Social Wisdom for Social Media: Are "Smart Phones" Making Us Smarter?

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If time management and productivity marked the aspirations of the last half of the 20th century, attention management may well capture the early decades of the 21st. Productivity will likely take a back seat to focus. Linda Stone, a highly regarded thought leader in the field of technology, coined the term “partial continuous attention” to describe the effect of the constancy of media coming at us through every conceivable device. She writes on her blog,

“We pay continuous partial attention in an effort NOT TO MISS ANYTHING. It is an always-on, anywhere, anytime, any place behavior that involves an artificial sense of constant crisis. We are always in high alert when we pay continuous partial attention. This artificial sense of constant crisis is more typical of continuous partial attention than it is of multi-tasking.

She continues,

“In a 24/7, always-on world, continuous partial attention used as our dominant attention mode contributes to a feeling of overwhelm, over-stimulation and to a sense of being unfulfilled. We are so accessible, we’re inaccessible. The latest, greatest powerful technologies have contributed to our feeling increasingly powerless.”

The next time you find yourself in a public place note how many people are looking at their phones. Note how often you take out your phone to check email, to tweet or to make a move in your latest game. How does this impact your attention to the people you are with?

The essence of worship is attention. The Danish philospher-theologian, Soren Kierkegaard said it well. “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” The Psalmist put it this way, “One thing I ask of the Lord; one thing I seek, that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life and gaze upon the beauty of the Lord.” Psalm 27.  Jesus captured the goal when he said to his disciples, “Seek first the Kingdom of  God and his righteousness and all these things will be added to you as well. (Matthew 6:33).

In an ocean of distraction, how can social media serve as a vessel that cultivates attentiveness? How do we avoid creating yet another online option vying for the precious gift of attention? What practices of meditation and even breathing might we develop to sustain a reflective focus in a world of continuous partial attention? Is what we are hosting online competing with a thousand other similar sites or are we up to something qualitatively different? Do we really need another “app” for that?

Speaking of “apps,” I wish someone would develop an “app” that counted how many times a day we push the button to look at our phones and broke it down by the hour. It would be fascinating to compare work hours with home hours.

I deal with issues like this on my own blog a lot. I recently authored this piece along the same lines.

The Problem with Smart Phones

A page without punctuation is like a life without spaces.

It happens to me constantly. I bet it happens to you too. Just this morning I scrambled around to get ready. Someone was picking me up for work around 8. I somehow managed to be ready a full 5 minutes before 8. I walked out onto the front porch and felt the cool morning air. Birdsong rang out from the trees. The garden still dripped dew. In response to that I sat down on the front porch swing, promptly pulled out my iPhone 4 and began to check email. That’s when it hit me.

A page without punctuation is like a life without spaces.

Everywhere we turn we see it happening people riveting their attention on a little rectangular device in the palm of their hand these devices for all the good they do can literally consume every square inch of space in our lives wherever there is a pause instead of a inserting a comma I pull out my phone and see if it’s my turn on Words with Friends on the short walk from my car to my office instead of inserting the (ellipses) my mind so desperately needs before launching into a full day of work I pull out my phone and fire off a text or two about who knows what on the short one mile commute from work to home instead of inserting a (question mark) and preparing my heart for home I pull out my phone and squeeze in a quick callback and most unfortunately after I arrive at home instead of the joyful interjecting exclamation marks of joy I pull out my phone and scan my twitter stream or update my facebook

A page without punctuation is like a life without spaces.

See what I mean? So much meaning is missed without proper punctuation. So it is with life. We miss so much of life’s every day meaning without those gifted spaces and brief interludes. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not giving up my iPhone. It’s not Steve Jobs fault. I’m taking back those little spaces. I’m learning to restore attention to the little mysteries offered by an ordinary day. So the next time I’m in an in between moment, instead of pulling out my phone, I’m going to put in a punctuation mark.

It’s really that simple.

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Farmer. Poet. Theologian. Jurist. Publisher. Seedbed’s Sower-in-Chief.

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