Last week my cell phone was shut off because I was late making the payment. For some reason, Sprint felt it best to punish me as the primary user and keep the rest of my family members’ phones on. So I spent about 3-4 days without my phone.
It was a good experience. All too often, I can be seen with my head down, reading and tapping out texts. Suddenly, I was disconnected. I had a few cheat moments when I asked my wife or daughter to call or text someone for me. But by and large, I found that I can live without immediate accessibility.
None of us is immune to the feeling of being overly wired. It is an increasing problem on college campuses. In the article “Knowing When to Log Off,” in the Chronicle of Higher Education (2005), Jeffrey R. Young looked at different aspects of the problem. To begin, he discussed information overload with David Levy, a professor at the University of Washington’s Information School.
Levy is one of many scholars trying to raise awareness of the negative impact of communication technologies on people’s lives and work. They say the quality of research and teaching at colleges is at risk unless scholars develop strategies for better managing information, and for making time for extensive reading and contemplation.
Even so, with all the e-mail messages flooding in, with academic blogs bursting with continuous debate, and with the hectic pace set by an increasingly wired world, Mr. Levy says he cannot help but feel an occasional sense of information overload.
“We’re losing touch with the contemplative roots of scholarship, the reflective dimension,” says Mr. Levy. “When you think that universities are meant to be in effect the think tanks for the culture, or at least one of the major forms of thinking, that strikes me as a very serious concern.”
Mr. Levy says his weekly day off from technology is part of his observation of the Jewish Sabbath (his wife is a rabbi), but that he recommends time away from computer monitors as a practice in itself. “I’m not suggesting that anyone else be Jewish,” he says, “but rather if you think about the idea of the Sabbath, which is a time apart, a time to cultivate different qualities, that seems like a very important idea for our culture.”
He says information overload is one aspect of a larger problem that includes “fragmented attention, busyness, and the speed-up of daily life.”
“It isn’t just the amount of information,” he argues. “It’s the expectation that we’re going to go faster and faster and faster.”
Academics are not the only ones feeling overwhelmed, of course. A growing number of researchers are looking at technology’s impacts on the quality of life outside of colleges.
Norman H. Nie, director of the Stanford Institute for the Quantitative Study of Society, at Stanford University, found in a recent survey that Internet use tends to cut into family time, and can lead to feelings of isolation. For the average respondent, an hour on the Internet reduced face-to-face time with family by 23.5 minutes per day, he says.
“It’s not whether to use the Internet or not use the Internet,” said Mr. Nie in an interview. “It’s how much time we really spend on it. Time is a hydraulic system. If you spend two hours doing one thing, you can’t spend it doing something else.”
Mr. Nie admits to a fair amount of Internet use himself, and says he feels it has changed his habits, perhaps cutting into some leisure time.
He argues that living more simply actually yields more leisure time, and forces people to forge greater bonds with neighbors because of a greater need for cooperation (such as for the occasional barn raising). And he notes that not enough people are looking critically at the impact of technology. “Whatever impact it’s having,” he says, “people are overlooking the negative aspects of it, one of which is, I think, a loss of a sense of leisure and contemplation.”
Eric Brende became so fed up with technology that he quit his graduate studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology a few years ago to spend 18 months living with his wife in a rural farming community. (He wouldn’t say where exactly to protect the identities of the people he wrote about.) He argues that the negative aspects of using technology have become so great that we would all be better off giving up nearly all modern devices — including washing machines, lawn mowers, and cars. He published a book about his experiences and beliefs, called Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology (HarperCollins, 2004).
Brende, who now lives in St. Louis, has not completely switched off technology, though. He said in an interview that he occasionally checks e-mail messages at a nearby public library, and that he even has a cellphone, which helps him coordinate his work as a part-time bicycle-rickshaw driver. “You’re not being disloyal to progress,” he said, “by picking and choosing the kind of technology that best fits your needs.”
The article further describes strategies that other professors employ to reduce the amount of information overload. While none of these professors advocate going completely unplugged, they have each found different ways to bring sanity to the noise:
Bill McKibben, a scholar in residence in environmental studies at Middlebury College. He says he is not immune from feelings of information overload, and that he has tried to work out strategies for dealing with the flood of communication he gets each day. When he is working on a book or is near a deadline, for instance, he only checks his e-mail messages once a day, in the evening. And he uses a slow dial-up connection at home, even though he could afford a faster broadband service, so that he is less tempted to surf the Web.
On the syllabus for Buzz Alexander’s course “What Is Literature?” he tells students not to contact him by e-mail. He says he tries to make sure he is available for one-on-one meetings to respond to any questions — after class, during his office hours, or over coffee. “If they’re in office,” he says, “I can say to them, ‘How are you lilkng the course?’ or ‘How are things going?’” And he worries that he would not be able to keep up with a flood of e-mail questions from students who expect an instant response.
David Rothenberg, a professor of philosophy at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, took a novel approach to fighting overload in a class he taught called “Technology and Contemplation.” He used a few minutes of each class session to have students meditate. “If you stop talking and have people sit silently for five minutes, that’s a good use of time because people are so stressed out,” he says. “it really had a positive effect.”
What about you? Do you feel overwhelmed by information and email? Have you introduced any boundaries to your internet/phone use like Levy’s weekly Sabbath from computer use? Leave a comment and let us know how you deal with information overload.