Stuck in the clickstream

Bad news ... there's emerging evidence to suggest that the brain’s structure may be changing through heavy use of technology.

Bad news ... there's emerging evidence to suggest that the brain’s structure may be changing through heavy use of technology.

I can't pinpoint the exact moment I realised things had gone awry.

It may have been that first tweet from the toilet. Or the day I felt a phantom phone vibration in my hip pocket.

Somewhere along the way I began waking up in the middle of the night and fighting the urge to check emails. Technology had taken over my life.

It started with an iPhone. This revolutionary piece of hardware that I had furiously resisted for so long was a marvel. There was nothing it couldn’t do. A fingertip touch and they were all there: my bank balances and favourite tunes, the weather in real time, live footy scores and tram arrivals, video-calling with family overseas, Facebook, Twitter and two email accounts. Instantly. Night or day. It was intoxicating.


But slowly, I noticed things unravelling. I couldn’t walk two blocks to buy a lunchtime sandwich without plugging myself into iTunes. During that 90-second wait for the pedestrian light to turn green, there was no room for reflection. I’d instinctively reach for the phone.

At home, things weren’t any better. Watching television, I’d simultaneously be surfing the net and flicking through a magazine. In the gym, I streamed live radio to keep me occupied between sets of weights.

At work, the overload of information on my PC was making me dizzy. I’d find myself rapidly clicking from one screen to the next - Twitter to Facebook to staff messaging, to emails to news sites. The flitting only stopped when I had to answer my landline or pick up the texts and instant messages lighting up my mobile like a pokies machine.

I was completely wired. My brain felt heavy. I was jittery, my mind incapable of focusing on one task at a time. Surely this wasn’t normal? What was this bombardment of information doing to my thought processes?

Last week, I wrote a story that went some way to answering that question. While the research on the impact of technology on our mental health is not yet substantial enough to make definitive claims, it seems I may have been in early stages of an "i-Disorder".

This cacophony of electronic noise threatens to rob us of the precious moments of stillness we once took for granted. The ability to be present, absorbed only in our surroundings, unstimulated by cyberspace, can’t be underestimated. If we’re incapable of sitting with a quiet mind for even a minute, what does that do to our capacity for inspired thought? After all, boredom is often the breeding ground for creativity.

Technology is not the enemy. In many ways, it has changed my life for the better. My hopeless sense of direction has been aided enormously by Google maps and GPS on my phone. Skype allows me to chat with distant loved ones, while Facebook put me in touch with friends I hadn’t seen since high school.

But there has to be some balance. I worry that by being constantly plugged in, I may be losing more than I’ve gained. With my eyes cast downwards, how much have I missed?

Over the past few days, in a bid to wake myself from my electronic coma, I took my headphones off, left my phone on my desk and looked up. Life came at me from all angles. There was the little girl, grinning as she crossed the street in a headwind, arms aloft using her puffer jacket like a sail. The evening sky, purple and wondrous, opened up above me like a canvas.

Melbourne’s soundtrack - the trundle of trams, and the chatter of a dozen languages - was pitch perfect. Switching off helped me plug back into the world. My aim is not to give up on cyberspace altogether but to ration my time online and stop the mindless multi-tasking. Most of all, I want to remember how to savour the quiet.

I don’t know how long this tech break will last, but so far life outside the clickstream feels pretty good.