I spend the summer at Chautauqua Institution.
The official website describes Chautauqua this way: Chautauqua is dedicated to the exploration of the best in human values and the enrichment of life through a program that explores the important religious, social and political issues of our times. Check this link for a more comprehensive background.
Quite a mission, huh? Yesterday I attended a morning lecture by novelist/essayist and playwright Roger Rosenblatt, a dinner picnic for the many fabulous students who will be studying here this summer, and a taping of the PBS program From The Top with Christopher O’Riley and five young musicians who wowed us with their prowess and charm.
That was a slow day.
Since the topic this week is 21st-Century Literacies, Roger Roseblatt’s fine lecture centered on the imagination. At one point he was asked whether he thought the constant availability of tablets and smart phones would have a detrimental effect on imagination. The topic seemed, well, topical to me since a woman in the next row was busy on her iPad reading the Chautauqua newspaper and write-ups of a previous lecture.
Which left me to wonder if she plans to read the synopsis of Roger’s lecture today as our new morning lecturer speaks.
Roger said he doesn’t own a computer. When the woman in front of me put away her iPad, she pulled out her iPhone. No email went unexplored for the rest of the morning.
Is there such a thing as a technology addiction? How convinced are you that you can multi-task and still pay close attention to everything on and off-screen? Studies say we’re fooling ourselves. We can switch our attention from one to the other very quickly, but is that the same? Because no matter how quickly we switch, we’ve still lost something, haven’t we?
When my children were young I wanted them to have different experiences and learn different skills. But I also wanted them to have time to play with neighborhood friends, to lie on their backs and stare at the clouds. I wanted them to tell me they were bored, because from boredom imagination often takes root. Nothing to do? Make up your own game. Nothing to read? Make up your own story.
Back then social media hadn’t been invented and the internet was a twinkle in Al Gore’s eye. Parents today have new problems to deal with. Still, some deal with technology in ways we might not expect. Take the late Steve Jobs, cofounder and CEO of Apple. When asked how his children liked the iPad, Jobs replied: “They haven’t used it. We limit how much technology our kids use at home.” There was no technology at dinner. Instead the Jobs family ate together, discussing books and history and a variety of other things.
Maybe Jobs, so immersed in cutting edge technology was also more aware of its dangers. Little by little we are training ourselves to be entertained and engaged at all times. Have a few extra minutes? Don’t stare out the window and think about the conversation you just had or heard. Don’t spin out fantasies. Spend them on social media checking out the latest cat video or playing a quick game of Words With Friends.
Are we losing the ability to use our imaginations? And are we still strong enough, like Steve Jobs, to turn off the iPhone and iPads now and then, even if we might be bored at first, to see where our imaginations lead us?
Here’s the most intriguing question. If we don’t cure our technology addiction, what effect will our constant distraction, our myth of multi-tasking have on both the arts and the sciences? What do you think?