By Ben Bajarin
Nov. 12, 2012
As technology invades our lives and covers every facet of working, playing, learning, and more, we as a culture will need to adjust and find balance so as to not get so lost in the digital world that we lose ourselves. We hear frequently about parents desiring to get their kids to shut off the video game systems and go outside and play. Go out in public to restaurants, coffee shops, and malls, and you see people fixated on their screens. There is nothing wrong with that, however, I think we need to be aware of something important as a digital society. I fear that we may slowly lose the ability to be fully present in a moment or situation.
I noticed this about myself a few years ago while I was on my computer checking email and responding to “important” work stuff. As I was sitting there fully immersed in my screen, one of my daughters was trying to get my attention. I’m not sure how long it took but I think she had to say “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” about four or five times. I recognized that it should not take me that long to respond and, more importantly, my eyes were open to the reality that often I was not fully present in many important situations. We are allowing digital distractions to interfere with important moments.
Since then, I have worked to retrain myself to be more fully present when engaging in conversations with my family, friends, and colleagues. And I’m resisting the urge to constantly look at my phone to see if I have new email, check Twitter or Facebook, or do something that would send a signal to the person across from me that they don’t matter as much as something on my digital device.
Perhaps this is not a problem everyone struggles with, but I am noticing it more in more with young people. I grew up with technology and have little to no recollection of life without a game system or personal computer. I am in my mid-thirties and the digital devices I grew up with are light-years different from the ones my kids are growing up with, but the point remains that growing up digital leads to some of the tendencies I am noticing. There’s a lack of ability to be fully present.
I especially notice this problem being rampant where I live and work in Silicon Valley. Just the other day I was observing at a restaurant in Palo Alto that’s popular for many business lunch meetings, that most, if not all, of those engaging with other humans were also equally engaged in their digital devices. I watched three different tables and in a time period of 15 minutes, every person at every one of those tables averaged checking their smartphones and responding to something at least three times.
This is clearly just becoming something that is socially acceptable. In a meeting or conversation, it’s okay to turn our attention and be as equally engaged with a smartphone as we are with the person across from us. We are, after all, a multitasking generation.
In fact, an interesting thread comes up in some of our firm’s consumer interviews that are focused around computing. Very often, the desire to multitask and be engaged with multiple things at one time is a common one when it comes to computing products.
We are becoming not just comfortable with multitasking, but we are becoming experts at it. Multitasking extends from multiple tasks on a single screen to multiple tasks divided to multiple screens. More common in many households in developed countries is the use of a second screen while watching TV. Whether it is a tablet, smartphone, or notebook, we are now engaging with multiple tasks on multiple screens, often at the same time. Our attention is divided across multiple tasks and multiple screens. I’m guessing that the prior generation may have considered this too much to handle. We are becoming experts in multitasking but I think it’s time we learn again how to single-task in certain situations and contexts, namely during engagements with human beings.
I am working to do this and I hope to bring my kids up with a heightened awareness of how and when it is important to exercise single-tasking — the importance of being present and engaged in a moment. Relationally, this is a key skill I’d love to see reacquired by the digital generation.
It will not be easy. Screen media competes for our attention and will continue to do so many times during our days. I’d love to see companies like Apple, Microsoft, and Google even try to help turn this trend around — perhaps by offering technology like Apple’s “do not disturb” feature to automatically kick in when I am in a meeting or when I get home.
There is a time and place for technology, but there is also a time and place to be present in the real world. If we can’t recapture the ability to be present, we may find that digital distractions cause life to pass us by.
Ben Bajarin is a principal at Creative Strategies Inc., a technology industry analysis and market intelligence firm in Silicon Valley. He contributes to the “Big Picture” opinion column that appears here every week.