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Book Review of “When I Married My Mother: A Daughter’s Search for What Really Matters – And How She Found It Caring for Mama Jo” by Jo Maeder

When I Married My Mother: A Daughter's Search for What Really Matters - And How She Found It Caring for Mama JoWhen I Married My Mother: A Daughter’s Search for What Really Matters – And How She Found It Caring for Mama Jo by Jo Maeder
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Reading this book this time of year with my dad’s birthday last week and the fourth anniversary of my mom’s death as our caregiving/receiving journey together ended was probably not the best idea I’ve ever had.
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Book Review: “How We Do Harm: A Doctor Breaks Ranks About Being Sick in America” – Dr. Otis Webb Brawley

How We Do Harm: A Doctor Breaks Ranks About Being Sick in America by Otis Webb BrawleyHow We Do Harm: A Doctor Breaks Ranks About Being Sick in America, in my opinion, should be on everyone’s to-read list.

Dr. Brawley does an excellent job of showing how American medicine, with profit as the bottom line (propped up by insurance companies, Big Pharma, and often-faulty research that is manipulated to making fear the driving factor for patients), does more harm than good in most cases under the pretense of providing “health” care. Continue reading

Book Review: “The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606” by James Shapiro

 

In my profile of William Shakespeare’s character, King Lear, from the play of the same name, it was clear that Lear was suffering from dementia and, most probably, Lewy Body dementia.

The Year of Lear Book Review Going Gentle Into That Good NightSo I thought I’d share my review of The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 by James Shapiro to get a wider perspective on the year that saw Shakespeare give a title character in one of his plays many of the behaviors and symptoms of advanced cognitive impairment and Lewy Body dementia.

This book explores how the world around Shakespeare (beginning with the Gunpowder Plot on November 5, 1605 – now commemorated annually in England as “Guy Fawkes’ Day” – which had deep political and religious roots) during the early part of the reign of King James I, with an especially tumultuous year in 1606, influenced his writing that year.

Much of what was going on politically, socially, and emotionally in England at the time is reflected in the lines of King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra, all of which are among Shakespeare’s tragedy plays and all of which Shakespeare wrote in 1606.

The Gunpowder Plot in late 1605 triggered much of the political and religious climate that overshadowed 1606. The plot, engineered by English Catholics who feared greater persecution – they got it – and more “do-or-die” pressure to abandon their Catholicism – a prescient fear even they didn’t realize the extent or depths of of James I – underscored the continued intense subterranean battle between England’s Catholics and Protestants.

While the plot was thwarted by the usual treachery and intrigue (it would have obliterated much of the heart of London government – buildings and people – and would have significantly changed the overall physical landscape of London), James I – as King of Scotland first, he was viewed as an interloper by much of the English population – reacted ferociously with a wide net that touched every English citizen, including Shakespeare, determined to have his will – the union of Scotland and England under one umbrella – no matter what he had to do to make it happen.

It seems James I did everything he could to alienate his English subjects, including moving, by disinterring, the graves of the royals in Westminster Abbey.

Most notably, he disinterred Elizabeth I and buried her on top of Mary I (“Bloody Mary,” the religiously-fanatical daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, whose main accomplishment on the throne was a religious pogrom against Protestants, of whom Elizabeth I was one), then moved his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots (one of Elizabeth’s staunchest rivals for the English throne), into Elizabeth’s grave and giving her a greater position of status in the cemetery.

William Shakespeare as a young manShakespeare, who lived in the heart of London most of the year, had a front row seat to all of this as part of the King’s Men, who were patronized by the crown, as they had been during Elizabeth I’s reign.

1606 was a year of fear (the plague hit London particularly hard during 1606, adding to the political and religious fear that was rampant in the city) and division (political and religious) and nostalgia (although by the end of her long reign the English believed Elizabeth I’s rule had become stagnant, the actions of James I made them long for her “good old days”) that punctuated the year.

I highly recommend this book even for people who may not know or really appreciate the incredible talent and acute, heart-of-the-matter insight that Shakespeare brought as a writer to his plays. Perhaps it will be a catalyst to go and read at least these three plays through the eyes of 1606.

“The Tale of Dueling Neurosurgeons” by Sam Kean – Book Review and Recommendation

The Tale of Dueling Neurosurgeons by Sam KeanFor those of us who are dealing with the effects of cognitive impairment and physical neurological damage in our journeys through dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease either as caregivers of loved ones or as actual participants, The Tale of Dueling Neurosurgeons: The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recovery by Sam Kean should be on our reading list.

Each chapter covers a section of the brain, its functions, and how defects change not only that section of the brain, but the behaviors associated with it.

Reading this will give us some excellent insights into the behaviors we see when dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease are present. I always believe that our ability to help and respond well and lovingly with any health issue, including neurological decline, is directly proportional to how well we understand what is happening and why.

My Goodreads review:

“Sam Kean has done a great job of not only showing the history of neurosurgery (all the way back to the 16th century) but also how a handful of people in the space of about 400 or so years discovered key basic biology and functionality of the brain.

Historically, brains have not been treated well and people with neurological defects (birth, genetic, or circumstantial) has fared even less well. Reading this, you can’t – unless you have no heart at all – feel anything but a whole lot of empathy for the people whose neurological defects gave us more understanding about how the brain works.

Except for the discussion of kuru in Papua New Guinea. If getting completely grossed out in detail is your thing – it still makes me shudder and I skimmed over the worst of it as soon as I read the first offending description – you probably won’t mind. I mind. A lot. It’s just too yuck for words.

Otherwise, a very well-written engaging and informative book. And it’s accessible and conversational.

As much as I love the study of neurology and neuroscience, as I actually do biology and medicine, I apparently, though, still have that little glitchy hangup with the dissection/surgery/”Ewwww…I have to touch THAT?” part that goes along with it.

That’s too bad, because except for that, this would have probably been my actual calling in life (there, Daddy, I said it…I’ll tell you in person when I see you again.)”

“Being Mortal” by Dr. Atul Gawande: Book Review and Recommendation

Being Mortal Book ReviewAfter watching PBS’s Frontline program “Being Mortal” with Dr. Atul Gawande, I knew I wanted to read this book with the same name.

It didn’t disappoint. Having intimately walked through aging and the end of life with both of my parents up close and personally, I could nod my head at much of what Dr. Gawande said about life and medicine as it exists today and how it should be instead. Surprisingly, I found some comfort in knowing that my parents and I – although many times it seemed like a David and Goliath battle – together took the right and the best approach toward both.

Everybody should read this book. It highlights one of my mantras about living: quantity doesn’t equal quality and in the end, if there’s no quality, there’s no life.

We Americans especially are on this eternal quest to cheat aging (and spend who knows how much money on one gimmick after another to try to sidestep it or avoid it altogether), so we ignore the inevitable fact that this body is temporary and it starts failing us gradually and slowly from the day we are born.

And because we ignore the aging process, we do not plan and are not prepared – nor, for the most part, is society – for the changes that need to be made, while preserving independence, vitality, and purpose, when we reach the point of physical breakdown where we need help.

We Americans also have been so removed from the process of dying that we literally treat death as an abnormality instead of the expected and intended end of all humans.

Medicine has accommodated this and public policy and insurance companies have thrown their support behind this quest for “a little more time.” What buying a little more time has cost us is a lot of money, more harm than good (the cure is often far worse than the disease), and the loss of quality of life.

Dr. Gawande refocuses aging and end of life through a difference lens. He poses the questions most people, including medical professionals, don’t want to ask, but should ask. And we should answer.

Some of us will die suddenly – the reality is that no death is unexpected, because that’s the end game for all of us. Even if we die suddenly though, there are many things we need to have in place to make our deaths as easy on whoever will be taking care of our affairs afterwards as possible.

If we die suddenly then we may be too young to have to plan for aging well. But many of us will live long enough to come face to face with the aging process. Without a plan, all bets are off.

If we want control over how our lives go when we age to the point where we need help and we want control over how our final years, months, weeks, days on this earth unfold in terms of what’s most important to us (family, friends, faith, being at home, etc.), then today is the day to start thinking about it, plan for it, and make our decisions known to everyone who needs to know.

“A Deadly Wandering” – by Matt Richtel: Book Review and Recommendation

very inspiring blogger award nomination going gentle into that good nightAs I write for Going Gentle Into That Good Night, I don’t just think in a confined space of caregiving for our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease.

That’s important – and the focus of most of the posts here – and the information I provide is practical and addresses daily life for us as caregivers and our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease.

I work constantly with the goal of providing what caregivers need in one place and where they will not find anywhere else.

The two books I’ve written for caregivers about dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease – Going Gentle Into That Good Night: A Practical and Informative Guide For Fulfilling the Circle of Life For Our Loved Ones with Dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease and You Oughta Know: Acknowledging, Recognizing, and Responding to the Steps in the Journey Through Dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease – are written with the same goal.

I was the caregiver for my mom who had vascular dementia, Lewy Body dementia, and Alzheimer’s Disease, as well as congestive heart failure. Someone gave me a copy of the bible on these diseases – The 36-Hour Day – and not only was it written by clinicians who had never actually been through the day-to-day with these diseases, but it didn’t address the very specific things I was seeing with my mom and it didn’t address the in-the-moment things and challenges of daily life that we as caregivers and our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease face and need to navigate through.

Most disheartening for me personally was the absence of dignity and love for our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease in a lot of what I read.

These people that we love and loved fiercely were treated at worst as mindless, inanimate objects and at best as newborn babies who needed to be stripped of all control and input into their lives.

So after my mom’s death in 2012, I decided to do my best to give caregivers what I didn’t and couldn’t find, doing the research, drawing on experience, staying abreast of these neurological diseases and providing what has been the only – and still is – comprehensive resource for caregivers of loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease that wasn’t just specific to my mom and didn’t focus on just a single aspect of the breadth and width and length of what caregiving and being cared for entails.

Make no mistake, though. My mom is a part of many of my posts because that’s where I got the practical experience, but except for my very personal posts on those days when missing her comes on me full force again, my mom is not the focus of this blog.

You the caregivers and your loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease are. That is why I continue to take the experiences that you talk with me about and I continue to add to the resources here.

My work here will never be done. That is my commitment and my promise to each of you and to your loved ones.

One of the things that has become evident over the past few years is that our lifestyles – yours and mine – potentially make most of humanity headed for dementia because we’re creating a fertile environment for neurological degeneration.

One of the lifestyle factors that poses, in my opinion, the most significant risk of neurological degeneration to the most people is our increasing addiction to technology.

The research in neuroscience backs this up. We have too little absence in our lives from technology.

Technology changes our neuroplasticity (the part of the brain responsible for creating neural pathways) and, as a result, there are parts of our brains that are getting short-circuited and bypassed altogether. This leads to cellular atrophy and, eventually, death – the hallmark indicators of dementia. Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows is an excellent book on how this happens.

Attention, Technology, Increased Possibility of Lifestyle DementiaA Deadly Wandering: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption in the Age of Attention by Matt Richtel looks at another aspect of how technology affects the brain in terms of attention.

My Goodreads book review of A Deadly Wandering: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption in the Age of Attention:

“Excellent book that weaves an actual story of the unconscious attention deficit created by using technology (in this case, texting, but it applies to all technology) while driving a vehicle with the neuroscience behind the human ability to pay attention (stay focused) with multiple, seemingly-equal, stimuli coming at them all at once (multitasking).

The reality is that multitasking, for 99% of us, is a myth we’ve bought into and it’s making us more unable to pay attention to anything for long (there’s a dopamine hit that mimics the same hit that drug and alcohol addicts get with that first snort, draw, liquid ice in the veins or drink – the hit is short-lived, but we’re hooked and we first want it and then we need it), more unproductive, more unconscious in terms of critically thinking and keeping the big picture in focus, and more of a danger, in some cases, fatally so, to ourselves and others.

Everyone should read this book. It’s a tough read at times, both in terms of the pain and suffering revealed in all the people discussed in the book and in terms of the fact that when we look in the mirror, we’re most likely going to see the “bad guy” in this book with our faces looking back at us.

It’s a cautionary tale that we all need to take to heart and do something about TODAY.”

“Memory Lessons” – Jerald Winakur: Book Review and Recommendation for Caregivers

Going Gentle Into That Good Night Book Review and RecommendationMemory Lessons: A Doctor’s Story by Jerald Winakur is a must-read for all us who are caregivers for loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease. Going Gentle Into That Good Night cannot recommend it highly enough.

This is my Goodreads review:

“What an incredible book! Dr. Winakur is a geriatric physician – old-school, steadfastly bucking against the managed care model of the for-profit companies that own medicine in the U.S. and Big Pharma, the for-profit companies who advertise magic-in-a-pill drugs directly to consumers and pay off medical providers to prescribe them – and is/was the son of aging parents, one of whom was his dad, who had dementia.

Dr. Winakur weaves the story of his philosophy as a doctor – do not harm, take the time to listen t0 and to think about each patient, we all forget, in devaluing our elderly population and shuffling them off to care facilities because we’re too busy with our own lives and can’t be bothered, that not only do we owe them our turn in the circle of life, taking care of them when they need us most just as they took care of us when we needed them most, but one day, if we live long enough, we will be them and the examples we set with our own attitudes and behavior toward them are what our children see and what they will, in turn, do to us – with the story of his family and his parents.

It is refreshing, poignant, and from the heart.

A must read!”

This is great book for all of us as caregivers. He is a doctor and a caregiver for his parents. It’s interesting to see how he deals with the same dilemmas and decisions as a son, in spite of being a geriatric physician, that we do as sons, daughters, grandchildren, sons-in-law, daughters-in-law, and spouses of our loved ones.

Part 3 – “The End of Absence” (Michael Harris) Book Review

The Visual InternetThis is the last of a three-part series of reviews that I am writing on The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection written by Michael Harris in 2014.

The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We've Lost in a World of Constant Connection by Michael HarrisIn “Part 1 – The End of Absence (Michael Harris) Book Review,” we looked at the definition of absence and how it relates to our quality of life.

We also discussed how constant connection to technology is eliminating absence from our lives, and in the process, rewiring our brains with dementia-like characteristics. It is a lifestyle dementia that we are consciously creating by choosing to live in a world of constant connection.

We also discussed how the disappearance of absence is also causing the disappearance of our ability to think, to to reason, to plan, to dream, to create, and to innovate. In short, we’re trading the depth of real life, with all its hills and valleys, simplicities and complexities, and triumphs and failures (all of which make us better people, in the end), for a fake, virtual, shallow life that, in the end, means absolutely nothing.

In “Part 2 – The End of Absence (Michael Harris) Book Review,” we discussed data mining and predictive analysis, showing how the internet is actually shrinking our worlds, instead of expanding them.

We also discussed how our virtual worlds, with our ability to easily eliminate anyone and anything that doesn’t look us, ends up just being a mirror we look into, which first stagnates, then eliminates growth, change, maturity, and thinking.

We also discussed how we’ve surrendered our critical thinking to the internet world of public opinion, which is often ignorant, uninformed, and devoid of expertise. As a result, we get a lot of wrong, bad, and possibly even dangerous information that we are increasingly accepting as valuable and good, without any control mechanisms in place to follow through and make sure that we’re not being led down the primrose path.

And, finally, we discussed how a constant connection to technology erodes the selfless part of us (empathy, caring, serving, looking for all others) and cultivates the self-centered, self-absorbed, selfish part of us.

The reward factor of being the center of attention all the time, even when we’re just typing nonsense or run-of-the-mill things, motivates and grows this self-absorption until all we look for is adulation and affirmation.

The impact of this is that truth – as hard as it can be to stomach sometimes – goes by the wayside and a completely false sense of self, worth, and value, albeit virtual and not real, becomes our view of ourselves.

In this last part of our review of The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection, we are going to examine further how our lives are being robbed of meaning, experience and richness by our constant connection to technology.

We are also going to look at ways to bring absence back into our lives, if we’re brave enough, daring enough, and strong enough to quit following the masses into intellectual oblivion by enslaving ourselves to the machines.

My experience says that humanity in general just doesn’t have the willpower nor the intense desire to free itself from what’s destroying it. Once we get comfortable, we don’t want to move.

I hope that I’m wrong in this case, but the pragmatist in me says I’m probably not.

One of the ways in which our constant connection to technology is robbing us of meaning, experience, and richness in our lives is that our focus has become broadcasting life instead of living life. We, in effect, live in an augmented reality that we stage, produce, and filter through the lenses of our smart phones or digital cameras, but which we don’t experience in the moment or spontaneously participate in.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz Going Gentle Into That Good NightHarris gives a perfect example of augmented reality from L. Frank Baum’s classic book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

Although in the 1939 movie, Emerald City is actually green (the movie starts out in black and white and then suddenly changes to full color as soon as Dorothy leaves Kansas and is on her way to Oz), in the book it was not.

The reason that Dorothy and Scarecrow, Cowardly Lion, and Tin Man believe that Emerald City is green in the book is because the Wizard of Oz  tells them to put on safety glasses to protect their eyes. The safety glasses are tinted green, so everything these four see is green. 

In other words, they’re not seeing anything as it actually is, but instead they seeing it through a filter that makes what they are seeing seem real, but in fact, it’s not.

Just like most of us don’t normally style our food every day like the chefs on the Food Network and most of us don’t naturally stage our lives and homes to be photo-perfect. That’s just not reality, if we’re actually living our lives.

However, the trend toward this as our normal way of treating life is growing, and we are increasingly spending more time making our lives social-media-friendly than we are actually living them as they naturally occur and not even worrying about whether all our virtual world even knows anything about them.

Examples of this abound on social media with pictures of food we eat and events that we go to such as weddings, family reunions, social gatherings, etc.

How many times – and for how much time – have we stepped out of the reality of a messy kitchen while we’re cooking and plates of food that aren’t perfectly arranged and garnished to stage our breakfast or dinner meals for social media?

How many times at social gatherings do we spend all our time documenting activities and sharing them on social media instead of actually participating in what’s going on?

When we start living an augmented reality, then we lose authenticity and genuineness. The more and the longer we do this, the less able we will be able to know the difference between what’s real and what’s staged, and the less we exercise our natural and tint-free sight, the more easily we will be manipulated and controlled by other people and other things.

Wag the Dog Dustin Hoffman Robert De NiroIf you haven’t seen the movie, Wag the Dog, you should watch it soon. This movie was prescient with regard to the augmented reality of all media, politics, and “news” and how it would manipulate the United State public into believing whatever they saw or heard, without questioning and without verifying. Digital technology has just exponentially enhanced this manipulation.

It is always with this movie in the back of my mind that I take most of the stuff I read or hear from any media outlet with a grain of salt, because I know it’s not true (spinning, angling, omissions, innuendo, gossip, etc.) and I also know it’s not genuine or authentic, but instead staged and produced to have a desired effect on the general population.

Augmented reality destroys truth. For those of us – and it seems there aren’t many of us left who aren’t all caught up in it, hook, line, and sinker as if it is true – who know it’s not true, it has also destroyed our trust.

Another example of augmented reality is with US citizens and their participation in political processes.

House of Cards Kevin Spacey Robin WrightHere’s the reality. All politicians are liars and the process of politics is dishonest and dishonesty (the first two seasons were so hard for me to stomach that I refuse to watch any more of it, but Netflix’s original series House of Cards, with Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, gets this in every disgusting and gut-wrenching detail).

And yet a lot of American citizens want to participate in a process that ultimately (here’s the other augmented reality: money and electoral colleges do the down and dirty decision-making, not the American public – the voting thing is just a ruse to make people believe they are instrumental in the process, but they’re not) chooses somebody who is thoroughly dishonest and can’t be trusted.

And when Americans are asked why they participate when confronted with the corruption, the dishonesty, and the lies of politicians and politics, nine times out of ten, one of the answers is “I’m choosing the lesser of two evils.”

That’s augmented reality, folks. Evil is evil. Why would any of us choose it at all?

And augmented reality is not limited to the media, to politics, and to politicians. It is everywhere in our society today. Education, entertainment, religion, social activism, nonprofits, business – if you can name it, augmented reality rules.

And technology has fueled this infiltration into everything we see and we hear.

But that alone is not enough to dupe us, to manipulate us, and to control us.

What makes us entirely susceptible to being duped, manipulated, and controlled is our constant connection to technology. It is analogous to the certainty of radiation contamination – and death – with prolonged exposure to radioactive materials.

Where and with what we spend most of our time is what we come to believe is true and reality.

Because we have, over time, chosen to spend our time constantly connected to digital technology and have gradually eliminated absence in our lives, our ability to objectively think, logically think, and critically think, as well as to prove or disprove information and things as true or untrue by analysis and research, we have also put ourselves into the position of completely accepting lies as truth and fake as real.  

How many times have we seen some internet hoax automatically recycled on the internet as truth (and then tons of people start sharing it and broadcasting it), when a simple (and fast) check of Snopes before we share it all over the internet would tell us it’s a hoax?

Our constant connection to digital technology has made us vulnerable and gullible. We are much more willing to accept augmented reality than we are actual reality.

Here’s why. Actual reality contains inherent risks. It’s also messy at times. It’s hard at times. It’s ugly at times. And it’s negative at times. That’s part of breathing for a living.

But digital technology, with its filtering capabilities that let us choose to unfriend, unfollow, unlike anything that is risky, messy, hard, ugly, and negative, has essentially created an augmented reality made up of rainbows, lollipops, and unicorns that completely disconnects us from the realities of life, growth, change, and maturity, as well as developing our uniquely human capacity to care, to empathize, to comfort, to encourage, to be patient, and to be kind and merciful toward other people.

Of course, we expect all those things from other people – and we get an inauthentic and superficial version from our virtual world (I mean, really, how hard is to type a few letters saying “sorry,” and then just go on with life because it is not right in front of you and it’s not impacting you in real time?) – because our constant connection to digital technology has led us to believe that everything really is “all about me.”

Technology is not the originator of this “You’re Good Enough, You’re Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like Younarcissism that infects our entire society today, but it has been the catalyst for its rampant and invasive spread into every part of our society and our lives.

So now you know the bad news that all of us are facing with regard to a constant connection to technology.

Are we doomed to this fate with no recourse?

Have we irreversibly surrendered all our power to this invisible monster that is gorging itself on all the things that make you you and me me until we’re all just hollow shells of nothingness on the outside attached to technology’s puppetmaster strings?

The good news is that we are not doomed with no recourse nor is this current trajectory irreversible.

However, like any addiction or entrenched habit, we will first have to consciously choose, then commit, and then act, making those actions a permanent replacement for what we are doing now, to reverse it.

And it will be hard until it becomes our new (and for those of born before 1985, our old) habit. And it will take a huge amount of self-control and discipline to actually accomplish it.

Are we up to the challenge? I hope so.

So, then, what steps can we implement right now to start the reversal?

The first step is to limit our exposure to constant connection.

Instead of checking email every hour, commit to checking it no more than three times a day (morning, noon, and, this is my usual cutoff, the end of the day…meaning the end of daylight hours). 

Instead of wearing your smart phone like underwear, leave it on a desk or a cabinet out of your immediate reach. You really don’t have to pick it up and answer every text or every call as soon as they come in. If someone really wants to talk to you, they’ll leave a voicemail (most people don’t).

Limit checking texts and voicemails to three times a day. Set aside, within each of those times, a certain amount of time to deal with them, and stop when time runs out. And put the phone away again until the next time you’re scheduled to check it.

Here’s the funny thing. People will adjust to this schedule and they will learn when you’re available and when you’re not and eventually that’ll be the only time they contact you. 

Emergencies, of course, are still emergencies and they are always exceptions to this rule.

However, we need to make sure that we understand what a real emergency is. Being out of milk for coffee, for example, is not an emergency. Our brains are going have to be retrained in a lot of different ways.

Allocate a certain amount of time each day (no more than two hours total) that you will spend on social media sites. The reality is that social media sites are the biggest time-wasters, for the most part, within digital technology.

This is time that we can easily recover for absence – solitude, peace, and quiet to reflect, to think, to dream, to plan, to innovate, to create, to learn – to be a part of our daily lives.

Instead of immediately going to Google when you don’t know something or you can’t remember something, write the question down and go to the library or a bookstore when you’re able and find a book and look it up.

This will be hard, because our constant connection to technology has produced impatience and a need for immediate gratification in us.

But delayed gratification will do two things. First, it will build patience. Second, we will begin to sort through things and regain a balance of what’s important and what isn’t.

If the effort of going to library or a bookstore to answer a question we have isn’t worth the time and energy, we’ll know that’s unimportant – and we can get rid of it.

However, if we can’t wait to get to the library or the bookstore to research our question, and we make that an urgent to-do item, then we’ll know that’s important – and we will keep it.

With a constant connection to technology, everything’s important, while in real life, there are some things that are important and some things that aren’t. This will help us regain that balance and perspective.

Turn your devices and all the noise (including music) off. On weekdays, set a time and turn them off with no exceptions.

Replace that time you would have spent on them with interacting with a good book (yeah, the ones with the pages and the real covers) or interacting with real people, like family and friends, by having dinner together or playing a board game or cards (not video games) together. This will naturally lead to conversation and connection with real people and real life. Do not turn the devices back on until the next day.

Choose one or two days a week to disconnect altogether from technology. Turn it all off. The weekend is an excellent time to do this and will give you plenty of absence in which to rest, recharge, and regroup with no extraneous interference impeding you.

I personally find it very difficult to jump back into the world of connection each week when I do this myself. I love not even thinking about and I don’t miss it at all.

With all the absence it builds into my weekends, I often find myself wishing I never had to reconnect ever again because I realize how disruptive it is in my life, even though I have strict limits on it and I’ve cut my exposure time down to the bare minimum.

In the end, even a little is still too much, at least for me.

When you have all the time back that doing these few things will give you, use it wisely.

If you have a neglected hobby, take it up again. If you don’t have a hobby, find one.

Read books. Take walks.

If you’ve got snow on the ground, bundle up and go outside to play in it. Build a snow fort or build a snowman. Admire the beauty and cleanness of a freshly-fallen snow.

Watch how the sun reflects off of it. Watch the clouds in the sky. Watch a sunset from beginning to end.

When spring comes, go find a lush, grassy hill or meadow and lie down on the ground and look at the sky.

Ride a bike. In the summer, go outside at night and look at the sky and the stars and the planets and dream.

In the fall, walk through the unparalleled beauty of the vast array of colors of the trees as they change.

Get outside and do something, not just for your body, but also for your mind.

The bottom line is there is no substitute for absence.

We aren’t missing it because we let it go gradually along the way over time and we didn’t even notice.

But when we start bringing absence back into our lives, we will be surprised, after we get used to it again, how much we missed it and how much we almost lost it for good, and, my hope, is that we will be determined never to let it go again.

 

Part 2 – “The End of Absence” (Michael Harris) Book Review

information superhighway going gentle into that good nightThis is the second of a three-part series of reviews that I am writing on The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection written by Michael Harris in 2014.

The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We've Lost in a World of Constant Connection by Michael HarrisIn “Part 1 – ‘The End of Absence’ (Michael Harris) Book Review,” we looked at the definition of absence and how it relates to our quality of life.

We discussed how absence gives rise to critical thinking, problem-solving, short-term and long-term planning, concentrated focus, and creativity.

We also discussed the physical, emotional, and mental benefits of absence.

And, finally, we discussed how absence has been eroded by our constant connection to technology to the point that it is virtually extinct in our current society.

We discussed how this has dumbed down society as a whole and how susceptible that makes us to being controlled, manipulated, and deceived by technology.

And, finally, we looked at how much technology and our constant connection to it mirrors the society that George Orwell described in 1984, coming to the conclusion that the frighteningly eerie similarities should compel each of us to consciously choose not to follow the crowd and intentionally limit our connection and ensure a healthy amount of absence exists in our lives individually.

In this post, we’ll take a behind-the-scenes look at what happens with all the data you’re willingly and freely putting into digital technology every time you text on your phone, go to a website, input anything onto social media (including the infamous “like” button on Facebook), do a Google search, buy something online, watch streaming video, and play internet video games.

We’ll also see how being constantly connected to digital technology brings that data back to us and shrinks our exposure to real and complete knowledge (Google infamously does this with their industry-standard data mining and predictive analysis processes, which narrow search results down to what we want to see, based on our input, rather than everything there is to see).

In effect, we are being shaped and manipulated in an endless loop of our own little world of preferences and beliefs with subtle changes and false ideas about value and credibility being implanted along the way.

Our constant connection to technology is literally rewiring and incorrectly programming our brains. This negatively affects – if not outright destroys – our value systems and belief systems.

Additionally, our ability to not only think for ourselves – and change our minds based on that – but also to critically and objectively think, as well as to think outside the boxes of what we know and are familiar with is rapidly being destroyed because we depend on technology to do our “thinking” for us.

Additionally, we’ll continue our look at how our constant connection to technology is essentially creating a virtual life (think the movie The Matrix) that we are being conned into believing is real life, while actual real life, which includes lack and absence, is rapidly disappearing for all but a few of us who are aware of what’s happening and refusing to let it happen to us.

Our lifestyles, which now center around technology, are creating a new kind of lifestyle dementia, and most of us don’t even realize it’s happening. That’s why you need to read this book and that’s why I’m spending so much time reviewing it.

don't surrender you're ability to think to anyone or anything elsePerhaps you think what is being described here is impossible and this is just an alarmist warning that you can blow off because “that’ll never happen.”

It’s already happened and it is happening. I know technology very well from a big-picture and a behind-the-scenes perspective, so I’m speaking as an insider and an expert who has worked and does work with this on a daily basis.

Here’s the reality. Whether you choose to ignore this is immaterial. It’s already well in motion and progressing rapidly and, if we choose to remain ignorant and we choose to continue our constant connection, we will be devastatingly changed in the process.

And the sad part is that, like the society that Orwell discusses in 1984, not only will we not be aware, but we will not care, even if it’s the most destructive thing that can happen to humanity.

One of the ways in which our constant connection to technology has changed us is that now our default choice is to use technology to interact with people and things rather than actually interact with people and things for real. 

Here’s a simple comparative survey of why our brains have been rewired to prefer technological interaction with people and things rather than real interaction with people and things.

With technology, we can ignore or eliminate or limit our time with anybody or anything we don’t want to have to deal with. This can include people and things we find challenging, who disagree with us, who don’t “tickle our fancy,” and who “make” our lives “harder” just by their presence.

With a click of a button, we can unfriend them or unfollow them and turn off their news feeds, or we can avoid those things altogether until they simply no longer exist to us.

What we end up with in the process is an artificial, virtual world that we create to make us feel good. It’s also a shallow and stagnant world that ends up being essentially us looking in a mirror and seeing nothing but our own image reflected, because the people and things that are left after our unfriending, unfollowing, and avoiding are those that never challenge us, always agree with us (even when we’re wrong), and boost our feel-good emotions (as we do theirs).

In real life, those people or things are right there with us and we have figure out the best way to deal with them whether we want to or not, even if that means putting up with our co-workers, friends, and relatives or all the tough things that exist in real life.

In other words, we can’t turn them off (and if we eliminate them, in the case of people, then we go to prison). So it forces us to find creative and workable ways to share the same space with them and it increases our relating-to-humanity-and-things skills and builds traits like patience, kindness, gentleness, understanding, empathy and mercy.

These are character-related traits that cannot be developed in the artificial, virtual world that constant connection to technology enables us to create in our own image.

And our artificial, virtual worlds make demands on us as well, although this dark side is seldom, if ever, on our minds or consciences. They demand our 24/7 attention and presence and because of our acquiescence to those demands, we lose absence. Solitude. Peace. Disconnection.

Absence gives us time alone with our thoughts, alone with ourselves, and alone with our ideas, our dreams, our hopes, and our imaginations. Absence also gives us the ability to regroup and recharge our brains and ourselves. It gives us a chance to get away from all the “noise” of life and have peace and quiet.

Here’s the irony. We need solitude as part of our mental, emotional, physical and spiritual health. There’s no other way to survive life.

Yet, even for those of us born before 1985, from the moment we’re born the emphasis is on socialization.

Society is so insistent on this – my parents often had to drag me kicking and screaming as a small child into social situations because I was always very uncomfortable with them, and as I got into my teenage years and could make my own choices, more often than not, I chose staying home over going somewhere either for a few hours or overnight – that most of us are uncomfortable being alone and being quiet, with nothing to entertain or distract us.

Technology and constant connection ensure that we don’t have to be uncomfortable, and it amplifies the illusion of constant company.

This, by the way, began before digital technology. Before there was the internet, there was television. And before television, there was radio. All of these technologies gave – and give – the illusion of constant company because of the noise and the distraction they provide.

And here’s the reality for humanity now. For those of us who remember absence, we have the constant choice of saying “yes” or “no” to constant connection. For those of us who came of age with constant connection as part of our normal lives, we don’t even know there is a choice. And that is truly sad.

Because our artificial, virtual worlds seem real to us because they’re replacing real life, our brains get rewired in additional ways by the illusion this creates.

One way is that we feel surrounded by people like us, so we feel free to say whatever we want to say however we want to say it. We don’t care how wrong it is, how hurtful it is, or how confessional it is. Constant connection, by subverting thinking, has removed the filtering that normally goes into thinking before we speak.

In this way, the words spewed out on the internet actually mimic one of the tell-tale signs of dementia: the loss of impulse control and ability to know what things to verbalize and what things to keep to ourselves. 

Another way that constant connection to technology rewires our brains is that it promotes the self all the time. With an artificial, virtual world that we have created and are the center of, we can continuously draw all the attention to ourselves.

This self-broadcasting, which shares many traits with narcissism, includes fervent self-documentation consisting of constant tweets, continual status updates, and a never-ending supply of selfies.

In effect, a constant connection to technology makes us incredibly self-centered, self-absorbed, selfish, and it reinforces our belief that “it’s all about me.”

So it’s no surprise that we’re less empathetic, less genuinely caring (caring for someone online takes little effort, engagement, involvement, and commitment while caring for someone in real life takes continual effort, engagement, involvement, and commitment, no matter what circumstances arise), less able to listen and hear what people are saying or trying to say, less understanding, and less able to provide authentic comfort, encouragement and support.

In other words, a constant connection to technology makes us less human.

So why do we do it? Because it’s rewarding online. The more attention we garner, the more we want. If everybody notices us and loves – or likes – us, that is very motivating to continue our self-tracking because it feeds our egos.

A constant connection to technology and self-broadcasting gives us the approval we crave just for living life and doing the mundane things it requires of all of us. Somehow, having a bunch of people like and praise some routine, ordinary thing we’ve done makes us feel extraordinary and accomplished.

It doesn’t happen like that in real life. Most of what we say and do goes completely unnoticed, even though we may say and do a lot and say and do a lot of good, but despite that reality, those of us who are invested in real life just keep going on and putting one foot in front of the other.

A constant connection to technology rewires our brains to stop doing our own thinking and shop it out the the public opinion of the internet.

This costs us far more than we are remotely aware of.

In choosing constant connection and public opinion to do our thinking and decision-making, we choose to abandon the most powerful workshop we have access to, which is our lone minds.

In our lone minds, which only solitude can give us, we can think objectively and critically through things. We can solve problems. We can fill in missing pieces of the puzzles that life inherently has. We can find connections between things that don’t look connected on the surface. And we can innovate and create scenarios and options that point us forward in our lives.

When we abandon our lone minds, we offer ourselves up to indiscriminate information from public opinion, much of which is conflicting, wrong, and worthless.

But because our brains are rewired to believe that’s a valid and real world, we accept all the input we’re given and make the erroneous assumption that it all has the same quality, the same value, and the same veracity.

And that will destroy us, because most of what we get is uninformed, uneducated, and unknowledgeable in the context of being “expert” information.

In addition to this and what most people don’t know is that public opinion is manipulated, especially on the organizational level.

For example, many organizations have people internal to the organization write a lot of positive reviews about whatever their products are to feed the search engines to give them a higher rating of satisfaction.

Data mining cannot analyze quality, only quantity. So the more times a search engine sees a name and sees positive input, the higher it ranks it organically. This is a driving force – and goal – in every organization with an online presence.

There are two types of search engine results, paid and organic.

paid organic search engine results PPC

Paid search engine results (the ones in the example above with AD to the left of the link) are those that organizations pay, often a lot of money, to the search engine for significant keywords to get top-of-the-page (or top-right-side-of-the-page), first-page placement.

This is known as pay-per-click (PPC) advertising. Each time someone clicks on the paid advertisement, whatever that keyword costs is what is charged to the organization. This can get really expensive really fast.

Organic search engine results (in the example above, below the faint gray line, starting with the Alzheimer’s Association’s link) are generated in order by how many times the keyword appears on the site and how much traffic (search engines don’t really care where the traffic comes from, only how much of it there is) goes to the site (this is where social media sharing has really taken center stage in driving traffic to sites). This doesn’t cost anything.

So, it should be obvious why organizations manipulate their data behind the scenes to get higher organic ranking. The most prevalent (and most dishonest) way has become social media sharing and having people internal to the organization physically go to the site as often as they can. More hits equals higher ranking in the organic search results.

What does that have to do with us and the end of absence and constant connection to technology? Everything!

We instinctively choose what’s listed first because we connect that with what must be the best. However, because what’s listed first is simply because of manipulation (which we are unaware of) and not because of proven and tested quality, we get duped in accepting things as “best,” “right,” or “most” when in fact there is no proof any of those things are true. It’s all an illusion.

google-logoBecause we have come to believe that Google is always right and if it’s on the internet then it must true and because the answers are alway immediate, we have abandoned the mental processes that time would allow – comparison, analysis, perspective, insight, and wisdom – so that we could be sure we were making the right and best choice. That’s the lack of absence that real life decision-making gives us.

instagram-logoAnd what do Google and Facebook do with all that data you share with Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Google (these are just a few – everything you do on the internet gets stored somewhere and is analyzed by software that gets a sense of who and what you are about using predictive analysis, so that what you ask for ends up being things that appeal to or interest you, not everything there is on the subject)?

The next time you do a Google search, log in to your Facebook account afterwards. Look at the right hand side of the screen where the ads are. Odds are good they will be for what you just searched for in Google.

twitter-logoPay attention when you share links on Facebook to that same right hand side of the screen. The odds are good that whatever the content is within the link you shared will be what the advertising is for.

facebook-logoThis is predictive analysis in your face. Most of it is not, but Facebook makes no secret that is what they are doing to try to get you to buy something.

Google’s method is invisible, but much more detrimental and dangerous.

Google uses what is known as a “filter bubble” to generate search results. This gets personalized for each person that uses Google and it is based on our preferences and our activities.

Google keeps meticulous track of our searching history, promoting the same results each time we repeat a search and further personalizing them based on which results we choose to follow through on by clicking on the links Google shows.

Each time we do the search, results are pared down to match our personalization preferences, which in effect means we get exposed to a narrower and narrower view of the universe.

Facebook uses this same algorithm in our newsfeeds. We might have 100 Facebook friends, but we interact with 10 or so almost constantly.

All the statuses of those 10 will always show up in our news feeds. The other 90 friends will randomly show up in our news feeds based on how much we interact with them and they interact with us.

The more interaction, the more likely the statuses will show up randomly – not always – in our news feeds. For friends with whom we have little interaction on Facebook, their statuses disappear from our news feeds altogether.

In other words, the internet is making our worlds smaller, not bigger.

And the personalization that makes our worlds smaller, not bigger has affected every part of our lives. The music we listen to. The suggested content for us to watch on live streaming. How and if we get employed by an organization.

And it seems that our brains are, with their constant connection rewiring, accepting this as being okay and we’ve adopted an “out of sight. out of mind” mentality toward anyone or anything we don’t see regularly or at all.

Here’s what we must understand and realize about how dangerous this is and how much we’re losing in the process.

Personalization is really just the glorification of our own tastes and our own opinions. It eliminates the big picture and a general, broad and comprehensive base of knowledge and understanding while embracing customization, specialization, and a singular viewpoint that takes nothing around it into account (no context).

Personalization cuts off our access to real learning and real knowledge. It cuts us off from the very things – and people – who could help us the most.

Because there is no “surprise” content to challenge us, to think about, to learn from, and to grow and mature in, we stagnate in life.

Stagnation is one step away from the regression to the kind of mindlessness that typified 1984‘s society as a whole. We are not that far from it ourselves.

In the next and last post reviewing The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection, we will look at the final third of the book, still looking for signs of hope, although the prospects of that are getting dimmer.

Part 1 – “The End of Absence” (Michael Harris) Book Review

internet going gentle into that good night neurological changesThis is the first of a multipart series of reviews that I will write on The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection written by Michael Harris in 2014.

I have written on the main point of Harris’ book in “Dementia of the Preoccupied: How Multitasking and Being Attached to Technology 24/7 is Creating A Dementia Effect on Society” and “The Quintessential Leader Perspective On the Art – and Beauty – of Silence,” which everybody should take some time now to read.

The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We've Lost in a World of Constant Connection by Michael HarrisI would also highly recommend that everyone read The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection. At about 200 pages, it is completely doable for the shorter attention spans (one of the side effects, as I’ve noted and Harris notes, of a life immersed in digital technology).

Michael Harris and I, it turns out, are, completely independently of each other, raising the same red flags about the brain that morphs (or is born into) into an existence that resides primarily or solely in a digital, always-connected world.

This post will look at some of the research, statistics, and ideas presented in the first quarter of the book, along with my commentary on them.

Reading should ignite an intense interaction in us that includes questioning, testing, proving, thinking deeply about, and making connections with experience and information we already have in our neurological repository of neurons, interconnected lobes, and synaptic networks.

Reading should challenge us, educate us, and give us a broad and rich knowledge base from which we can glean wisdom and understanding. 

Reading should also spark creativity and original thinking that moves us mentally, emotionally, and even spiritually beyond where we were to begin with.

I seldom see this anywhere anymore.

I think that is directly related to how and what in terms of quality and content we’re reading, if, in fact, we’re reading at all (based on my research and observations, it appears the overwhelming majority of us are either on a steady junk-food diet or we’re starving ourselves in this area of life).

Instead, it seems we become the masters of copying and sharing hackneyed and trite little sayings in glancing blows that neither we nor anyone else even pauses at or pays attention to.

This is a result of the end of absence, and it has made us, future generations, and humanity in general poorer. We’ve become slaves to the machines and given up being the captains of our own destinies. In other words, we’ve capitulated to being controlled by technology without even putting up a fight.

I have, over the past couple of years, gradually pulled back from even a semblance of constant connection (I never have been completely connected because I value and need peace and quiet and solitude – all things that “absence” gives us – too much to allow myself to be enslaved by a master that will destroy all that).

I have accelerated that even more in the last few months because I realized I couldn’t function well mentally with the constant and loud cocaphony that it seemed I could never get away from and of all those things that were contributors, this was the one I had complete control over. 

Although I tend to be a Type-A, naturally intense (mainly because I do think pretty seriously all the time and I’ve always found it almost impossible to relax and not be either looking for answers to the questions my thinking brings or for new ways to approach existing problems and dilemmas to resolve or get past them) person, I have seen one source of stress significantly lessen.

And that has helped me clear out some much-needed room in my brain to work on important things, oh, like, life. Even if the answers aren’t here yet and all the problems aren’t solved or behind me yet, at least life in that area is quieter because I’ve consciously and purposefully made it much quieter and much more peaceful.

Peace and quiet can never be overrated.

Before I go further, we need to put digital technology in its proper big-picture perspective. Essentially that is why I write about the dangers and why Harris has written this book. Because there is no proper perspective and no balance. It’s all or nothing and that’s the danger.

But technology is not the source of that danger. We – you and I – are the source of danger. Human beings tend to be polar in their thinking and their behavior by default. If a little of something is good, then nothing but that must be sheer nirvana.

Paper In Fire John MellencampTo quote a line from a John Mellencamp song that resonated with me as much in my very early adulthood as it does today “…we keep no check on our appetites” nor do we recognize that overindulgence in any and all corporeal things will first make us sick, then increasingly unhealthy over time, until at last it finally destroys us.

And that lack of self-control and balance is at the crux of my posts on this subject (as well as the subject of lifestyle dementias) and The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection.

And I’m very qualified to discuss this because my entire career has been in technology. There are incredibly effective and efficient (in terms of usability, financial feasibility, and operational streamlining – in other words, maximizing value while minimizing overhead) uses for technology and I continually endorse, support, and advocate for those.

One area that I see where technology is best in increasing value and reducing costs is in routine brick-and-mortar operations and organizations.

These include companies that don’t sell tangible products, organizations that don’t promote or support tangible products, governmental regulatory departments (local, state, and federal), and educational institutions.

brick-and-mortar business organizationsBrick-and-mortar operations are extremely costly and offer little in the way of value when considered in the light of new technologies that allow people to connect remotely – as if they were in the same room – face-to-face to meet and do business or get an education.

Buildings cost money. Maintaining them costs money. Furnishing them costs money. Supplying them with utilities and office expendables and technology costs money. Expanding them costs money.

People filling the chairs in-house cost way more than people working remotely (both to the organization and to the employees in terms of transportation, food, clothing, childcare, and time lost with families). 

brick and mortar educational institutionThis is such an inefficient and costly way to work for everybody involved. The benefits are miniscule compared to the costs, which never end and will always encompass the bulk of brick-and-mortar operating capital. 

And here’s the irony that most brick-and-mortar institutions don’t realize or recognize: the true success of any service, business, support, or educational organization is doing more and better in both meeting existing needs and anticipating and growing toward potential needs.

Greater success, progress, and innovation is where the most money should be invested (in other words, a growth model). Instead, most of the money is invested in treading water and going nowhere and having nothing but a lot of unnecessary costs to show for it.

No sane business model would support this, and yet, at least here in the U.S., this is still primarily how most organizations set themselves up.

For someone like me who knows that in most cases this isn’t necessary (and for a fraction of the brick-and-mortar costs, offering better wages and better benefits encourage the best talent), it doesn’t make any sense and I have little patience for all the “oh, we can’t afford that” or “oh, we need more money” when they’re bleeding it out left and right in archaic-based waste.

Another reality of this brick-and-mortar structure is the endless meetings that accomplish next to nothing, but seem to take up the bulk of time. The truth is that most in-house meetings are a waste of time, but remote meetings where participants fly in are both a colossal waste of money and time.

However, there are very few people who want to give up flying somewhere for a few days and “doing business” for a fraction of the time they are there, while spending the bulk of time and money on socializing and entertainment. That’s so antiquated, so ineffective and so incredibly inefficient when compared to its cost and what actually gets accomplished to move forward.

However, some things lend themselves to brick-and-mortar. These are smaller operations that either sell perishable goods (bakeries are a good example) or goods that require an in-person visit to get it right the first time (shoes and clothing are good examples). These, however, are exceptions to the general rule.

Because I’ve been intimately involved with technology all my adult life, I have always been acutely aware of the dangers of constant connection and how it changes the brain.

I will never forget the one and only time that I, in an effort to combat a sleepless night, decided that playing a computer game with lots of motion, flashing lights, and noises at 2 a.m. would be just the thing to make me sleepy and calm me down.

I got sleepy after an hour or so, but every time I closed my eyes, all I could hear was noise and all I could see was flashes of light, and I never got to sleep that night. And I never made that mistake again.

Because of my knowledge and experience, I’ve always been consciously careful to make sure to maintain an offline life and an online life as balanced as possible because I have always recognized that I need both of them equally in my life.

One of the things that Harris talks about in his book is the divide between those of us born before 1985, who knew a world of solitude, peace, quiet, boredom, disconnection for extended periods of time, and the resulting creativity and problem-solving associated with that, and those born after 1985 who came of age in a digital world and have known nothing else.

There were two quotes from Harris’ book that struck me as I considered this divide:

“Every revolution in communication technology – from papyrus to the printing press to Twitter – is as much an opportunity to be drawn away from something as it is to be drawn toward something.”

“As we embrace technology’s gifts, we usually fail to consider what they ask from us in return – the subtle, hardly noticeable payments we make in exchange for their marvelous service.”

For those of us who knew a world at one time that was mostly offline and have transitioned full-tilt into an online world, we should ask ourselves what worthy and healthy things we have sacrificed to do so. 

It has never ceased to amaze me that people can’t go anywhere, even into a church service or funeral, without their cell phones (being on).

Our parents didn’t have cell phones (they didn’t even have answering machines until we were teenagers, if then). If there was an emergency while they were in church services or at funerals (most cell phone calls and texts, by the way, are not emergencies, despite the fact that we’ve elevated the mundane to a level of importance it doesn’t deserve), they didn’t know until hours later when they were home and could answer the phone or play the answering machine.

The world didn’t end with that lapse of time. So what has changed that we think it will now?

We’ve changed. Technology and being constantly connected to a digital world has given us a distorted and unrealistic, but frenetic and immediate, view of the natural rhythm and flow of communication, of life, and, even, of death. 

We’ve surrendered the beauty and serenity of an offline life that we had more control over to a 24/7 online life that controls us 100% of the time. We’ve become mere puppets to a puppetmaster that is constantly pulling our strings in every which way but loose.

Harris’ book urges us to bring back the offline life we knew and find a balance between it and our online life, because what we’ve given up by surrendering our offline lives is costing us dearly and in ways we don’t even realize.

As I’ve been reading this book, 1984 by George Orwell just kept going parallel in my mind because we’ve become the society that Orwell describes in that novel.

Those of us few who are aware of the danger are like Winston Smith, the novel’s protagonist, and the outcome for us is as grim as it was for him: either we will eventually and under great duress and pressure capitulate and become mere shells of our former selves or we will be destroyed because of the threat we pose.

We’ve surrendered our entire lives to technology. We’re not even aware that this has happened. But, as Harris says, “the sheer volume of time we devote to our devices means we are carving ‘expendable’ time away from other parts of our lives.” In other words, instead of enhancing our lives, technology instead becomes our lives and our experiences.

“Ceci tuera cela.” This line from Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame is apt for the impact of technology on humanity in terms of absence: “This will kill that.”

smartphone-text-messagingHere are a couple – at least for me – of surprising statistics just about kids and adults and text messages.

Kids send and receive an average of 4000 texts a month.

Adults send and receive an average of 746 texts a month. (I was not surprised that I’m not even close to being an average adult here, since I can count the average number of texts I send and receive in a month on less than one hand).

The volume boggles my mind for both kids and adults. Who has that kind of time? And who’s got that much to say? It’s beyond my comprehension.

But what happens neurologically is even more drastic. We become more comfortable with technology than we do with each other. Texting simplifies and reduces the quality of our relationships and increases our emotional distance.

Friends are replaced with contacts. We pretend that complete strangers are our new best friends and the people in our lives who choose less technological connection or are unable to have it fall off of our radars for good.

In other words, we abandon something for nothing.

And our brains form new neural pathways that make this not only okay, but the new normal for how we live.

It is very similar to the same mechanism – and the overarching demand it exerts – that is behind addiction: we crave “quick hits” and “fast fixes” and our lives are consumed with getting the next one.

Anything that requires investment, focus, concentrated attention, and thinking we ignore and turn away from.

It is the same reaction that an addict who doesn’t want to stop using has when they are confronted with rehab.

Neurologically, this becomes totally acceptable for us as technology literally changes the way our brains are connected and what our brains expect.

The changes to the brain, though, go even deeper than connections and expectations. Constant connection causes us to either abandon our memories (based on our actual existences) or subdue them in favor of what we come to believe are memories (stored in brain) but are actually reminiscences (found in an external source).

In other words, our brains are totally reprogrammed in terms of information: how we get it, whether we have to keep it, and whether it means anything or not.

It becomes a simple passive action of processing something outside us and our experiences, instead of the active action of finding, keeping, doing that builds unique records of our actual experiences in our brains.

An example of a reminiscence is doing a Google search for something we should know the answer to. If we don’t remember the answer, we Google it instead of taking the time to work with our brains to search and find the answer and all the original ancillary information and memories that are associated with that answer.

So let’s look a little more closely at what happens in the brain, where it happens, and what the implications are with constant connection to technology.

Digital technology reorganizes the brain. Because the frontal lobe of the brain (which handles decision making, problem solving, control of purposeful behaviors, consciousness, and emotions) is primarily involved in response to digital technology, new neural pathways get formed there.

Changes become evident (much in the same way as frontotemperal dementia) in areas of executive functioning. We become more fragmented, more unorganized, more unfocused, and more easily distracted and bored.

What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains: The Shallows by Nicholas CarrThe thinking process changes as well. We become what Nicholas Carr has described in The Shallows: more capable of “shallow” thinking and less capable of “deep” thinking. Therefore our interests turn to things that don’t require us to think and we studiously and consciously avoid things that would give us no choice but to think.

As thinking is disrupted continually and systematically within the brain, eventually it becomes altogether too difficult, and we abandon it completely.

This is where we become completely vulnerable and susceptible to external programming (whether that comes through people or technology), much like the society that Orwell describes in 1984.

We parrot opinions, beliefs, ideas that are fed to us, but we don’t have any knowledge, proof, or investment neurologically behind them to back them up. In other words, we become simply somebody’s “yes” people.

If we’re looking carefully, we’ll see the world around us is pretty much already like this. Thinking has become too hard and too time-consuming in the face of constant digital connection where we don’t have to think because all the answers are already there when we need them and the answers are right because Google said so, so what’s the point?

And yet that is the point. I would far rather have somebody who’s thinking deeply disagree with me and tell me why so we can put our heads together and reach a more comprehensive understanding or perspective on something (even if we still disagree on some aspects, which is okay) than to be surrounded by “yes” people who don’t have a clue or people who just don’t care.

And, quite frankly, I’ve observed, as Harris has observed in his book as well, that the latter two – the no-cluers and the don’t-carers – are the majority now.

And that’s tragic for humanity on a personal level, on a community level, and on a species level.

We are quickly disintegrating into a unconscious and complete embrace of in-and-out emotional processing (which is not reason and thinking based on logic, knowledge, and facts) and total abandonment of the gifts that are unique to us – that make us human.

These gifts are the ability to reason, to critically think, to test everything, to prove everything, to know because we’ve done the time-and-labor intensive personal work of testing and proving what is true and what is not. What is right and what is wrong. What is good and what is bad.

We will not be able to have any kind of meaningful life without these gifts. Without a framework, without a moral compass, without the ability to think, we will simply exist, unhappily, in increasing fear as well as mental, emotional, and spiritual poverty until we don’t.

No one in their right mind would bring children into this kind of bleak existence, so if time goes on long enough, we as a species will simply die out, if we’re don’t all destroy each other first.

In the next post on The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection, we will look at the next section of the book and see if Harris is any more hopeful than I am in anticipating what the future of humanity left to its own devices and constant connection looks like.