 8, 2010

Only 51 weeks left!

How are those resolutions?

Around this time of year, emotions are complex. You may feel unhappy that the home holidays are over, as well as relieved that the rounds of rituals and relatives are done. Pleased to be back with a familiar routine, yet bored by the grind. Eager for what is yet to come, and burdened by what has not yet been done. Glad and sad to leave 2009; both poised and unprepared to greet 2010. Energized and exhausted, elated and depressed; ready to go, ready to rest. Ending and beginning again.

It is hard to know what to do with all of the ambivalence. The reigning rubric for this passage in time is resolution. There is a tendency is to want to resolve the welter of emotions into a set of resolutions that you plan to enforce with new resolve. So you compress the chaos into a numbered list, and forge the tensions to an iron will. You vow to stick to some species of diet, asserting control over something that flows through your bodily self, whether calories, actions, or words. This year I will succeed!

Or perhaps you are disillusioned by all this resolving and respond to the mayhem by rejecting the ritual as a set-up for disappointment. Too often, as you know, resolving is simply a matter of re-solving, applying the same old solutions to the same old problems year after year without success. For what significance does a calendar count carry anyway? Life continues, regardless.

Why celebrate the slipping of time at all?
The kids are milling about, waiting for our ritual. Every New Year’s Eve, we create one. For the past couple of years we have sailed milkweed pod boats loaded with sticky burrs and other symbolic bits into the fire of our wood stove, delighting in the firecrackling bursts. This year, however, we haven’t collected any boats or burrs. It’s cold and dark. Kyra is already asleep on the couch.

I am out of ideas. Will our ritual fail? At least I can gather some pens and paper, surely we will write something. I select a rainbow of ink colors so each person can have his or her own. What else do we have lying around? I find a can of mixed nuts that Geoff bought for the holidays. A chocolate bar house gift. Sprigs of sage from a local farm. Branches of evergreen cut from our Christmas tree. A candle and matches. I make a pile. Something will come of this.

We wake up Kyra, sit in a circle by the stove, and light the candle. An idea pops into my mind: A book! Our neighbor recently taught us how to make a six-page book out of one piece of paper. Let’s do it! I show the kids how: fold and bend, one small cut, and fold again. Soon we are each holding small books in the palms of our hands. They feel magic.

Words flow from my mouth. For each open fold, pick a realm of your life, three in all, and write down the qualities and character you want that realm to have in the year to come. We’ll try it.

Kyra wants help. She shows me her book. She has named her themes: Family. Life. Love. What else to say? I am scribbling madly, reaching deep into myself, wanting it all. I make a book for small Leif. We are writing our lives.

After filling our books we cradle them gently. I pass around the can of nuts. There are seven kinds. Pick one. We all have different hopes and needs and wishes and wants. Go for it. Be yourself. Be nutty! (Afterwards we realized that we each picked a different nut.)

The kids crunch their choices. I pass the chocolate. The no-fail cure for those times when dementors steal all your happy memories. Remember the sweetness we share. Our family will nourish you.

As the chocolate finishes its round, I pass the evergreen branch tips: keep your dreams evergreen. Then I pass the sage: a fragrant spice to carry your prayers to the heavens.

We bundle the sage and evergreen into our books (we’ll keep the chocolate and nuts, thank you), and line up to toss our wads into the fire—the books of our lives, leaves of our loves. We let them go. We blow out the candle and talk softly. We realize how much our ritual embodied the community that supports us--friends, family, neighbors are all enabling us to write our own stories. We go to bed.
Why do it? It is not to resolve what roils. Rather, we celebrate in order to stir it all up—all of our competing desires and hopes, our conflicting wants and wishes, all the sheer, raw energy of our bodily selves.

For when we stir the embers of our bodily selves, releasing the emotions we have and hold, we open ourselves up to currents of creativity streaming through us. We crack open our small minds to the imagination of the universe, far greater than ours, that lives in our bodily selves and through our bodily selves, in the form of impulses to move that we can open to receive. What do you want? What can you want? What is there to want?

Think back ten years, five or even one—did you imagine then that you would be where you are now? Could you have even imagined it? How is it that you think you can imagine now what the best path for you will be?

Our capacity to predict and plan, to rationalize and hold in line, is a vital resource for sure. We need goals and projects, schedules and schemas. But we also need moments when we break ourselves open to insights coursing through our singular selves that no one else can know but us. And we need moments where we affirm that our ability to carry through our plans and projects depends on a web of relationships that extends beyond us, supporting us in being and becoming the singular selves we are.

Here is where ritual has power. For its actions grab our minds and direct our attention to what we are sensing, to the movements we are making, so that we can discern the impulses to connect that are stirring in us. We want to connect with what our bodily selves know. We want to connect with each other. We affirm the mystery in which we are always already participating as we bring into being a world we love that loves us.

So what is there to resolve? Perhaps it’s better to consider what we want to dis-solve—any well-intended mental constructs that pit us against our bodily selves in the name of ideals that aren’t really ours.

Perhaps it’s time to shake out our re-solving and learn to discern what our bodies know. Call it my new year’s dissolution.

* Photos taken in ice storm on December 25