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We Are Just Not Here Anymore

At weddings, guests tweet real-time photos of the festivities to friends far away. At sporting events, fans follow scores of games in other cities. In classrooms, students text with friends in other classes and parents out in the world. At funerals, mourners send out selfies to pals in other places.

Everyone, it seems, is interacting more with people who are elsewhere — and less with the people around them. As technology seeps through society, dampening every dry aspect of our lives, something is happening to: the idea of being present; the desire to be in the moment; the notion of living right here and right now.

Whenever we go anywhere, we are — and we want to be — somewhere else simultaneously.

David M. Levy, a professor in the Information School at the University of Washington, has been concerned for quite a while about the accelerated pace and overload of life today and how that tampers with our well-being.

In an interview, David says he doesn't believe that smartphones and tablets and other devices are the "root cause" of acceleration and overload, but rather "expressions of our more-faster-better philosophy of life and our economic system, which privileges abundant and efficient production and consumption over human relations and more contemplative — reflective, intimate, connected — ways of being."

The Severed Self

For years now, folks have been mulling over the side effects of the fragmented self — and raising questions, such as: How can we ever feel comfortable with others when we don't even feel comfortable with ourselves?

The 1960s comedy troupe Firesign Theatre put it this way 55 years ago in the title of its recording: How Can You Be Two Places at Once When You're Not Anywhere at All?

Philosopher novelist Walker Percy noted the contemporary conundrum in his 1983 book: Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book. Percy lamented "the loneliness of self, stranded as it is as an unspeakable consciousness in a world from which it perceives itself as somehow estranged, stranded even within its own body, with which it sees no clear connection."

Kenneth J. Gergen, a professor at Swarthmore College, has written of the idea of the "absent presence." In his 2002 essay "Cell Phone Technology and the Challenge of Absent Presence," he observed people who were sitting in groups, yet were engaged in individual pursuits. And how such a situation affects our feelings. "We are present but simultaneously rendered absent," he writes. "We have been erased by an absent presence."

And in a recent New York Times essay about our incessant need to document our lives, Sherry Turkle, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of the 2011 book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, wrote: "These days, when people are alone, or feel a moment of boredom, they tend to reach for a device. In a movie theater, at a stop sign, at the checkout line at a supermarket and, yes, at a memorial service, reaching for a device becomes so natural that we start to forget that there is a reason, a good reason, to sit still with our thoughts: It does honor to what we are thinking about. It does honor to ourselves."

Sherry may as well be talking about focusing on who and what is around us at a given moment.

If the people you are with or the event you are attending are not important enough to command your attention, then: Why. Are. You. There?

True Connectivity

It's more complicated than that, of course. Students are forced to sit through classes. Businesspeople are required to show up at certain meetings. We all wind up at times in involuntary situations.

And, after all, being in touch with people we care about is a deep-down desire of the human species — which explains the phenomenal success of connective technology.

But there is an increasing sense that many people — regardless of surroundings — do not really want to be where they are. They want to be connected to someone else who is somewhere else doing something else.

The superglue is out of the tube. We will never go back to a pre-Firesign Theatre existence. But David Levy says there may be another way to deal with this societal upheaval.

He believes that our dazzling new digital tools can be used in more thoughtful and contemplative ways.

In his course Information and Contemplation, David teaches students the virtues of old-fashioned focus and discipline — and even meditation — in the midst of all our newfangled devices.

As reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Levy's students play back videos of themselves multitasking and they work to develop new ways to act and interact more effectively and efficiently. They do one task — such as email maintenance — at a time and resist all distractions.

"A good deal of my focus in recent years has been on exploring how to use our digital tools differently," he says, "to connect us to one another and to sources of information in deeper and healthier ways."

And that, in the end, may be the Next Great Frontier. Perhaps the great minds and moguls and motivators will invent newer, shinier tools to propel us away from apathy and alienation and toward true connectedness and community and more meaningful co-existence.

The Protojournalist is an experiment in reporting. Abstract. Concrete. @NPRtpj

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Linton Weeks
Linton Weeks joined NPR in the summer of 2008, as its national correspondent for Digital News. He immediately hit the campaign trail, covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; fact-checking the debates; and exploring the candidates, the issues and the electorate.
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