Cathy Cruz Marrero was texting while walking in the Berkshire Mall in Reading, Pennsylvania, when she tumbled headfirst into a water fountain, getting completely drenched. Her pratfall was caught by the mall’s surveillance video and then posted on YouTube, where it has been viewed almost 2 million times.
Consider the father of three young children I knew who died instantly while texting and driving. Such examples (there is a crash in the U.S. about every 30 seconds due to drivers using cell phones and texting) underscore an unsettling narrative of presence and absence in the de facto public square—screens—where intense focus on a small screen vies with the surrounding live parade of people and cars.
As we become present with those no longer in our physical environments through phone calls, emails, and texts, we are bathed in contradictions. We can now be present in so many places in so many ways via so many things that think that it is instructive (not to mention ironic) that where we are can be divorced from presence; and presenting ourselves does not equate to being present.
Being actually present for important interactions is becoming rarer. A market research survey conducted by Lab 42 via social networks found that “more than one-third of adults have broken up via Facebook, text messages, or email. And 40 percent of the 550 people surveyed over the age of 18 said they would use technology to break up, if the situation were to arise.”
The word “present” derives from late Latin inpraesent, “face to face,” which came from the act of giving a present—when you gave someone a gift, you brought something into their presence. But now we are in a no-fly zone of moral and emotional distances, even minefields.
Just as athletes alter training regimens to meet new competitive challenges, is “presence training” now necessary in light of ubiquitous sharing technologies such as Pinterest (which Harvard researchers say activate the brain’s neurochemical reward system); or recording technologies from voice-tagging to Google Glass that maintain an endless, running inventory of our individual and collective now; or the text-anywhere-anytime habit of 18- to 29-year-old cellphone owners, who average 87.7 texts daily?
An example of training the mind to retain rather than lose presence can be found in Richard Davidson’s work, which shows that mindful meditation not only better concentrates attention; it fundamentally rewires how our brains realize presence. As Director of the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior and the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience, and Founder and Chair of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Davidson has conducted extensive research on the brains of Buddhist monks, described by some as “Olympic meditators”—people who have spent tens of thousands of hours in contemplative practice. His research underscores neuroplasticity and transformation, the notion that our brains are constantly changing based on where and how we focus.
Recording brain rhythms called gamma oscillations, Davidson discovered a unique kind of neuroplasticity among long-term meditators, particularly those who meditated on compassion: Their gamma oscillations persisted for minutes continuously at very high amplitude, something brain researchers had never reported before. Davidson is still exploring the full implications of these findings, but has stated that focused presence provokes “a quality of clarity of … perception.”
As the territory of cognition is increasingly mapped by apps and gadgets, noise and distraction tag along. Sherry Turkle, director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, is worried that our devices make us more alone, even when we’re together—thereby making us less present with others. Meditation offers survival training, a model for thriving amid the changes and challenges of connected intelligence. Once wired, we can choose to rewire.
Our texts, sexts, emails, updates, posts, commentaries, flames, and games challenge us to consider ourselves strangers in a land grown stranger by the app. We can be both in our bodies living our physical lives and in an instant seemingly be outside those bodies, transporting our physical and digital selves into the captivating wilds of cyberspace. As we digi-dance between face to face and Facebook—between earth and ether—we encounter a renewed choice of presence: Am I not here, or am I not quite there?
Interesting and relevant article. I find myself guilty of most of these things – texting and walking, driving, etc. However, I still get uncomfortable using things like video chat because it just seems so alien to me. I think as these sorts of products/inventions evolve, the need to use them will be become inevitable, and an actual presence in a situation will become uncomfortable for most people. Scary thought.
The author suggests that as we continue to navigate the world in front of us while simultaneously navigating the world in our gadgets we should ponder where we really are. If the consequences of that behavior are to get drenched, hospitalized or worse I suggest it may be more useful to focus on where we’re going.
I wonder to what degree our ‘lack of presence’ is a result of simple inattention brought on by our obsession with multi-tasking, and how much is due to something deeper: emotional avoidance. Interaction through the filter of ‘intelligent media’ allows us to avoid loneliness (or at least avoid the anxiety of feeling like we’re alone), while at the same time escaping the complicated emotional negotiations of genuine (face to face) encounters with real people. It’s pretty easy to fix the former problem of simple inattention. But the problem of emotional distancing looks to me like a scary antisocial trend.
Silk, I think you have put your finger on the quandary of living by the logic of our technology tools. Why do we accept “continuous partial attention” (the Linda Stone summation) as a necessary condition of our lives? And how does almost-attention devolve into avoidance? Our new personal tools present and promote the self in ever-newer, glitzier ways. The more focused I am on my world and self-adventures, the less I may notice you. Or be present with you. This is the two-edged sword of personal technology: we show more of ourselves but the more we show, the less the other matters—or is even there. Presence then is a window on a host of older, deeper issues. Is inattention a gateway drug to the deeper emotional issue of avoiding social interaction? Many parents watching their kids glued to iPhones and iPads may think so. But we are social animals and we need each other in diverse ways. Davidson’s olympic meditators focused on compassion—the true antidote to emotional distancing. But, of course, that requires acknowledging and honoring the presence of the other.
this is an outstanding article. barry chudakov has written about “metalife” in the past and the research he is quoting in this article makes me think we are in a very real sense starting to become who we are not, living out our “other” lives thru the medium of technology.
i’m wondering if study would show that the effect on the brain of all this texting is similar to the effect of an addiction – does it light up the same parts of the brain? it feels as if this technology is taking on a sinister dimension. apparently it kills one of us every 30 seconds. what else can do that?
well written barry and once again, frightening.
PS – a final thought – our use of mobile phones while driving are killing one person every 30 seconds and we’re worried about the sale of guns????
Fascinating article, Barry. Very enlightening about how the evolution of social media and the relentless push to be more connected have obliterated our sense of self. We’re everywhere, yet somehow nowhere at the same time.
Richard von Erlac
An excellent commentary on something we see all around us yet fail to observe.
I, for one, prefer to remain “present” by refusing to indulge in iPods/cell phones/texting/etc when I am out walking about. Oddly enough, some people consider my behaviour anti-social because they can’t reach me instantly! It’s a changing world — not necessarily for the better.
Thanks for the article, Barry.
This is great food for thought, though it’s the kind that gives me indigestion–not the writing, which is very good, but the topic. My daughter admits to being “FOMO” — fear of missing out. Technology, which is supposed to make things easier, so often makes things more competitive. Some feel forced to keep in touch–at all times. I’ve heard of young people cancelling their Facebook accounts. But will they have the courage to turn off their smartphones every one in a while?