A writer in the Century some years ago recalled in passing the
era when mail was delivered twice a day. He noted, somewhat
whimsically, how that practice ensured at least two hopeful moments in
the day. For who knew what might arrive in the next post—it could be a
letter from a longlost friend, the offer of a dream job, the awarding
of a prize, an invitation to a party, a mea culpa from the girlfriend
who jilted you in college. Receiving such a letter was highly unlikely,
of course, but not strictly impossible—and that kept hope alive.
advent of e-mail, along with the stream of texting and social
networking, has made such hope perhaps too readily available, turning
hopefulness into something more like a nervous twitch. The New York Times reported recently
that the incessant use of cellphones and computers may be rewiring our
brains, and part of the rewiring makes us insatiably, unreasonably
hungry for the next bit of new information. The need to check incoming
messages comes to override any other priority. Instead of doing the
hard work of sorting out the information one already has and figuring
out what is important, one is constantly searching for the next new bit
of information. This is not healthy.
Laments about how gadgets are taking over our lives are not new, but the Times story, along with Nicholas Carr’s new book The Shallows, is among the first to bring brain research into the conversation.
As the Times
story notes, the prospect of rewiring the brain is not all bad. It is
good that the brain is flexible enough to be rewired. If life now
requires us to multitask, the brain rewires itself to help us get
better at it.
But the reflexive search for the new remains a
problem. It is like the plight of the student who has a compulsion to
read one more book, one more journal article, before getting started on
writing his paper. In the end the compulsion is a form of avoidance.
Taking note of the Times piece, the Harvard Business Review offers a few tips for managing networking compulsions—including one on “finding hope outside your inbox.”