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The digital disconnect

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Siddhartha Tiwari
Siddhartha Tiwari
An alumnus of IIT Kharagpur, Siddhartha has keen interest on science, spirituality, and socio-economic issues apart from his conventional studies. He is an assistant professor of materials engineering. Twitter @sidiitkgp


Recently, in an inaugural speech of books titled Samvad Upanishad and Akshar Yatra, Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi said “….in this age of the digital world, our younger generation, tending to fetch the information from Google Guru, will definitely receive something phenomenal if they go through such books. In this very age of text and tweet, it is important to ensure that this generation should not go away from real knowledge…”

PM insisted to must have space for books in our house where family members should go through these value-driven sources of knowledge. What do these statements really mean when one of the most admired and popular political leaders of the world in social media speaks about the importance of thoughtful reading beyond social media and the internet? How such statements are really significant to the millions in this modern and dynamic world?

Is Google Making Us Stupid? I don’t think so. Actually, it is a popular essay published in 2008 in the July/August issue of The Atlantic, written by Nicholas Carr. This article, later extended to a book, The Shallows, speaks about what the internet is doing to our brain. In the above essay, Carr summarised the experience of many top-class knowledge workers who were regularly engaged in their routine work through the internet.

The statements of some of them, in the essay, are:

 … I’m not thinking the way I used to think…,

now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, and begin looking for something else to do…,

the deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle…,

the way I READ has changed…,

the way I THINK has changed….,

I now have almost totally lost the ability to read and absorb a longish article on the web or in print

Not only these anecdotes but also a couple of neuroscience studies were referred in the above essay to explain how excessive use of the Internet causes change in thinking, loss of ability to read and write, and tripping of mind from one task to another, and so on.

After more than a decade of these cautionary findings, there is no deterrent effect in the internet’s usage rather the situation has turned the other way around. But why? Let’s look into the two major factors in current scenario.

First, due to the restrictions of maintaining social distancing to combat the outbreak of Covid-19, we devote most of our working and non-working hours on the digital platforms. For example, office work virtually, webinars, online classes, e-marketing, video callings, and social media, and so on. But this whole situation is evolved due to unprecedented and temporary circumstances, therefore, can be an exception.

Second, most of the knowledge workers apparently feel sincere, productive, and dynamic by digitally connected round the clock with their offices, colleagues, and clients in the name of regular correspondence, communication and information sharing. Additionally, social media, web series, and similar other activities compel the human minds to be 24×7 digitally connected like a router that gathers information from one source and passes it on to another. This work culture, in modern time, is termed as the culture of connectivity.

It is significantly important to understand how much do we really accomplish with this culture of connectivity, and at what cost.

Leslie A. Perlow, Professor of Leadership in Organisational Behaviour – Harvard Business School, in her research with Boston Consulting Group found, workaholic consultants were spending around 20 to 25 hours a week outside the office monitoring e-mail.

It was a kind of pride feeling for most of the consultants that they remain digitally connected all hours to their professional world but ignored the suffering of friendships, fitness, and families in the long run. Leslie changed their culture of connectivity – a complete off from work, at least for a day in a week.

This small change resulted in a way that the consultants liked a little time off. For them, their stressful job became peaceful. They started feeling better in their jobs and less likely to quit and were rated their performances high.

Not only individuals but also organisations can have a long-term detrimental effect due to this always “ON” mentality.

In an article, titled “Email is Not Free” published in Harvard Business Review in 2013, Tom Cochren, tells about him exchanging 160 e-mails on average per day over five day work week in his job without the job profile of managing email flow. It is approximately a half-day and an hour if average 30 seconds have been spent in a single message.

His further findings with his colleagues and senior executives motivated him to understand the financial impact. To figure out  the bottom line, let’s borrow his statement “By calculating average typing speed, reading speed, response rate, the volume of email, average salary, and total employees, we were looking at a seven-figure price tag to quantify our email pollution. A “free and frictionless” method of communication had soft costs equivalent to procuring a small company Learjet. Each individual email ate up 95 cents of labour costs”. This is nearly 1 US Dollar which is equivalent to 70 Indian Rupees nowadays.

Interestingly, the economic cost of this culture of connectivity is found tremendously higher than what was expected. Moreover, its effect in human minds is irreversible and unaffordable.

In 2018, Maryanne Wolf, the Director, Centre for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners and Social Justice of University of California, Los Angeles, has authored a book on the reading brain in a digital world titled Reader, Come Home. In this book, the impact of technology on our brains, on our intellectual capacities, and on our future is discussed in detail with many scientific studies. About 10 years back, in a book Proust and the Squid , Wolf  compiled the story of the reading brain and the science behind it, where she asserted “the brain that examined the tiny clay tablets of the Sumerians was a very different brain from the one that is immersed in today’s technology-driven literacy. The potential transformations in this changed reading brain, have profound implications for every child and for the intellectual development of our species”.

There are many such studies that indicate how millions of knowledge workers and brilliant brains unknowingly lose natural ability of their minds embedded to perform scholarly work with full concentration and high attention. We are getting addicted to the fragmented concentration that causes temptation to our mind to switch frequently for something else to do; difficulty in staying focused. We are trapped into attention residue; we lose attention while performing a task because the residual thought of our previous activity, that has not been completely off, keeps striking in our mind simultaneously.  

Unfortunately, these critical issues are overlooked and unknown to us because we aren’t experts in neuroscience and psychology to realise the changes in the behaviour and thinking pattern of our sub-conscious mind. The ability of deep work, prolong concentration and a focused mind-set is rare in the new order of the world.

We are the society where our ancestors have the legacy of Yoga and Meditation; an exercise of the mind to practise diving into the deep. We perform many methods of worship where we avoid distractions for a long time. The ancient crafts and carvings over the walls and pillars of many ancient temples, monuments, and idols in India are not only the examples of high skilled act of hammer and chisel but also a perfect example of elevated wisdom of craftsmanship having control over the mind to focus like a converging lens; the way lens converges all the gathered light at one point. Our genetic growth of mind is in line with the practicing deep work with full concentration and high attention, but the direction of the business of the internet is quite the opposite.

The knowledge business of search engines like Google depends on how much and how fast do we search, jump one link to another. The data and feedback of this jumping help search engine to make advertisements to display on our laptop, computer, iPad, and mobile phone screens, etc. There are many such ways of the internet world to make money. It’s in their economic interest to drive us to distraction.

Internet is a wonderful tool for knowledge workers but it is equally important to understand how should it be used. According to our ancient scriptures, the human form of life is not meant only for some temporary and materialistic accomplishments but also one must have to understand its real purpose; Athāto Brahma Jijñāsā. There must be a balance in digital, physical and spiritual activities for the holistic progress of life. Let’s remain connected with the digital world without disconnecting ourselves from the real world. It’s a right time to rethink – the digital disconnect.

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Siddhartha Tiwari
Siddhartha Tiwari
An alumnus of IIT Kharagpur, Siddhartha has keen interest on science, spirituality, and socio-economic issues apart from his conventional studies. He is an assistant professor of materials engineering. Twitter @sidiitkgp
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