Mind-Numbing Birds

My daughter is laughing at me. Having received an iPhone as a present, I went to the library to get books on how to use it. “It’s all instinctive,” she says. “After I do something over and over, then it will be instinctive,” I reply.

I certainly wouldn’t have bought an iPhone for myself, particularly after last Thanksgiving. At a lovely table, surrounded by close friends, our host suggested that we go around sharing what we were particularly thankful for this past year. His rule was that family and health not be mentioned, prodding us to look past the true and important for more subtle blessings. To my amazement, two of the women present mentioned their iPhones. Not as one of many devices which improves their lives, but rather with the specificity and tone of voice usually reserved for a love-struck teen waxing rhapsodic about the adorable local lifeguard.  As a bit of a contrarian, that was enough to convince me that I didn’t want one of those machines.

But with one in hand, I have to admit that I have a sense of what my friends meant. I am discovering that the phone really does do some amazing things and is actually surprisingly easy for even a non-digital-native to manipulate. I have learned to download apps and find it very useful while traveling to have the Grace after Meals as well as an entire Siddur (prayer book) weightlessly at my beck and call. However, one of the apps that I was told is a ‘must have’, namely Angry Birds, is giving me pause.

I try (often unsuccessfully) not to have a knee-jerk reaction that the more old-fashioned way is the better way. While not exactly a first adapter, I love the fact that I can Skype with my daughter overseas and that I can order a wedding present without trekking to the local mall. Nonetheless, I am worried at the speed with which technology is replacing the rest of life. I have been reading Jonah Lehrer’s book, Imagine: How Creativity Works. In it, he makes the point that our brains are stimulated towards creative thinking in certain ways. We’ve all experienced putting a problem out of mind while we take a stroll or a shower and having a “Eureka” moment as the solution pops into our head. I have frequently had that experience while working on a jigsaw puzzle or doing some needlepoint. My mind is concentrating on my task just enough to stop me obsessing on a specific topic, but not so intently that my subconscious is distracted from chewing over whatever challenges I am facing.

But what happens when our ‘down time’ is not spent strolling, showering or in some other activity which engages our brains while still leaving room for rumination? Instead the task at hand completely absorbs us. I don’t know how many hours people are granting to games like Angry Birds, but judging by the T-shirts, pillows and other accessories based on the game, I have to think the answer is many. There are hundreds of other similarly captivating games of which I am unaware. I’m not about to declare these games the greatest threat to civilization (I’m not even willing to state that I will never, under any circumstances, play), but I do think there is a qualitative difference between these down-time activities and previous generations’ fads. Rather than the recess that refreshes, could today’s leisure activities of choice be the pause that numbs?

(If I may make a suggestion, a better use of spare time this summer might be spent reading my husband’s book, Thou Shall Prosper, which is on sale this week or my good friend, Judy Gruen’s just-released and very funny book, Till We Eat Again.)


3 thoughts on “Mind-Numbing Birds”

  1. I had to laugh at this…we do the “go around sharing what we were particularly thankful for this past year” at Thanksgiving as well. My youngest son is not sure if this would be considered cruel and unusual punishment while waiting to eat a long awaited meal! And I can identify with your iPhone frustrations. I was condemned to eternal nerd status by my grandchildren for carrying around a flip phone with no internet connection or camera. Last fall, I finally purchased an Android phone to upload mobile photos of our outings together. For a week, I couldn’t even figure out how to answer it! This…when I’ve taken apart computers and rebuilt them as a hobby and practiced computing before it was popular! The phone is still frustrating to me..LOL! Once again, this was an enjoyable piece that I could relate to..Thank you!

  2. Thank you and Dr. Lapin for calling attention to cultural dangers. I get Thought Tools and often check out your post after I finish reading your husband’s emails. Long-time reader, first-time commenter.
    As an avid iPhone user who nonetheless believes that my phone or any other gadget I have should not dominate my activities, I have never played Angry Birds but I would recommend avoiding it just based on the title. Also, the red bird in the logo certainly looks angry.
    “Cease from anger, and forsake wrath: fret not thyself in any wise to do evil.” — Psalm 37:8
    I might arouse some passionate opinion here, but this is also why I have always had a negative opinion of “American Idol.” (Unlike most other technology, TV does not have a home at ours, but news of popular shows often filters in.) The first of the Ten Commandments prohibits idolatry. Why watch a show that celebrates idolatry? Even if the title is tongue-in-cheek, there is probably a ring of truth to it, or else another title would have been chosen. Anyway, for believing Christians and Jews, joking about breaking God’s laws is in bad taste.

  3. Frequently I think as you do, that the old way is best. Spending time turning pages in physical books I find much more endearing than shifting screens in Kindle. The book is a marvelous security blanket, if books consume much living space. I possess some 4,000 of them.
    Yet technology does offer immense advantages. Having a cherished quotation or an entire library on a keypad at one’s fingertips is appealing and enticing. Going to various wiki-sites for information is much more convenient than hobbling down the hall, turning on the light, stooping and selecting the exact Britannica volume, and thumbing through to the right page. Repeat for all cross references. The Britannica info might be several years old, whereas the wiki article is up to the week, perhaps even up to the minute.
    Still it is disquieting to reflect: who wrote the wiki article? Is it objective or slanted and if slanted, in support of what agenda? Media can tell the truth but steer opinion by not telling the whole truth or by choosing facts selectively to advance an agenda. History is always written by the victors. Access to information can be steered and guided, as an investigator has pointed out about a beloved commercial search engine: two submitters obtain different search results, slanted to harmonize with “customer” interests each user has previously demonstrated on line. The use of a wiki site for needed medical information would seem especially perilous.
    Most frightening: relying solely on electronic gadgets to jog one’s memory. Several years ago my daughter lost her cell phone. Someone picked it up and played games with it until she could have the account canceled, bad enough. Still worse, she lost contact with many of her friends, with some forever, because her sole repository of contact data was entered on the cell phone. She had no hard copy back-up of names, addresses or phone numbers. The electronic information revolution, however enticing, is also hazardous in that reliance on electronic convenience in daily life can soothe our memories and faculties into unearned ease, and over time perhaps stunt them into inertia. The moral: use electronics with caution, perhaps as a spark plug, but not as a fuel line.

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