Over Christmas break my wife, Susan Lucille Davis, and I enjoyed a fabulous week in Venice. Going into the trip, I expected I would have Internet access in my hotel and at other spots around the tourist destination. After all, we'd enjoyed being connected, at least on a limited basis, three years years ago when we traveled to Prague. However, that turned out not to be the case. While our hotel was wonderful in all other respects, its only Internet access was a painfully slow connection from a laptop kept in the hotel's lobby for guest use. For the most part, I had no access to the Internet for an entire week.
In a word, that experience was liberating. I felt freed of the need to check-in, share, catch up, make sure all was well at work, etc.
During that week, instead of my wife and I being on our respective devices, as we are as I'm writing this,
we spent our time enjoying each other's company, reading out loud, and solving the New York Times crossword puzzles that I'd downloaded to my iPad before we left the States. I came away from that experience determined to bring back to my life some of that mindfulness, of being wholly cognizant in the moment of my experiences, that I felt during that wonderful vacation.
Of course, as soon as I got home, I happily got back on the grid. Still, I made a conscious effort to change my practice. As I was curating the plethora of junk emails I had received while away, instead of simply deleting them, I requested to be removed from future emails. I also began to think more deeply about such distractions and their influence on my life.
Reading Net Smart
About that time, I started reading Howard Rheingold's Net Smart. Rheingold's book had been nominated by my friend Vinnie Vrotny for the ISTE SIGIS fall book discussion for 2013. The timing of my picking up this book could not have been more perfect. Rheingold deftly describes the attention problems we create for ourselves with new media and devices and how these problems are solvable as we become more mindful in our practice.
My copy of Net Smart has become so marked up that it looks like it's been vandalized by graffiti artists. I've also picked up extra copies for colleagues at work. More importantly, I've started visiting classes at my school and having conversations with students about the importance of mindfulness, with particular emphasis on technology. This topic has also worked its way into my interactions with parents. Just as students get all worked up about the pyrotechnics of the technology itself, parents become so concerned about technology safety for their children that they stop being mindful of their own actions. Parents need to learn to be more mindful (as I am working to become) themselves.
Conversations with Colleagues
At my school we have a wonderful three-week mini-semester that frequently serves as a sandbox for teachers to try doing new things in new ways. It's also a time for travel. A teacher, who was on a trip to China discussed with me how some of the kids purchased Internet connectivity from China before they left on the trip. Another group of students had no access to the Internet. She found that the students who had no Internet access were happier on the trip than were the students with access. I shared my experience on my trip to Venice and the importance of following up such epiphanies with greater deliberate mindfulness upon my return. As Howard Rheingold points out in Net Smart, "not drowning is not the same as swimming" (p. 98).
Conversations with Kids
Pure happenstance, a colleague of mine, Christa Forster, taught mini-semester class on mindfulness and writing. She invited me to join her class for a day. After we meditated for 10 minutes, we had a terrific hour-long discussion about being mindful when using technology. The day after my visit Christa had her students reflect on the lessons we learned from our discussion together. A couple of their reflections follow:
It's clear that the students I worked with enjoyed learning that adults are struggling with the same issues that they are. They clearly want to have conversations with adults who care about them about mindfulness and technology. Most of their prior interactions with adults involved negative lecturing. Nobody likes being lectured to.
Conversations with Parents
Interestingly, when working with parents, I usually bring up how important it is for them to model mindful behavior with regard to their own cell phone use. Nervous laughter inevitably follows. Although their laughter is most likely an admission of guilt, we can't really blame them. All of this is new. None of us has been trained in how to use these tools. However, their recognition that they should be more mindful of how their behavior affects their kids serves as an important starting point for further learning.
Leading a mindful life, like being a life-long learner, has always been a noble goal for all of us to aspire to in our culture. However, both paths have become essential 21st-century skills. Conversations on mindfulness need to continue. All of us need to know how to think before we click. We need to learn how to own new media, instead of having the media own us.