In October last year my wife and I went to see the play The Prophet and the Poet, courtesy of a friend and neighbour. The play was at the Learning Resource Centre, UWI and was put on by the Bangalore Little Theatre Group from India. It marked the 142nd birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, and the 150th birth anniversary of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore. The play provided a unique opportunity to get a deeper understanding of the philoso- phical thoughts and beliefs of these two “great souls of India” as they corresponded in the lead-up to India’s independence. To our disappointment, it turned out to be a distraction-filled 100 minutes, as we were surrounded by patrons who were more into their smart phones rather than making use of this rare educational opportunity. No sooner had the play commenced and the theatre gone dark, the phones became visible and from our viewpoint lighted up the area in our vicinity like a Christmas tree. The blinking, bleeping and sometimes murmur- ing voices were totally distractive and took away from what could have been a really beautiful evening. At the end, we were left trying to answer the question: why did the patrons, who we assume were mostly university students, chose to spend much of the evening distracted by their phones, rather than to fully engage their minds in the play, which we assume was the prime reason for their attendance? Did attending the play turn out to be a missed learning opportunity for them?
Modern-day technologies have created a world in which we can be connected and communicating all the time. We are more wired than ever. Many are entrapped in a world of BlackBerrys, iPhones, PDAs, laptops, cell phones, e-mails and Facebook. There are clear benefits from being connected to people and information, but we can be so connected that we can lose all sense of self because we no longer have quiet moments in which we can reflect on our own selves and the lives that we are living. In the language of Leading From Above The Line, we can become so trapped in the outer reality of our connectivity that we disconnect from our inner reality, the source of our self- control. I find that I am encountering more and more young people who are so tied to their phones or computers that they experience withdrawal symptoms when they are separated, if only for a short period. What we are seeing here is the latest form of chronic addiction—technology addiction. Some people are so connected and addicted that they lose the ability to have face-to-face conversations with other human beings and some may never develop this ability. The result is that people are becoming lonelier, despite having hundreds of “friends” on Facebook, as real in-the-flesh friends are becoming fewer in their lives. The use of the term “friend” on Facebook has, in fact, trivialised the concept of friendship. Hence, we can have the illusion of having many friends when in reality we are very lonely.
An increasing number of international studies of university students are now showing that disconnecting from the Internet and mobile phones can leave people suffering from symptoms similar to those seen in smokers, alcoholics, and drug addicts trying to go cold turkey. These symptoms are both psychological and physical. In fact it has been shown that technology addiction now exceeds that of caffeine and alcohol. Technological addiction is becoming the greatest obstacle to the learning process. In particular, the addictive power of Facebook is raising serious concerns. Stephan Marche, writing in The Atlantic in an article titled Is Facebook Making Us Lonely? notes that: “Some recent estimates put the company’s potential value at $100 billion, which would make it larger than the global coffee industry—one addiction preparing to surpass the other.” One of the lead researchers on the effect of these modern technologies on human behaviour is Sherry Turkle, a psychologist and professor at MIT. She writes in a recent article in the New York Times: “I’ve learned that the little devices most of us carry around are so powerful that they change not only what we do, but also who we are. … in order to feel more, and to feel more like ourselves, we connect. But in our rush to connect, we flee from solitude, our ability to be separate and gather ourselves… We think constant connection will make us feel less lonely. The opposite is true. If we are unable to be alone, we are far more likely to be lonely.” In our Leading From Above The Line programme we repeatedly make the point that we are living in a world in which we are increasingly challenged to rise to a higher level of consciousness if we are to have the self-control to live more fulfilled lives. Coping with modern-day technology has become the latest challenge in our quest for greater self-control. We have to consciously develop the discipline to regularly disconnect from our mobile devices and computers for periods of three or more hours for self-introspection so that we can better keep in touch with our inner selves—the source of our self-control.