June 2009 Reflection

Relaxation always seemed a strange thing. My friends talked about times without activity, without thinking, without action, without feeling like they were missing something, and I never really understood why they craved it so much. Then again, maybe I’d just forgotten what that felt like. Pre-school, elementary school, middle school, high school, college, and even the time leading up to my first reflection on this scholarship felt like a constantly accelerating blur of life. By getting the chance to just stop for a while, I remembered what it felt like to truly and wholly relax. It’s meant not planning out my life and taking advantage of the unexpected movie or trip to Newgrange or lecture on epidemiological studies of social networks. Simultaneously, that flexibility has led to liberation from the feeling that a constant connection to whoever wants to reach me is a necessity.

Like many good things, that time is coming to an end, and I’ll be returning to a very different and increasingly connected world, one where each of us is expected to be constantly connected by cell phone, email, Blackberry, iPhone, or tin-can-and-string. Neuroscience tells us that these devices should increase stress in our lives because people are always looking for the best way to use their time. The easiest choices are those where there exists a clear answer, like laying in a lava pit or on a feather bed, and the hardest ones are those where the outcomes of choices cannot be well judged. By positing the current environment against the huge range of possible environments available to us electronically, we create situations where the best use of our finite attention is constantly impossible to judge.

That expectation leads friends to check their email by sneakily reaching into their pocket, pulling out a smartphone, face staring straight ahead as his eyes flit down to the screen held underneath the table, thinking that the rest of us somehow don’t notice. It means that we stop paying attention to the present reality, and begin to focus on an abstract reality where we are constantly evaluating whether those trying to contact us through the ether are more important than those physically around us. We become disconnected from our surroundings as our mental focus flits across the world and across the spectrum of ideas.

There are times where this is negative, but those are counterbalanced with positives: connecting families with video chat across oceans, enabling students to access libraries across the world in full text, and even enabling revolution. That said, this constant connection means we can never truly relax because there might be someone or something out there that is more important than who we are with or what we are doing.

Being able to disconnect has been enlightening. I can focus better and longer without responding to the most recent email or text. I don’t feel that wrenching in my stomach whenever my cellphone dies as I wonder if someone will call me about that really important thing that can’t wait. It means that I can go for a few days without checking email and surprise myself at not missing anything. It means I don’t feel some bit of the stress of modern, connected, urban life.

It disappoints me to possibly be shifting away from this relaxation and disconnection. I feel reminders in things like the phantom phone buzz, a well-studied phenomenon where you think your phone has gotten a text because you feel vibrations in the area where your phone usually is, even if you don’t have it with you. I periodically need to stop myself from compulsively checking email, waiting for those that will determine where I live and what I do this coming year. When I go do something spontaneous that keeps me away from the connected world, thoughts intrude that I might miss that important phone call or not respond to those seemingly pivotal emails fast enough.

In addition to so much else I have learned, I have had the opportunity to take a chance on the present and the immediate, and found that I didn’t know what I was missing.

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