The pace of life: Stark contrasts

A friend-of-a-friend who's a university professor says he is frantic with worry: during his lectures, students are on their Blackberries or texting on phones, and he claims that he can tell, from their tests and assignments, that the quality of their attention has deteriorated.

52% of the people who responded to in a poll published in the Toronto Globe and Mail on June 1 say they are not taking holidays this summer because they are either needed at work to maintain productivity, or are frightened that if they take time off, they will be let go.

"In Defense of Distraction" by Sam Anderson in New York Magazine summarizes the effects of our over-stimulated culture. Anderson asked Dr. David Meyer, professor at the University of Michigan and one of the world's leading experts in multitasking, whether we were living through a crisis of inattention.

" 'Yes' he says immediately, then adds... 'And I think it's going to get a lot worse than people expect... people aren't aware of what's happening to their mental processes, in the same way that years ago people couldn't look into their lungs and see the residual deposit'. He said, 'None of this happened ten years ago, It was a lot calmer. There was
a lot of opportunity for getting steady work done.' "

You might be thinking, I knew that, as you e-mail beeps and the four other windows on your
desktop catch your eye.

But do you know that some humans, as recently as the late 19th century, semi-hibernated?

Graham Robb's historical geography, "The Discovery of France" describes life in the coldest part of that country:

"In the late 18th century France, ninety-nine percent of all human activity took place between late spring and early autumn. ...Populations in the Alps and Pyrenees simply entombed themselves until March or April, with a hay-loft above, a stable to one side and the mountain slope behind.

Farms in more temperate regions operated in clement weather from 6 am. till 7 pm., but there was a break of three hours at mid-day.

In Normandy, according to the diary of Jules Renard, 'the peasant at home moves little more than the sloth' (1889); 'in winter, they pass their lives asleep, corked up like snails' (1908).

Before roads, lighting and what Rob
b calls "the amazing luxury of coal and gas heating", weather tyrannized life, food was scarce for many. A large number of people did nothing for a large part of the year.

One hundred fifty years later, we in the most-developed countries have consistent comforts from one season to the next. Turn on a light and work all night. Answer your e-mail while you slip a meal into the oven, plenty of cheap calories at your elbow. Live longer, most likely, than any preceding generation.

No one would want to return to the hardships that forced people in villages and rural areas into near-hibernation, and often sentenced them to short lives (about 37 years on average in mid-19th century France). Still, it is worth remembering that the cycle for humans and animals has historically been a burst of activity followed by rest.

But life, including the part spent working, is getting ever faster, more intrusive. Dr. Eve Van Cauter, a sleep researcher and professor of medicine at the University of Chicago, cited a National Cancer Society survey survey finding that sleep time had decreased, in the last four or five decades, by 1.5 to 2 hours per day.

Does that s
uit you? Do you feel swept up in frenzied activity, or in control?

We have gained over forty-five years of life expectancy. Will we spend it chasing the goal of more productivity, splitting our attention and therefore our existence into tiny shards, or decide to live those years in harmony with ancient cycles of exertion and rest?


I have realised recently that my time is way too fractured and I have to start concentrating on one thing at a time instead of always multi-tasking.

I was glad when I had my recent trip to LA that the cost of keeping my mobile phone on in the US was stupid, so I recorded a message that said email me, and didn't turn it on for 3 weeks. I checked my emails twice a day, so they wouldn't get out of hand, but otherwise stayed away from the technology that consumes way too much time and brain space.
Susan B said…
"Down time" is something I absolutely require, and definitely don't get enough of. Just to sit on the patio with a cup of coffee...bliss.

Our son's neurologist told us something a few years back that's stayed with me: TV, especially as it's produced today with quickly flashing scenes will actually train the brain to have a shorter attention span. Image duration is much shorter than it used to be a couple of decades ago, and if you watch very early TV shows, the camera would stay on one aspect for minutes at a time. I remember as a child complaints from some elderly friends of my parents that "the pictures flash too quickly on TV these days" and now I realize that their brains hadn't been "trained" to absorb the constant change of images.
Frugal Scholar said…
Many thoughts on this. My school created a "courtesy" rule that must be included on all syllabi; one section prohibits the use of electronic devices during class.
What I see is not multitasking but single-tasking: the students are texting and NOT paying attention. Even when I tell students to stop texting, they hide the device in their laps...and eventually, their hands make their way down there...

Truly, I think it is an addiction. When I talk to them about it, they--with embarrassment--acknowledge that their messages fall into "What are you doing" "Nothing" "See you later"--all in text language of course! So I started calling texting "crack" and the students laugh and say that I'm right.

There is evidence that for ADD people certain "distractions," like music and having other people around,can aid concentration. This is not what we're seeing with texting. Watch people do it; they have the shiny-eyed look of alcoholics and nicotine-addicts.

OK--must stop ranting.
Northmoon said…
I've been worrying about the amount of TV I watch lately. Or don't watch - I notice often the TV is just on and I'm doing something else. I agree with Deja Pseu the speed of the scene changes and topic changes are getting faster and faster. Not good for a peaceful mind!

And the shows, why am I watching all this crime and violence? Or some family of strangers doing mundane things like going to the dentist? Do I really care?

I think I'll give it up for a month and see what happens.
spacegeek33 said…
I have always lived in short bursts. I'll go to the grocery store, put everything away, and then need a rest. I work on a document for awhile, and then take a little free brain time.
However, recently I think I must be over-multitasking or something. I've had a string of health problems (sprained ankle, cut hand from slicing a bagel, food poisoning and now a cold) which tells me I'm not listening to my body enough. I need to have more down time, which needs to be more still and internal. I used to do alot of yoga, which was wonderful for that kind of meditative internal down time. I stopped because I couldn't find the time to do it! I believe I need to put it back into my life however!
Mardel said…
I was thinking about this just last night when my spouse and I were watching TV. He is a couple of decades older than I and he couldn't follow the story on some crime show, saying he couldn't hear anything (a constant issue) and it finally dawned on me, after we switched to Citizen Kane, that it wasn't the volume or hearing that was the problem, but that the contemporary show moves too quickly and there is too much too fast. He has the same problem everywhere -- his doctors talk to fast, etc etc.

I increasingly think we have fractured ourselves too much, longer lives but less time to actually enjoy it. But I am still working out how to take time and enjoy all the benefits of modern technology and "connectedness". I know when I get busy and constantly distracted and interrupted I feel more pressed for time and I speak and move more quickly. I think this must be wearing in the long run. I wonder if I becoming reactionary.
Duchesse said…
Pseu, Northmoon and Mardel: I'm going to post on TV as have a lot to say; thanks for including it in the conversation. "We have fractured ourselves"- yes, feels that way.

Imogen: A technology diet is a wonderful discipline, many recommend complete cutoff (a fast, I guess) but that's hard.

spacegeek: Am so relieved and happy to hear from someone who admits they deliberately rest! And yoga is a nearly daily part of my life- very valuable to me.
lagatta à montréal said…
I am now revising an article a German friend who wrote it translated into sort-of-English on "acceleration" in modern life, the "just-in-time" ethos and the pressure it is putting on the planet.

I'm not a meditative type but I can get some similar benefits from painting and gardening.

Almost never watch TV - technically I do own a set as my mum gave me one of her two when she moved into an assisted living flat, but haven't plugged it in since I moved two years ago! (I took it only to watch videos, and haven't yet got round to buying a DVD player)...

But the computer, e-mails and Internet are becoming rather too distracting, much as I need them for my work. I once lost a contract because I was out for a walk and the client expected me to be 24/7 on a mobile phone - so far have avoided getting such a device - although the event they wanted me for was two weeks from then and I check my e-mails and phone messages several times a day. I was sad then, but think it is telling that the client was in such a panic, wanting the service immediately.
Anonymous said…
"A large number of people did nothing for a large part of the year" - that sounds like heaven!

I find it infuriating when other people wander down the street while texting/phoning and then, when they walk into you even though you were stationery and had your back to them, look at you as if it was your fault.

I hardly watch TV, and don't use text much,though one of my girls ran up a £95 bill recently - she won't again as the excess is coming off her allowance. I also managed not to do any blogging for 2 months without withdrawal symptons. E-mail at work is a nuisance, but I usually only check my private one once a day. I would not want to live without a computer or mobile phone but I think I could.
Duchesse said…
lagatta: I wonder if your client's stress and anxiety was projected onto you. Increasingly clients expect no boundaries between a business partner's work and personal life. I read an article recently about an American who moved to Amsterdam and was astonished to find non of his Dutch colleagues ever phoned or e-mailed after business hours. (The Americans did.)

Alienne: I've seen texting-while-walking too. I have seen two people, apparently a couple, in a restaurant, both texting for the entire time. Why bother being together. Suddenly I know, not suspect, I am on one far side of a generational divide.

But do keep blogging :)
VC said…
One of the exercises in creative writing is reading deprivation, where students are asked not to read for a few days. The theory is that only when you stop consuming someone else’s words, you will be able to hear your own.
We surely leave too little room for ourselves just to be, without having to run around doing things all the time.
lady jicky said…
Its a cold winter here and I am going into my cave , curling up in a ball and not texting anyone ! Mind you - my computer is on. Mmmmmmm
mette said…
An interesting post. Actually the life of the ancient times reminds me a bit of my own. Now we have a long dark period here in Scandinavia during winter months. I happen to live in an area( about 30 km´s from the capital though ), on the countryside and we have no street lamps! It gets dark early, so I try to do everything during the few daylight hours. No fun staying out in the dark and cold, so I go to bed early, by 9 pm I´m fast asleep. When we do get natural light, I wake up early and stay up later. Hmm
sallymandy said…
This is a very interesting post, and while I'm pretty aware of the texting rage, having a twelve-year-old daughter who's just about to get her first cell phone, I'd never heard of the history of semi-hibernating. That's just fascinating.

It's taken me many years to accept that my body simply needs to operate in that rest/burst of energy cycle, especially during the winter. Thankfully I've finessed a work situation in which I can pretty much make my own hours, so I find I have energy to be very productive for a few days, and then rest for a few days. This really works for me, and I've learned to trust it.

I feel like I just give my body and spirit an immense gift with every rest I take. Those times are productive too, in a quiet and introspective way.
diverchic said…
I'm a napper. I use naps to re-set my energy and have a pattern interruption. I get a whole second day if I zonk out for 30 minutes in the afternoon. My father used to come home from work at noon and nap on the floor for 20 minutes, so I had a really good model. In yoga theory we note that the nostril dominance changes every 90 minutes or so, which switches the dominance of our energy state from active to rest. When I try to override the rest part, nobody likes me.

Another terrific and thoughtful post.

The posts with the most