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.

3 comments

  • Yes I do think its a bit sad that nowadays everywhere you look you can see people with heads down, tapping away on their smart phones. No one just looking out the window, or taking in their surroundings, letting thoughts flow. Where did this thinking come from that we must be every moment in cyberspace, the notion that being online is infinitely better than our present surroundings?

    Commenter
    Sue
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    October 17, 2012, 10:46AM
    • I agree it is sad that we are always in our own little worlds. I can't leave the house and commute to work and back without my ipod. I sometimes use it as a form of escapism and to obviouly block out all the noisy commuters.

      Saying that though I do love just sitting in the front room on a weekend with my arrow book with the balcony doors open listening to the wind or the birds and being in a sense of calm and peacefulness.

      Commenter
      Elle
      Date and time
      October 17, 2012, 2:20PM
      • There are actually structural changes happening in the brain. Every time you learn something your brain builds new connections, these are strengthened when you repeat those tasks. For the skills you don't practice the brain deletes these areas to make more room for your current preoccupation. How much information do we even need to memorise and store anymore now that it's all available at the touch of a button (or asking an AI program a question)? I have ADHD and I've witnessed how much technology makes my symptoms worse. I've also noticed how people around me can relate to my symptoms. I'm critical of this quick information age. We have these helpful tools but we are becoming their tools. You are exactly right, balance is key. I have lived with this brain disorder all my life and I don't want to see people getting a taste of that from something their lifestyle causes. I also think that if this continues or worsens evolution would adapt to the lack of proper use of the frontal lobe and the brain will once again shrink. During the week I go a long time without the Internet to stop becoming side tracked and forgetful, and a funny thing happens when I go online: I no longer feel the need to do all the usual things. Check email and by the time I get to Facebook I'm already over it.

        Commenter
        Shada
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        October 17, 2012, 9:18PM
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