Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Day 13: Dissociation

According to Wikipedia, psychology uses the term dissociation to describe:
"a wide array of experiences from mild detachment from immediate surroundings to more severe detachment from physical and emotional experience. The major characteristic of all dissociative phenomena involves a detachment from reality, rather than a loss of reality as in psychosis."
It is my feeling that this is what is happening all around us - at an increasingly alarming rate  - as we dive deeper and deeper into the world presented to us via the little gadgets in our pockets. I have to be honest, I don't think it's a good thing.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not a Luddite. Nor am I innocent of these acts of dissociation myself. A long time ago, when I first discovered the internet, It captured my attention so completely that my friends around me thought that they needed to stage an intervention. It was 1994 and I was one of relatively few people who knew what the internet was and how to use it. I was hooked.

Since then I have been similarly fascinated by all manner of new gadgets. My first PDA (a Handspring Visor/Palm Pilot). My first iPad (bought on the first weekend they became available to the public). I expect this to happen again soon when I buy my first Oculus Rift

No, I totally understand being sucked into something. But I've never seen it happen on such a large scale whilst simultaneously being accepted by society as OK. Do we need to stage a mass-intervention? Or is it nothing to worry about? As I asked yesterday, Is this really a problem?

I suppose that depends on what we are actually doing with these little gadgets. What exactly is stealing our attention?

A fair number of people use devices purely as book readers. There's nothing wrong with that. After all, you wouldn't stage an intervention because someone spent all their time reading books. You might encourage them to go outside and socialise a bit more, perhaps do a bit of exercise, but generally our society regards book reading as scholarly. You also can't really fault someone for using a digital device as a map. It's actually a lot more functional than a paper map, as long as you have battery life. And what's so bad about messaging people? It's communication right? That can't be bad can it? So what then?

I think the problem is not so much to do with being engaged with small devices all the time. It's not the playing games, surfing the net, sending messages that's the issue. These things, in and of themselves are harmless. It's the disengagement from everything else at a time when you probably shouldn't be. Instead of paying attention, you are dissociating.

For example, today, as I got off the train at Balham station, I found myself weaving through a crowd of unresponsive, non-moving people who were too busy fiddling with their phones to be aware of anyone around them. One lady was walking down a narrow staircase, really slowly, typing a text message as she went. Another commuter angrily barged past her and she nearly slipped on the stairs. She didn't, luckily for her, but she still muttered indignantly under her breath... and then carried on with her message, completely carefree that she was single handedly causing a pedestrian jam in a narrow exit. Once, this behaviour would have been exceptional. Now, it seems to be becoming the norm.

It can't be healthy to not be aware of your surroundings as you move through a public space. Surely awareness of your surroundings is an important survival trait? I know we are not being hunted by wild animals and haven't been for centuries (except in Croydon), but there are plenty of other reasons to look where you are going, the least of which would be - not walking into things. Others would include noticing other people, not getting hit by cars and possibly seeing new and wonderful things. To name but a few.

So yes, I think it is a problem. If you don't believe me, try and spend some time tomorrow watching people in a public space and see for yourself.

I'm not saying put down your gadget. I'm saying put it down while you are walking.

And while you are talking to others. Give people the attention they deserve. Enjoy your meal. Give it your full attention. Talk to people without distraction.

Enjoy the here and now.

Next: The messaging fallacy