technology | April 15, 2013

Are We Addicted To Technology? Alex Pang On Digital Distraction

If you're like most tech-savvy people, you probably check your smartphone up to 40 times a day. You might regularly  fall asleep with your phone in your bed or your computer on. And, you may even start to hear phantom notifications going off on your device—even when there are no new emails or text messages there for you to check. Technology speaker Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, founder of Contemplative Computing, says that the human mind is actually hard-wired to engage with these new digital devices. "As humans, we have a natural desire to extend ourselves through technology," he says in an interview on NPR radio. "Our brains and our bodies are actually designed, or they've evolved, to meld with technologies." So if we evolve to form relationships with these devices, why then do we also develop behaviors that are addictive?

One reason, Pang says, is that technology changes so quickly that a new device is on the market before we've fully gotten a grasp of the capabilities of the previous generation. The novelty factor makes us obsessively interact with our digital gadgets. Another reason is that studies show that we experience a "dopamine hit" in our brains every time we get a new email or social media message. It makes us feel good to make a virtual connection with someone. Finally, a third reason he provides as to why many of us are glued to our digital screens is the "social expectation that we have to answer email quickly or answer text messages from friends or from kids." "That contributes to the sense that we have to stay online because, after all, other people are online," says Pang. If we are plugged in around-the-clock, many of us feel that we might miss something. And, he notes, companies are making use of this addictive quality to craft products that hook your attention.

While he admits that these digital devices do stimulate addictive behaviors that can potentially distract us from important tasks, we can also use new technology to become more focused and more productive. In his book,
The Distraction Addiction, Pang explains how we can redesign our relationship with technology. Using what he calls 'contemplative computing', Pang blends new scientific ideas, philosophy, and tried-and-true tactics for managing attention to take control of our digital lives.

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science | April 14, 2013