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Information Overload

I was texting last night with a friend who is currently in Chile on business. I asked him what he was doing today and he said, “Driving from Santiago to Temuco. It’s about a four-hour drive. We’re going to stop and visit some farms along the way…” I thought about the picture he had posted on Facebook last night from his hotel—about how warm and green and exotic it looked. I thought about my own prospects of waking up to the bone-chilling cold of January and tackling the inevitable (and Sisyphean) Tuesday morning task of chipping away at my inbox. “Sounds fun,” I told my friend. “Think of me while you’re meandering through the Chilean countryside and I’m responding to forty emails… 

As it happens, the first twenty minutes of my morning were devoted not to email but to trying (and mostly failing) to figure out how to turn off the desktop notifications from Facebook that stubbornly and malevolently persist even when I am logged out. I spent the next twenty minutes weighing the pros and cons of deleting my Facebook account. I decided against it for the time being, mostly because I’m pretty sure I would still get notifications even if I didn’t have an account. Feeling appropriately despondent and defeated, it was on to email…

If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you’ll know that I have something of a conflicted relationship with the technologies and devices that enslave us shape and constrain our lives. I think that social media is hastening the devolution of the human species in countless ways. But I have a blog. And I (angrily) use Facebook. I think that smartphones are turning us into dopamine-hungry zombies and rendering us incapable of doing ordinary things like going out for dinner or getting through a meeting without casting longing and expectant glances at our phones every few minutes. But I have one. And I have occasionally been caught casting longing and expectant glances. I lament how the Internet has hastened the demise of serious reading and conditioned us to demand our information in five hundred word snacks. And a stack of unread books mocks me from the corner of my desk. I hate email. Yet I use it often.

O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from my myriad contradictions…

Yesterday I read an article by Ramona Pringle in which she wonders if our infatuation with our technologies might possibly be on the cusp of wearing off. We’re starting to find this relationship tricky, it seems:

We have opted in to features like push notifications and geolocation because they make our lives more convenient; instead of needing to seek out information, it comes to us. But it has all started to become overwhelming, and it has changed our relationship to time. In fact, it’s a big part of why we seem to feel so busy all the time: we’re always receiving birthday notifications, email alerts and headlines pushed in front of us, regardless of where we are or what else we might be trying to focus on.

Yes. Information increasingly comes to us rather than us choosing it or seeking it out. We probably gave it permission to do so once upon a time (or Facebook did on our behalf), but there’s a price to be paid for flinging wide the gates to our attention. Every little notification whittles away at our willpower, our self-discipline, our attention, our ability to stay focused on a given task. Everything little box that appears in the corner of the screen, every buzz on our phone, every reminder or calendar notification, everything requires a decision of some kind, even if it’s as simple as a casual glance to confirm that a message can be safely ignored. And we gradually find our relationship with our technology and the information it floods us with comes to seem more reactive than proactive.

And then there are the larger costs. Pringle points to how always being connected can cause stress, anxiety, depression, and burnout. Having notifications constantly coming at you throughout the day from all kinds of different sources can easily lead you to believe that you’ll never be able to keep up, that you’ll never be able to respond adequately, that you’ll forget something or someone. In the time that I wrote these last two paragraphs I received two texts, three emails (adding to the eighteen that I have flagged for immediate response), and yet another unbidden Facebook notification (apparently someone has a birthday today! who would have thought?!). I shudder to consider the dark depths my soul would descend to if I had Twitter or Instagram or Snap Chat to add to the mix. And, of course it’s becoming well known that constantly patrolling social media makes us depressed. We’re always comparing ourselves to others (see my coveting of my neighbour’s Chilean experience above). We’re all trying to make our lives seem better than they are and ourselves seem more interesting than we are. Which only pours gas on the fire of all those comparisons…

Yes, clearly we need to get a handle on our relationship with technology. Or I do, at any rate. I’ve made a few meager efforts over the last year or so—I no longer have email on my phone (unless I’m traveling). Same goes for Facebook. I check my email at regular intervals throughout the day and close it in between. I try to shut down my inbox around dinnertime every day and not open it until I get to work the following morning. At the very least, this leads to one torrent of dread each morning rather than a steady drip-drip-drip throughout the day. I have the very best of intentions to keep my computer closed in the morning and spend my first minutes of the day reading or in prayer. These measures all help (when I stick to them). But conflicted my relationship with my devices remains…

Everything is permissible but not everything is beneficial… So said Paul to the Corinthians. Obviously the phenomenon of being enslaved to our media and our devices wasn’t yet in view, but Paul knew well a very basic principle that it seems to me our generation is in desperate need of recovering: Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Bart Velthuizen #

    Another good blog, Ryan. Thanks. Be sure to mitigate the ill effects of our digital communications with some good physical activity!

    January 10, 2017
    • Thank you, Bart. The hockey rink, soccer pitch, or squash court are often my saviours. 🙂

      January 11, 2017
  2. howard wideman #

    Excellent Ryan check out cal Newport ted talk book deep work. Facebook is addictive entertainment producing fragmented attenti

    January 10, 2017
    • Thanks for the suggestion, Howard.

      January 11, 2017
  3. christoph #

    many communicate, few connect

    January 11, 2017
    • So very true. Or is it the reverse? I suppose it all depends on how we define our terms…

      January 11, 2017
  4. Paul Johnston #

    I’m wondering if you have observed this phenomena and if so, offer observations. My 13 year old, unless regulated, will spend countless hours, “chatting” on line with a particular friend. When she is in the company of this friend at our home, they often ignore the opportunity to communicate to one another, face to face and spend most of their time on their separate devices talking to others.

    I find this behavior to be, at the very least peculiar and at worst, somewhat disturbing.

    January 11, 2017
    • Yes, I observe this phenomena often. 🙂 It bewilders and frustrates me to no end (except for when I’m the one doing it!).

      January 11, 2017
  5. Thanks, Ryan. Many good reminders. The technical settings–such as turning off the notification alerts, not doing email on the phone–are fine, but it’s the internal compulsions to keep checking our devices that I find the most insidious. It’s a perpetual spiritual battle to unhook from the need to know how “liked” I am in that big world beyond my day-to-day, fleshly, at-hand neighbourly connections. The internet has become a place for everyone to reach for deified identity, a Babelesque kind of quest r the sky. Even my need to comment here is part of the problem. I’m with your paraphrase of Paul: who will deliver from my myriad contradictions… Moan a lament, fall back on grace, light a candle, then repeat, and repeat again.

    January 11, 2017
    • A perpetual spiritual battle… How very true. A battle I am well-acquainted with. Thanks for sharing.

      (Your last sentence rings so true!)

      January 11, 2017

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