One of my students told me recently that a friend of hers was planning to install a TV behind plexiglass in his shower. He said he was getting bored in the five minutes it took to lather and rinse and wanted a little entertainment as part of his morning routine. I was shocked by this brief anecdote and obsessed over it the rest of that day. I know that most people aren’t quite that extreme. But just in the six years I’ve been teaching school, I’ve watched the electronic world start controlling more and more aspects of my life and the lives of everyone around me, and I’m worried.
Technology has given us so much. I love seeing my sisters’ facebook status updates and feeling, in a limited sense, like a part of their everyday lives even though I live 1,500 miles away. There are certainly huge advantages to having instantaneous communication and access to worlds of information that were once beyond our reach. But what has technology taken away? What did it replace? Modern inventions did not fill a pre-existent void. It wasn’t like people used to sit for hours looking at their hands and wishing for small rectangular boxes that would play music for them or enable the to communicate with friends; they lived full lives. So what did we lose?
There are many possible answers to that question, but one of the most tragic casualties of the modern world is the lost the art of introspection–the ability to think deeply about all of life. Thinking has become a utilitarian process designed to “get us through” school, work, life in general. There is no time or space for reflection when computers, phones, and televisions are dictating every minute of our days. We think we are the ones in control; after all, we press the power button, we click on the link, we send the text. But the opposite is happening. Because we no longer have built-in pockets of time that force us to reflect–we have multiple digital worlds available to fill our minds at any given moment–we choose not to reflect. Electronic devices, from computers to phones to TV’s, are like a drug. Rather than being forced to fill our own minds, we have someone else to do it for us. We sit back, take the injection, and enjoy endless hours free from worry, annoyance, fear, or pain. Once we’ve developed an addiction to electronic input, we feel a void whenever there is no one else to do our thinking for us. We have lost the ability to form our own thoughts, and we fear silence.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not somehow above all this. During a recent layover in Milwaukee, I was sitting alone at a cafe eating a turkey and brie croissant. Because of my greasy fingers, I couldn’t read my library book, and within seconds I was bored. In response to that boredom, I found myself reaching for my electronics; my Ipod and cell phone were within tantalizingly close reach. I chose instead to sit in silence and see what happened. At first, it felt like my mind wandered all over the place, searching for something with which to fill itself. Denied electronic input, my mind started creating its own input. I thought about the book I was reading, about my trip to Italy last year, about my school’s accreditation process. I started mentally working on my course outlines and solved a problem I’d been mulling over for a week. I looked around me at the people in the airport. No one was just sitting there. Nearly all of them had a cell phone in hand and were talking, texting, or listening to music. I had solved a simple problem at work in just a few minutes of quiet think time. Were any of them capable of making a much greater discovery or breakthrough, but were too occupied by Twitter updates to make it?
In an interview during a tour of Auschwitz, holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel looked at a pile of shoes once worn by victims of the Nazi gas chambers and lamented, “How many Nobel Prize winners died at the age of one? Two? And whose shoes are here? One of them could have discovered the remedy for cancer, for AIDS…the great poets, the great dreamers.”
I think about the billions and billions of dollars in electronics that people own–cell phones, iphones, ipods, laptops, TV’s, DVD players, stereos, radios, Blu-Rays, BlackBerries, Xboxes, Wii’s, PlayStations, and innumerable other electronics and think, “How many would-be Nobel Prize winners are too busy with trivialities to ponder the deeper things in life? How many potential scientists, poets, and great dreamers go to their graves having their need for accomplishment satisfied by high scores in a video game?” My hope is the eventually people will grow weary of the cold utilitarianism of the digital world and that the pendulum will swing back the other way. We desperately need to return to more authentic relationships, deeper thinking, and real-world accomplishments.
Interestingly, a few days ago I heard another story about a guy who got bored in the shower. He noticed the way the water flowed over his hands and was struck with the idea that if transistors could be coated with just the right substance, moisture would flow over them in a similar fashion. He then thought that silicon dioxide would be the perfect substance for coating those transistors. This man was Jean Hoerni, whose shower-inspired invention of the silicon chip made him a billionaire and changed the world as we know it. He used some of his wealth to start the Central Asia Institute, which is now educating thousands of underprivileged children in the most hostile regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. What if Jean had been watching TV in the shower instead?