Plugged In, Turned On, Tuned Out

Findings published from the third installment of the Kaiser Foundation’s research project on children and their use of media shocked technophobes and -philes alike. According to the report, kids ages 8-18 spend more than seven and a half hours a day plugged into an electronic device (such as an ipod, smart phone, computer, or television). This figure does not include an extra hour and a half spent texting or talking on cell phones; time devoted to homework, or an extra three and a half hours of media exposure accrued by multitasking.

As one commentator concedes: it no longer makes sense to debate whether such technological use is good or bad. We need to “accept it” as part of children’s environment, “like the air they breathe, the water they drink and the food they eat.”

Must we equate ipods with oxygen? Debates over the morals and merits of technology are as old as human civilization. There are questions to ask that move us beyond good and evil.

1. Are we using our tools in ways that weaken the sensory capacities they extend?

Every human invention extends a set of basic bodily capacities in a direction farther than it could otherwise go, and in effect, reduces our need for developing those skills and sensations.

Recall Socrates’ debate, for example, over the act of writing, as an extension of our capacity to remember. When we write something down in order to remember it, aren’t we giving ourselves permission to forget?

2. Who is using whom?

The tools we use organize our patterns of physical and mental movement; shape our thoughts; space and time our tasks, and map our sensory awareness. Using tools grants us a sense of ourselves, and what we can do. It structures our relationships to other people, places, and elements. Whether pencil or plow, book or boat, ipod or iphone, the tools we use use us to make them work. We learn, in using the tool, what turns us on.

The issue these questions share concerns our participation in the rhythms of our bodily becoming. The movements we make are making us. But how? As we invest ourselves in this technology, are we cultivating a range of skills and sensibilities that aligns with our ongoing health and well being?

Answers are trickling in for kids who are plugged in. Regarding the sensory education such technology use provides, evidence is emerging of a correlation (at least) between hours spent consuming media and pounds added consuming calories. However, the causal factor between childhood obesity and screen use, believe it or not, does not seem to be sitting.

While researchers point to food advertisements as encouraging excess intake, the issue may have more to do with how screen use educates our senses. While watching a screen, regardless of whether we are in a chair or on an exercise bike, we train our attention away from what our bodily selves are doing and towards what is coming to us through the monitor. Tuned in we tune out. We reinforce the sense of ourselves as minds over bodies that causes us to override the wisdom of our bodily selves in all realms of our lives–including in our ability to follow the arc of our eating pleasure to a sense of enough.

Moreover, in using these devices we not only train ourselves to think and feel and act as if we were minds in bodies, we train ourselves to desire this sense of ourselves as itself a primary source of pleasure, accomplishment, and even health. Our dopamine level surges when we override our bodily discomfort to check email, harvest soybeans in Farmville, or receive the latest tweet from our favorite star.

As for how our tools are using us, commentators regularly comment on the enhanced multitasking ability of the techno-savy. However, it isn’t the multi in this formula that is new. Humans have been manipulating complex maps of parallel and entinwed processes for millennia in order to survive. What is new is the sensory and kinetic range of the tasks: since media use occupies a smaller swath of bodily selves than the tasks of, for example, making all our own food and clothing, we can indeed train ourselves to tolerate more of them.

So what difference does it make if our kids use these technologies in ways that reinforce their sense of themselves as minds over bodies, and reduce their sensory range?

I offer three points, knowing there are more.

First, Rodolfo Llinas’ recent book argues that how bodies move influences how brains develop. One implication, anticipated by Nietzsche in Human All Too Human, is that when we train ourselves to still our bodily selves in order to think and read and write, we cut ourselves off from a primary realm of our creativity—our senses—and the source of materials through which we think at all. It is not an accident that Nietzsche’s Zarathustra is a dancer.

A related vein of inquiry concerns empathy. As the Blakeslees document, people with a greater visceral awareness—that is, a heightened awareness of their own feelings and sensations—demonstrate a greater capacity to empathize with other humans. Such empathic qualities correlate regularly with the ability to create and maintain mutually life-enabling relationships. One implication is that bodily practices that train our attention away from our sensory selves—even in the name of networking—may diminish our capacity to form strong, mutually beneficial relationships with other humans. (In what sense are fellow Facebookers friends?)

A third line of concern is one Richard Louv raises in his book, Last Child in the Woods. Louv diagnoses a nature-deficit disorder among our children, precipitated in part by an increased use in technological devices. As kids train their senses away from the natural world, they don’t learn how to be in the natural world—how to open to receive it. They think that “nature” is what they see in their wildlife videos, and get bored with the real thing.

Louv asks: where is the next generation of environmentalists and natural scientists who will be able to notice and care about the destructive impact humans are having on the very web of life that enables them to be?

Whether we are talking about the relationship to our bodily selves, to other humans, or to the natural world, then, the logic is the same. We may be losing our ability to sense and enact what we need in order to be able to create relationships that will support us in our ongoing sensing and enacting. Nietzsche called such a state decadence.

We do know that the question of how to cultivate relationships with ourselves, each other, and the natural world is a primary challenge we confront in the 21st century. It is also clear that electronic devices are not about to disappear.

The question that arises then is this: what kind of practices can or must we engage alongside our electronic device use, so that we can be sure to develop the sensory awareness we need to engage and use this technology in ways that enhance our ability to thrive? What kind of movement matters?

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