As I’ve begun sharing my upcoming workshop schedule with people, the theme that’s had the most traction is technology, and using yoga to improve our relationship with the gadgets in our lives. I’m teaching a workshop on 26 April called “Time for a Digital Detox? Soft-focus living in a world full of hardware”. My intention is to share simple techniques from yoga and meditation that will help people to make healthier choices about their use of technology. As I prepare for this, my own digital habits have come into sharper focus.
In the last few years, computers have been shrinking at a fearsome rate. I now spend a good chunk of my time focusing in on a 3.5 inch screen clutched in my hands, performing tasks that 4 or 5 years ago would have required me to sit down at a desk and type on a full-size keyboard. I can feel my body struggling to adapt: a rounding of the shoulders, a poking forward of the head. And that’s just scraping the surface. The way we interact with personal computing devices seems to promote a certain kind of attention that’s at once narrow – hard eyes, zeroing in on a small screen – and superficial. I love Professor Clay Shirky’s redefinition of multitasking as “parallelized procrastination”: we can’t actually do many things at once, we can only not-do many things at once. No wonder we get to the end of the day feeling simultaneously exhausted and as though we’ve achieved nothing.
What’s more, the smartphone culture makes me anxious for our social fabric. I’m not just talking about the things we lost when we stopped talking on the telephone and started texting and emailing instead, or the superficiality of online relationships. It’s the way people walk into each other on the street, each lost in their earbud-defended world, soundtracking the soap operas of their lives in perfect isolation. It’s the loss of shared public space, when everyone in the train carriage has fallen down their own Candy Crush wormhole.
But wait – I don’t mean to sound like a reactionary Luddite. In fact, I love my smartphone and the window it opens into the world. I love its ‘Swiss army knife’ nature: alarm clock, music box, address book, reference library – oh, and telephone. I don’t want to reinvent my life without it. I just want to use the gadget in full awareness of its power and its limitations, rather than letting it use me.
Professor Sean Cubitt of Goldsmith’s University has a pessimistic view on this. “We thought the cyborg would be like Robocop: humans with chips embedded in them. But in fact it’s a vast computer with humans embedded in it.” I’m on a mission to find out whether a practice with its roots in a time when ‘technology’ meant ‘firing clay pots’ can help to remind us that the real social network is made up of human beings using computers as tools, not vice versa.
First step: a 48 hour digital detox. I want to go offline completely for just long enough to notice how plugged in i have become. I’ll be recording the experience (with a notebook and pencil!) and will report back from my time travels in analogue land.