Shut Up and Listen!

One Man's Quest for Absolute Silence

Stop Tele-Dysfunction Now!

Addiction to our online devices is degrading our humanity

In a series of futuristic novels I wrote twenty-odd years ago, I described a class of addicts known as TDs, casualties of a new disease called Tele-Dysfunction.

Victims were unable to free themselves from interconnected electronic devices, to the point where they would walk around festooned with dead phones, MP3 players, laptops and circuitry, since the consequences of their pathology meant they could no longer afford the real thing.

In those novels, even “normal” people spent the bulk of their time hooked up to virtual game environments that allowed them to interact in real time with video characters and live in a virtual world; a goal that VR games makers are working hard to achieve today.

I might be proud of my powers of prediction if these pathologies were not so pervasive in today’s society, if their effects were not so dire.

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Today everyone I know has a smart phone. The majority spend their lives hooked up to some sort of connected device: laptop, smart phone, PDA, iPad, television. At dinnertime they keep their iPhone on the table and check it as often as they look at a dinner companion. They text in the street, read Twitter feeds in the car, Google on the subway. In bed they field texts as they watch House of Cards, laptop always at their side.

Of course there are advantages to such a lifestyle. Search engines provide instant information, email keeps us in light-speed touch with everyone, games and streamed Youtube clips prevent us from ever being bored. People—especially millennials—brag about their ability to multitask: to play games, email, watch video, text, chat, Skype, Facebook, talk and work at the same time, or near enough.

The wisdom is, our interconnected lifestyle is the future and if you don’t join up you’ll be left behind. New York private schools are big fans of that notion. They are starting to provide iPads to all students, even at the elementary level. My son’s grade fields homework assignments online, is expected to research online, write and turn in papers online, work together online.

The result, of course, is that they spend 80 percent of their “homework” time texting, looking at Youtube, tweeting, chatting, and playing Flappy Bird.

I know. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen all this happen at home, on the streets, in the classroom, at work.

The fact is, we are all becoming TDs. And it’s not a good thing.

The interconnected world is killing social life. Having coffee with a TD friend, I feel lonely because only half his attention is devoted to talking or interacting with me or the environment we’re in.

In the street, almost no one looks at one another anymore. They are on the cellphone, or texting, or listening to their own music. And hey, I’ve done that too, at times.

But I have lost something thereby. The street used to be a theater where humans interacted with humans in an endlessly changing drama. Our senses are capable of pulling in roughly 10 million discrete bits of information about our environment per second. We consciously discard all but five or seven. When we’re hooked up to our TD device, it’s likely that number drops by half. So we don’t notice each other anymore, we don’t participate in the tragicomedy afforded by social contact.

MIT’s Sherry Turkle, in her book Alone Together, describes the degradation of social relationships that happens as people shift their energy and focus to wired devices, away from the living breathing humans they might otherwise interact with.

“... When technology engineers intimacy, relationships can be reduced to mere connections. And then, easy connection becomes redefined as intimacy. Put otherwise, cyberintimacies slide into cybersolitudes. And with constant connection come new anxieties of disconnection.”

But we can’t give up our devices or reduce our interconnectivity, people insist. Multitasking is how we work now.

Multitaskers—particularly millennials—swear they are skilled at performing a slew of tasks through various interconnected devices at once. They believe they perform those tasks well, and that the speed and flexibility they offer are useful work tools in a modern workplace.

That excuse is rubbish.

Multiple experiments prove the opposite. TDs—sorry, multitaskers—far from performing many tasks well, in fact fulfill each of their tasks poorly. People who concentrate on one task at a time consistently and massively outperform the multitaskers.

For example, a major Stanford University experiment in 2009 found that “People who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time.”

There are physical effects too. Bombardment by excessive amounts of information increases stress, which can lead to hypertension, heart disease and other ills. A worldwide Reuters survey found increased tension from information overload plagued two thirds of managers. One third suffered ill health as a result.

So, not only is Tele-Dysfunction degrading our human qualities, it is physically harming us as well.

What is the solution? Abandon interconnected devices and go back to pencil, paper and snailmail? Of course not.

But for a slew of reasons, only some of which are listed above, it’s important to challenge our blind subservience to interconnected devices, our uncritical gorging on exponentially growing quantities of information from every quarter.

It is vital, for our very survival as thinking, feeling species, to cure ourselves of Tele-Dysfunction. How we can do this will be the subject of the next Shut Up and Listen.

George Michelsen Foy, a novelist and journalist, teaches creative writing at NYU. His latest book, Zero Decibels: The Quest for Silence, is published by Scribner.

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