Tuesday, March 01, 2005

What Are We Thinking?

A few years ago, at the grocery store, I saw a very cool-looking guy using his PDA to read his shopping list. He was winding his way down the narrow aisles at Atlas (god, I miss that store), reading his PalmPilot in one hand and putting rice noodles in his cart with the other. At the time, I thought it was the most ridiculous, overdone thing I'd ever seen.

That was then. The other day I caught myself doing the same thing at Wild Oats while trying to find non-organic bagels…and not feeling the least bit nerdy about it. (Note to self via Palm: Need lox cream cheese from O'Malia's.) The same day while running errands, I used my debit card four times, made notes for two blog entries, returned four phone calls, and scheduled a pedicure, all accomplished using time that otherwise would have been wasted waiting in line or driving the car. (And for the record, I absolutely, steadfastly refuse to ever beam anything to anyone.) With smarter, smaller, faster, easier-to-understand gadgets, technology isn't just for nerds anymore.

Technology has made us efficient. With PDAs, wireless modems, and cellular phones, one quickly becomes addicted to the constant checking of messages and jotting of ideas, notes, appointments, and plans – all so we can use every second of spare time, time that would otherwise be wasted, to do something else. We've become slaves to the freedom of having the ability to write something down or send something off every second of the day. In my servitude, I've come to discover a few things and wonder what long-term effect this ADD-driven way of life is going to have on us.

The first thing I've found is that if I never had ADD before, I feel like I have it now. Every stray errant thought must be written down. (I might need it later!) Once it's written down, it's promptly forgotten about which is either good (if it was something important to remember) or bad (if it was something that didn't ever need to be thought of again.) I forget things because I don't have to remember them anymore. With each note our Palm or Blackberry or Sidekick remembers for us, we free up that tiny bit of mental space that would have been otherwise occupied. But isn't all this efficiency supposed to free up my brain to concentrate on other things? If it is, how are we using all this extra brain power?

Between brain capacity we create and time we save by, say, getting cash back at Target instead of stopping at the ATM or having our bills deducted directly from our checking account, we should be in the middle of a new Age of Enlightenment. Think about it. During the 1700s we saw a renaissance of thought from people like Rousseau and Jefferson. Our country was founded on an entirely new philosophy of democracy and freedom. In the 18th century, great thinkers had servants to do all of the day's errands freeing up the master's time to think about things like equality and liberty. Today, I wonder what are we doing while our PDAs are busy remembering when to pick up the dry cleaning? Where is our Enlightenment? What are we thinking about?

I suspect part of our problem is that we have other priorities. Jefferson didn't have the Internet, instant news, thousands of cheap novels, television, NetFlix, videogames or any number of other wasters of thousands of man hours. If he were alive today, he might be spending his days learning how to shift the 911 Turbo in GranTourismo4 instead of inventing that pesky autowriting device. People today aren't spending all of their newly found time reading Shakespeare, they're learning about Nick and Jessica's marriage and how to gauge high thread count sheets. In this world of infinite distraction, we're using all this extra brain power cruising through People magazine's last issue instead of instead of thinking of a way to colonize Mars.

We should be learning and thinking about something. As individuals attached at the frontal lobe with wireless connections, we should be using this extra time and free mental energy for creating the great thoughts of our age. We should be learning about Hawking instead of Affleck, rediscovering art instead of Pottery Barn. We should be taking acting classes instead of watching the Oscars. Whatever we choose spend our found time on, we should be generating new thoughts and new ideas. We should be giving ourselves the building blocks to creativity. We should just be thinking.

I wonder what would happen if I could put together all those little bits of time I save from my day by returning calls in the car and tap tap tapping my to-do list waiting in line at the bookstore. I might have an entire extra hour. And in that time, if I just wanted to devote myself to learning a new philosophy or studying a new technology (instead of watching that extra hour of The Apprentice), I wonder what I could think of. I wonder what all of us could think of if we would just put our minds to it.


At Tue Mar 01, 05:04:00 PM, Blogger Doug said...

Time can't be saved, only spent wisely or foolishly. While standing in line may be wasted time, I don't think that doing nothing is wasted time. My guess is that we end up doing things that don't truly need to get done. And, yes, we have far more easy diversions that encourage us to be passive, so we don't end up doing the deep thinking and studying that Jefferson and Madison, et al. did.

But, my opinion on the Founding Fathers is that they lived in a time and place when great thoughts on the nature of government were useful and, therefore, they were able to thrive. Go ahead and write yourself a Constitution or a Declaration these days. I don't care how good it is, nobody will care. Create a great Reality Television show, however, and the world will beat down your door.

At Wed Mar 02, 09:31:00 AM, Blogger Erudite Redneck said...

All these gadgets keep us reacting. That ain't thinking. I carry a cell phone only because my wife insists, and it is nice to know my kiddo is a beep-beep-beep away. Otherwise, I wouldn't have one. I, too, am a compulsive maker of lists. On paper. With an ink penj, or even a pencil sometimes. I've got to where I leave the radio off in my truck a lot. So I can think. ... Hey, I managed to finish an M.A. in history in December -- massive, MASSIVE amounts of reading and deep thinking. I got it done by turning most of the electronic media in this house OFF.


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