Pay attention to what’s present

We all have an addiction to a busy, connected life, but we can slow down


I used to take walks in the fall.

The season on this side of winter is my favourite one. There’s something about the combination of freshness and the sense of loss (of the summer or something more vague) that used to make me stop and really take it in, without fail. I went out multiple times a week. I obviously loved it.

Why it stopped isn’t so clear. But I think it has something to do with distraction. One year I started taking my old mp3 player with me (back when many dedicated devices existed for that) and listening to my favourite songs. When university came around my dad gave me my first cellphone and I started carrying it everywhere in my pocket. I had always carried a camera too, but as the years went by I also saw the number of photos I was taking ballooning from a dozen or two on a walk to a couple hundred. I didn’t realize that I wasn’t seeing the forest now. I was documenting it.

This is also the subject of Kimberly Johnson’s story in this week’s features section. She voluntarily “fasted” from technology for a week and wrote us an insightful article on what it was like, and frankly I’m amazed it isn’t longer. It’s a brave move—I would have to convince myself to leave my phone at home for even one day—and it strikes me as more valuable than just a playful experiment.

Don’t get me wrong. If technology brings us one thing, it’s connection, and that’s indispensable. The global awareness we can now have with incredible quickness has many benefits. The brilliant American anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote about TV, “For the first time, the young are seeing history made before it is censored by their elders.” That effect has only intensified in the intermediate decades (nowadays we even find TV somewhat too scripted).

In the same way, the two letters on the opposite page are strikingly different in scope. Andrew Michael Riess’s letter about Chartwells is a decidedly local one; many students who’ve eaten on campus in the last five years know his face, even if they can’t match the name to it. It’s a classic letter. On the other hand, not long ago it would’ve been impossible for Frishta Bastan to “follow” the Afghan election and instantly write to the politicians.

To say nothing of the fact that my writing and publishing this letter is greatly aided by my office Mac.

But while an appreciation of both the detriments and the benefits of too much technology is essential, the one weakness of Kimberly’s approach, to my way of thinking, is the resolution on the word “balance”. It’s a safe call, but too often not nearly enough of a push in any direction. We can all agree that balance is needed, but unfortunately it hardly motivates us to change our dangerous extremes.

Rather, the main way we as humans correct one extreme is to swing, or at least advocate swinging, to the other. Even if we rightly reject the solution in the end, the fact of our complacency at least enters our mind.

So I’m going to try to be a little less connected, strange as it sounds. I’ll continue to pay attention to the wider world outside my immediate community—I can hardly help it if I so much as glance at Facebook—but I’ll take a step to avoid inundation by the things that are absent. Here’s mine: I finally got a new phone, a smartphone, and can finally check my four email accounts and Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and all that “cake” (as Kimberly calls it) at any time at all. I’ve been considering getting a data plan so I don’t have to wait to be in range of a Wi-Fi signal.

But I don’t think I will. Instead, I’ve just set my email sync to only every two hours instead of constantly, and I’ve turned off notifications for several of the above apps.

You might ask, what if someone tries to contact me and needs to do it right away? My answer is that they can do it however they did it last year. The more we facilitate our addictions, the more we cripple ourselves.

Remember, I’m not saying don’t keep up with current events. There are still a thousand ways to do that. For heaven’s sake, you can even read a good old-fashioned newspaper like The Medium and find an article on the debate between Mississauga’s mayoral candidates. You can read about how a candidate wants to extend the subway to Square One and reflect on how bad an idea that is. (Seriously.) And then tell it to the person next to you… and maybe share the laugh on Facebook tonight, rather than this minute.

This, anyhow, is food for thought as we at The Medium leave you for a couple of weeks while we all go enjoy Thanksgiving. The trick is that you can only be grateful if you look at what you’ve got and not always hunt for more. At least, that’s what I’m trying to learn this month.

Now to find a place for a “nature walk” event in my phone’s calendar.





This article has been edited since it was printed. The author alluded to is Kimberly Johnson, not Kimberly Green. A notice will be printed in the October 20, 2014 issue.