We are losing our ability to be in the present moment
Earlier this month, our local, classical music station, conducted its annual survey of the top 100 pieces.
As it had in some previous years, Beethoven's 9th Symphony finished No. 1. Listening to it, I was totally enraptured. Reflecting upon the experience later, I thought about what a great feeling it was, and yet, at least for me, it's not one that I have very often.
Reflecting upon the experience I had just had, coupled with a reading of Sherry Turkle's most recent book, "Reclaiming Conversation," the concept of "presence," popped into my head.
Over the years, with work and other pressures, I have lost some of my ability to be in the present moment with the beauties of nature, with elegant musical compositions, and with those I love. While, like many others, I have not been dragged further down by the obsession with electronic media, yet I continue to be very concerned that our younger people will never really know what it is to fully experience the joy that comes from the intimacy with these latter creations.
I fear we are losing three aspects of presence. The first one is solitude, or presence with oneself. In her book, Turkle writes that recent research shows that people are uncomfortable if left alone with their thoughts, even for a few minutes. She cites one experiment in which people were asked to sit quietly, without a phone or a book, for 15 minutes. At the start of the experiment they were also asked if they would consider administering electric shocks to themselves if they became bored. They said, "Absolutely not: no matter what, shocking themselves would be out of the question." But after just six minutes alone a good number of them were doing just that.
It is interesting to note that we may not so much be losing the ability to be present with oneself, as much as not ever having acquired the ability to do so. In fact, one of the main theories put forth for people's obsession with electronic media is their discomfort with being alone with themselves. Philosophers talk about existential loneliness, the loneliness of the human condition, and loneliness anxiety, the fear of being alone. Whether we characterize these latter moments as boredom, or something much more deeply rooted, electronic stimuli provide distraction from this unpleasant state.
The second aspect of presence is the presence with nature and with grand music and art pieces. Years ago, I could sit for hours at a lake or ocean setting and marvel at its beauty and enjoy the peaceful feelings that it evoked. Philosophers talk about these moments as "peak experiences," in which we feel unity with all of nature and its creation. Now, I can walk an oceanfront, only to see others walking past me on their cell phones, missing the smell of the ocean air, the sounds of breaking waves and sea gulls overhead and missing the majesty of the blue ocean water.
Lastly, I fear we are losing the ability to be present to others. This probably requires little explanation, since most of us have seen couples in intimate settings, such as dining establishments, totally absorbed in their smartphones. Turkle, in her book, talks about children she interviewed and their disappointment with parents who were preoccupied and not present to them. One girl relates that she asks her parents to put away their phones during dinner but they cannot hear her: "They don't feel bad. They tell me they are looking at something quickly or checking the weather or writing a quick email and that they are sorry."
Can the trend be reversed, or will generations grow up without the joy and pleasure of intimate experiences with nature and other individuals? I don't tend to be a pessimist, but I seriously wonder how we can break the current spell that electronic media have on ourselves and our families. When people consider it so important that they have to put their lives and the lives of others in danger while texting in their automobile, can there be anything said or done to make them stop this insane behavior? Certainly, there are benefits to the use of electronic media, but haven't we gone with them to the point of diminishing returns? As Aristotle argued as the basis of his ethics, "Nothing in excess."
Arguing that people should disconnect for a while isn't the answer. It's like telling someone that eats excessively to stop eating for a while. We need to return to the cause of our obsession with the devices and learn how to be alone with ourselves and to be present to others. If we are able to, we will see, hear, feel and experience in new and fresh ways. And isn't that a measure of what it means to be fully alive?
(Pete DeLisi of Fremont is academic dean, IT Leadership Program, Santa Clara University.)
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