As a product of the 80’s, I’ve seen a large part of the evolution of technology. I remember our first computer in 1985; my dad’s carphone in 1989. I had my first pager in the seventh grade, my first cell phone by sophomore year of college, but held off on my first smartphone until 2010. I’ve seen communication go from labored to effortless; physical to virtual. I love technology, but I don’t love it enough to be married to it all the time. Time spent outside in nature, fully present with heightened senses, is the technology I value most. By “technology”, I mean it in the sense of skills and processes used to increase success and understanding.
“Instant gratification” is the buzz term of our generation, because it’s a well-fit shoe. We have so much at our fingertips, it’s often overwhelming. Most questions and problems can be solved in lightning speed without leaving the comfort of the couch. New technologies are developed and aggressively marketed to us, living up to the economic axiom of planned obsolescence. When we’re not interfacing with our devices, many of us become anxious, wondering what important post, picture, or breaking news story we’re missing out on. In that quest for constant reward, however, we can sacrifice being fully present with ourselves.
How many of us reach for our phones (or computers, for that matter) when we feel uncomfortable? It’s a quick escape, with endless possibilities. Surely, I’ve done it before; there are many tasks one can complete while waiting for their coffee, after all. But the more that phones become like second appendages in our civilization, the more I enjoy being free from it.
I miss the days when the phone was tied to the wall; when you left the house, you were actually unreachable. I still don’t bring my phone everywhere with me. If I’m running or biking, I’m not carrying my clunky phone. If I’m enjoying a meal with company, I don’t have it on the table. If I’m out, I’m out. I’d rather give my full attention to the experience at hand; to talk with those I’m present with, catch up on how we’re really doing; take a walk somewhere. If I’m sharing someone’s company, I want to be fully with them, not texting, liking posts, or talking with someone who isn’t there. I think we’ve all been on the receiving end of someone lost in their phone; they’ll disappear into their screen, occasionally interjecting back into the conversation after hearing only a piece of what was said, expecting a full summary of what they’d just ignored. Conversely, most of us have done that to somebody else at some point. Either way, it can feel like you’re in two separate worlds though “present” in the same room.
I worry about our future generation of children who’ve grown up with phones in their hands. In the over ten years that I’ve taught kids ages 12-13, I’ve seen some changes among them. Their perseverance seems to be in decline. If they can’t get the answer quickly from googling it, they’ll often give up. Their physical awareness seems to be on the decline as well: a lot more bumping into each other, knocking over things. I’ve seen many students walk into each other simply because they weren’t looking up; a couple of students have hit their heads on desk-corners from hurriedly reaching for something. Their conversational skills have changed, too. Less questions are asked of each other (“How was your weekend?”); less eye-contact is made. There is an impatient cadence to their tone. I hope they learn to balance the constant rush of technology with real, meaningful human interactions.
Recently I was in line at Starbucks, and they were particularly busy. Every single person in line was looking at their phone. There I was, like a time traveler from the past, just standing there in one place, doing absolutely nothing, looking at nothing in particular, no phone. Just standing there; contentedly, no less. It’s not the first time this has happened, but it’s becoming more pronounced over the years. It seems that most people have adapted to always having stimulus – whether from an Instagram alert on their phone, to the TV or computer on at home – that they seem to get anxious when confronted with empty space and unstructured transitions. The ability to wait patiently, and presently, seems to be a thing of the past. People’s patience seems to be on a short fuse these days. No judgment, just observation.
Perhaps we are over-convenienced. Everything is so easily obtainable, it’s changed our metric for how long things should take. I realize phones are computers with many conveniences. I enjoy mine as well; I remember how much harder some things were without a smartphone. But I will not give up my independence for a device that can (and will) fail at some point in time. I like being able to wait patiently in line at a crowded Starbucks, not going anywhere, yet totally comfortable. To not need to reach for that escape feels good. If I need to use that waiting time to occasionally check an important email or text, then so be it. But I set the boundary. I think of it as a lesson in detachment and awareness.
When I was in college at UC Santa Cruz, I participated in Wilderness Orientation, a 10-day backpacking trip in the Sierra Nevadas, which I later volunteered to help lead two trips. We did an activity in awareness that I’ll never forget. We had been discussing the themes of mindfulness: the importance of stillness, presence, and breath; observation and inference. We went on a hike through Pogonip, but started at different intervals so we’d be alone. The goal was to notice as many details as you could. I turned a bend in the trail, and took a few steps, when a dangling leg caught my eye. I looked up and saw several of our crew perched up in an Oak tree.
In unison, they shouted, “AWARENESS!” I climbed up and joined them, and we waited for the next person to notice, or not notice, us. It took me about 5 seconds to notice them; not bad, but not as good as a few others who noticed right away. One person got almost past us until we all shouted AWARENESS! at him. When I feel my focus drifting, I still think, AWARENESS!
As a birder, awareness is especially important. You don’t want to scare off your prize. Eyes should be softly half-opened, not widely opened so the whites of your eyes are pronounced like a predator’s. Scan the landscape overall for any movements or shapes that don’t belong. Fox-walk: slowly transfer weight from heel to toe as you stalk, trying not to make a sound. Listen. Be still. Be patient. No sudden movements: Flow with Grace. It’s kind of meditative. The reward of seeing a beautiful bird in its element is worth the wait.
Anything that allows you to just be still is a great opportunity to focus on awareness, especially if it’s in nature. Having the time to connect with ourselves and the Earth is important, especially in this fast-paced world. It’s even better if you leave your phone at home.