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Author, Traveler Pico Iyer Discusses How To Find Balance In The Digital Age

Portrait of author Pico Iyer.
Courtesy photo
Portrait of author Pico Iyer.
Author, Traveler Pico Iyer Discusses How To Find Balance In The Digital Age
GUESTPico Iyer, Author/World Traveler

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition, I am Maureen Cavanaugh. How many electronic connections have you made so far today? TV, cell phone, internet, Twitter, Facebook, we know you at least listen to the radio. Researchers tell us many people has been more time in front of the screen so far today than doing anything else. So is this constant information connection the way that our lives and our children's lives will be from now on? Not necessarily, says my next guest, Pico Iyer. The author and world traveler's is that people are deliberately disconnecting in order to reclaim a sense of self, and the joy of quite. Pico Iyer will be lecturing at UC San Diego this week. And his topic is, how to maintain life balance despite weapons of mass distraction. Pico, thank you for joining us. PICO IYER: I'm delighted to be here. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You say that only a few years ago people were rejoicing of the wonders of the internet and the smart phone, and now they're looking for ways to escape. How have these devices become so entrenched in so short a time? PICO IYER: Everything is moving so quickly that as you say, we have moved from having almost too little information about so many things to having too much. The human race accumulates double the amount of data that we have every two years, every one of us listing to a program like this takes in as much information every day that Shakespeare did in a lifetime. I just heard that the speed of communication went up by a factor of 10 million in the twentieth century. Machines are getting faster and faster and we're trying to keep up, and we're falling further and further behind. I've noticed with so many friends feeling restless, they have more more time-saving devices, but we have less and less time in our days. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What kind of you seen that people are trying to disconnect from high-tech devices? PICO IYER: I've noticed that many writers now get programs like self-control and freedom that allow them to disable the internet for four to eight hours, the same internet they were so eager to enable ten years ago. In travel, which is what I do a lot of, any people now go into what they call blackhole results, which they literally pay hundreds of dollars a night in order to hand over cell phones or laptops, when they check into the front desk. They will be absolutely free of distraction, and I think in a day-to-day way I noticed that so many people I know are consciously deciding to take a run every day or do meditation or yoga in one way or another to get away from the machine and collect themselves. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And you have made the point of living quite well without a lot of technology, exactly how disconnected are you? PICO IYER: Probably too much for my convenience, I am lucky I have a very tolerant wife. I used to work in Times Square and had all of this stimulation and information that I could want, and I felt I was overdosing and move from there to the back streets of world Japan where he lived for twenty-seven years now and my wife and I had no car, to bicycle, TV and I understand no media, and I guess I'm probably one of the last surviving journalists who have never used a cell phone. If I was a parent or a kid I would need a cell phone and those things are invaluable, but my kids are out of the house now and I am thrilled when I wake up to not have a cell phone and feel like today is stretching out in front of me four 1000 hours, as it seems. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: As a society it seems that we want people to be well-informed to be available, to be in the loop, isn't that part of what makes someone an active participant in the world? PICO IYER: Absolutely, and I think none of us, including me would want to go backwards or uninvent these machines. Technology in my lifetime has made all of our lives so much brighter, healthier, longer, happier, and as you say wonderfully informing us about the world. I think now we're getting so much information we don't always have a sense of how to make sense of it and how to get the larger picture. Information is so commonplace now it is almost more important to be able to sift through it and find the essential part, rather than get more and more. I think in some ways the quantity has developed quality. The one thing that always strikes me, when I get to Silicon Valley and meet people who have really done so many wonderful things to create these technologies, they are the ones who seem wisest about really needing to take a break. I remember when I was visiting Google, two members of the company were hosting the. One member spent much of his time meditating and the other spent much of his time teaching others how to be yoga teachers. I was struck that of course they know how much technology can do, but they also have a keen sense of what it can't do. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I am speaking with Pico Iyer and we are talking about disconnecting with many of the high-tech forms of distractions that we enjoy on a daily basis. Pico, you mentioned that you wake up without the cell phone and without all of the distractions, and you feel that the day is just laying before you, an endless open time for you to utilize. I don't think a lot of people actually feel that way anymore when they wake up. Is that one of the benefits of disconnecting and having a different idea and feeling about time? PICO IYER: Exactly, I think although many people may not have that feeling, I think it is a feeling that most of us want to have. Whether we are parents are workers, whatever we are doing in our lives. When I moved from Manhattan to rural Japan, I realized is this would not help my career, it would not fill me with social excitement or give me cultural distractions. But I also realize that you were saying, what I prize most was days hours and weeks. I suppose even when I was growing up, I noticed I was most happy when I was absorbed in something, lost in the moment and forgot the time, whether was conversation, movie, or a game I was playing. That was my definition of happiness. And I was least happy when I was all over the place, distracted and restless. I tried to create a life that would allow me that sense of spaciousness. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now this idea of spaciousness and slowing down, it is not really new, is it? That is a concept that has been expressed over the years in previous generations, hasn't it? PICO IYER: Exactly, Henry David Thoreau 150 years ago was wonderfully saying that the man whose horse rides fastest is not necessarily bringing the most important news. I think he is a wonderful reminder of certain important things, he also said it does not matter how far you travel, the further you travel is often the worst, what is more important is how alive you are. So, I think it is striking how many of the wiser beings through the centuries across pretty much every continent and tradition have been telling us that what we need is every now and then to step back and take in the larger picture so that we are not literally lost in the moment. It is a matter of keeping one's balance not that one would want to be away from the machines but we don't want to be hostage to them. I know for example in Silicon Valley, a lot of people maintain an internet server. Every week they go off-line entirely for twenty-four hours, so that they can collect a sense of direction and proportion that they will need when they go on my again. Technology is wonderful but the one thing it does not teach us is how to use technology, and I think you have to be disconnected to make good decisions on how much you want to be on Facebook or Twitter. Or emailing your friends. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What do you see that the over use of this technology may be hurting us individually or collectively? PICO IYER: There are literally internet rescue camps in China and Korea to deal with children that are addicted. Internet disorder is maybe going to count as a psychiatric disorder in a couple of years. We have a phenomenon like Nomaphobia, which is literally the terror of being without mobile phone contact. All of these new things that I think in time we will be able to work out. My sensation is that every time a new thing comes into our lives, we eagerly pick it up and start exploring it and sometimes we get the same sensation that I get with a large bag of potato chips next to me and I eat and eat and it is so tasty and I suddenly wonder why I have a stomach ache and headache. The world is telling me maybe I need to hold off for a little bit now. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So much of our identity is linked to the devices that we use now. If a certain manufacturer comes out with a new product, if you don't have it, you may be thought of badly by your peers. You ever experience any of that? PICO IYER: Maybe I do but my peers have not been telling me that, maybe they think that I am so out of it that I would not understand that. Certainly not having a cell phone I do find it harder to function because most public phones are disappearing. But I often think about how happily a function and all of us functioned twenty years ago when you would say I will see you at the restaurant and twenty minutes and we would be there. We did not need complicated devices to get us there at the same time. I don't feel I'm missing out, because I feel my greatest joy in life is having really deep intimate conversation with a friend. When you are enjoying such a conversation the main thing that you're trying to do is not to respond with every text and cell phone call and distraction. You want to be entirely with that person. For example we spoke about some of these things too big advertising company in Singapore, and at the end of the day the CEO came up to me and asked me would you mind exchanging handwritten letters with me every month? And we did this for four years. I think it was his way of saying he is happy to deal at the speed of light with all the things that come up the office, but he was missing the chance for that longer more human conversation, and he was more or less requesting that I enabled him to go back to a slower way of communication. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What about the future? We seem to think that technology will just continue to advance and become even more ubiquitous in our lives. Is there an alternative that you see? PICO IYER: I think each of us will come up with alternatives, you're right. I think technology will increase, it faster more ubiquitous and that is not bad. But I've noticed even with kids, often seventeen-year-olds will say I'm getting off Facebook or my parents took me on a cruise and I could not go online and it was the best week of my life. One way or another each of us in our lives is getting to that point of breakdown where we realize, I have to do something to hold on to my sanity even if it is to put my devices away for thirty minutes every morning or deliberately leave my cell phone at home when I am going to see a friend. I am sure that we will find our balance, but I do think that this is a new problem that humans have never had to face before and we are in the thick of it, flailing at the moment. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I have been speaking with Pico Iyer, who will be presenting at UC San Diego this week, how to maintain life's balance despite weapons of mass distraction. That will take place this Thursday at 7 PM, Pico, and you so much for speaking with us.

How many electronic connections have you made so far today? TV, cell phone, internet, Twitter, Facebook.

Researchers tell us many people have spent more time in front of a screen so far today than doing anything else. So is this constant information connection the way our lives and our children's lives will be from now on? Not necessarily says author Pico Iyer.

The novelist and world traveler, who has made it a point of living without a smart phone or tablet, says there are signs that people are deliberately disconnecting in order to reclaim a sense of self and the joy of quiet.

“It’s not that I have anything against technology,” Iyer said in a recent interview. “It’s more that I don’t trust myself with it. I find that being free of all that is kind of a luxury. My life — and my head — seem much less cluttered.”

Iyer will be discussing his doubts about technology at a lecture titled, "Weapons of Mass Distraction: Keeping our Sanity and Balance in a High-Speed, Displacing World," set for Thursday, May 15, at UC San Diego.

The presentation is free and open to the public.

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