At Odds Against the Free Mind



By Simone Spilka


I recently learned that since the year 2000, attention spans have fallen from 12 to eight seconds, according to an article published by The New York Times. The piece presents the case that - with humans as the drivers - communication has evolved from considered prose to abbreviated texts. Today, static image is preferred, the most un-demanding language to consume. The author argues, rather effectively, that in this proliferating era of instant gratification, human attention will become the commodity of the future. But he also instills hope: "All is not lost!" He offers two instances of delayed gratification that prove there are still places for us to champion our attention: gardening and reading. As gardeners, we as a species still savor the slow growth of a flower over the course of many seasons; we nurture it and tend to it as if time and other matters were of no greater importance. As a book lover, we are still able to dissolve ourselves entirely into an author's novel even when, or especially when, its 800 pages.


This article comes to my inbox, and to read it, I venture to my neighborhood coffee shop where I can find it in physical print. The act of walking to read is a necessary expression of physically transporting myself away from life's distractions. I travel to this cafe specifically to think — the only extra stimulus is the melodic hum of the espresso machine and the expansive windows which beg me to stare outside aimlessly. I turn my phone on airplane mode and dedicate my whole self to absorbing this piece, writing down my notes with pen to paper. I meditate on the words and ideas, so that its narrative doesn't fall into to the gapping hole of content that pervades my daily life. But even in this moment — giving my attention and energy to someone else's ideas — I can not silence my ever-present thoughts; while I read, I also imagine the entire dialogue of a conversation I need to have that evening, make a reminder to pay a friend back, and consider a group text that would inundate my inbox with responses. I feel the weight of technology as an all-powerful and unassuming enemy making itself known in this hyper-stimulated, connected world.




I felt the weight of technology as an all-powerful and unassuming enemy making itself known in this hyper-stimulated, connected world. Like war, technology holds us hostage. Like prison, it binds us. It is the reigning cause of the demise of our attention spans, stripping us down and putting us at odds against the free mind. In this new-age battle between our attention and our personal devices, we as society are ill-equipped to defend ourselves from the digital temptations that parade in front of us, in our ears, from afar and under our pillows. 


This shift toward a wifi-enabled, pre-planned, GPS-guided life not only diminishes our ability to single-task, but it casts our most important relationships as peripheral. While two of the cafe-going couples nestle into their respective books, the remaining ten plus pairs huddle together and devour the light of their phones. Does modern love mean laying next to one another in bed, in silence, on social media, without saying goodnight? If this is the caseSOS: We are so far buried in scrolls that we can't even see the enemy as it fast approaches. 


At last year's Father's Day brunch in San Francisco, I remember the finest details of sitting next to my older sister, across from my Mother and Father. The wait was long, but we never reverted to our phones out of boredom. When we were eventually seated, my parents still spoke patiently, even through their hunger. I noticed the new wrinkles in my Mother's hands and new grey spots of my Father's mustache; I looked into both of their eyes while we shared conversation, an infrequency since having moved away to New York. Next to us, a family of five slouched over themselves, lost in little blue light. Grandma, Mom or Dad might have scolded the children -- had they themselves decided to look up and notice.


"Put down your device. You are not your technology."


It seems these devices become engrained within our identity not as a consequence but as tools for productivity, entertainment and efficiencies. In my past role, I was a journalist, with a responsibility to inspire creative businesses to imagine a better tomorrow. My readers knew me to be an expert in digital and mobile trends because most of the solutions for 'a better tomorrow' come by way of emerging technology. What they didn't know is that in my personal brand the headline reads: "Put down your device. You are not your technology." In fact it would read: "PUT DOWN YOUR DEVICE. YOU ARE NOT YOUR TECHNOLOGY." 


Maybe a part of the problem is we are the designers and enablers of the connected life. We instinctively reach for the nearest device upon waking up (please, I urge you not to), or hold it close to our faces on the commute home to help the day's thoughts sink out of us. We justify our habits: technology helps us to unwind, but really it is the enemy of unwinding in disguise. It keeps us awake through the night, diminishes our attention and stops us from looking into the eyes of our parents, and even our parents' parents. I lament the new age eulogy: Grandma lived a long, joyful life. She died grasping her phone. I will carry with me the memory of the last text she ever sent. That is not how I want to be remembered. Do you? As parents, as lovers and as innovators, we must encourage freedom from technology if we truly want to create a future of capable and observant human beings.


"In meditating on my own attention, I have found that the most profound discoveries arise when I turn off my devices and start to listen to people, myself included."


In meditating on my own attention, I have found that the most profound discoveries arise when I turn off my devices and start to listen to people - really listen to people, myself included. But it's not easy. Everyday, I am forced into the ring with tech, my heavy-handed opponent, and it takes exhaustive mental training and daily dedication to put up a fight. So instead of keeping up a defense, l try to imagine all of the great things I could do if I weren't bogged down by perpetual distractions. I could notice a hole-in-the-wall Zagat rated deli on 2nd avenue on a different route to the office; lock eyes twice and then three times with a handsome commuter across the subway platform;  invest energy into thinking creatively instead of spending it reacting to others. Certainly, our desire for adventure should not be determined by an app and our self-worth should not be determined by a group of strangers' social validation. We can train ourselves to come out victorious simply by choosing to look out instead of down. 


Everyday I struggle to navigate this always-on, always available landscape. In the days of writing this piece, I acted on all of the digital things I struggled not to: I had the conversation (via telephone), paid the friend (via Venmo) and sent the group message (via text). But I also did this: I bought a plant and started reading Murakami's 1Q84, a much-too-big-for-work-commute book. I could not be happier to sit patiently and watch it grow and eventually blossom, and to travel into Murakami's imagination over the course of many months. Now if you'd like to put down your phone and join me, then certainly all is not lost.