NYU professor Anna Akbari has a piece in CNN about why she limits her the of smartphones and laptops in her classes. The experience of not being constantly online "is a true anomaly in their lives," she writes, and
Many are anxious and ill at ease at first. Some cradle their phones out of habit, as if to comfort themselves just from the tactile sensation of feeling it against their skin. Many admit to feeling "phantom vibrations" when they're apart from their phones. ("I'm mentally connected to my phone," they assure me.) And, inevitably, some students will slip into their bags and pockets and try to check their messages subconsciously, totally unaware of their actions until I call them out.
But after the anxiety dissipates, something foreign happens to them: they become present. They stop multitasking. They stop switching their attention between screens. They listen. They make eye contact. And we go into a collective flow-state. It's at once stimulating and relaxing.
She uses this as a jumping-off point to recommend ten ways to improve your digital life, including
Track your life: The "quantified self," or "self-knowledge through numbers," is a growing movement and way of life. The more we know about ourselves, the more we can fine-tune our existence and become a better version of ourselves. Wristbands like Jawbone allow you to track your movement, sleep patterns, and mood. Sites like Mint track your spending, and apps like RunKeeper serve as your digital trainer. This type of technology helps you to be more conscious of your habits and can provide much-needed motivation in crucial life areas.
This occasioned a response from philosopher Evan Seliger, who thought it ironic that someone who "bans phones & laptops" on one hand, but "says quantified self is key to happiness."
Personally, I can see lots of practical and pedagogical reasons for a no-screen policy in the classroom. It can encourage students to reflect on their own unconscious habits, make them more aware of their entanglement with mobile devices and the Web, and give them a feel for new kinds of cognitive activity (which is what teaching is supposed to expose stduents to, no matter the subject). Having them turn off cellphones is no more Luddite, and no less challenging, than asking them not to read the newspaper during class, or assigning them books that challenge their ability to read deeply.
But I wonder: How much does an embrace of the quantified self require you to back away from a "no devices" stance? If the quantified self is "self-knowledge through numbers," and if self-understanding is regarded as a good thing (as it is by most philosophical types, and most academics), then does not gathering numbers become a moral failure?
Does turning off the sensors, and disconnecting yourself from the cloud, constitute an act of willful mis-understanding?
Is quantified self just another excuse for never going offline?
Of course, there's a difference between using FitBit and checking your Facebook home page every three minutes. The former is designed to run in your mental background, to gather information about your unobtrusively; the latter is designed to capture, shape, and resell your attention. Part of the appeal of these wristbands is that they don't require constant awareness; at Facebook, the best minds of a generation are working to get you to click on ads.
But ultimately, if self-understanding is to be gained through quantification, and if the number-gathering tools require an Internet connection, doesn't this unintentionally reinforce the sense that you can never be offline? Akbari argues that "The more we know about ourselves, the more we can fine-tune our existence and become a better version of ourselves." Does it follow that offline an act of willful mis-understanding, a choice to not understand yourself as well as you could, a refusal to become a "better version of ourselves?"
I can imagine a couple counterarguments:
- There's a practical and cognitive difference between automatic background data-gathering and conscious direction of your attention away from the classroom and to your inbox.
- Quantified self-understanding isn't the only kind, and if the others require turning off those information cascades and sensors for a day, then little of value is really lost.
- Keeping track of how many steps a day you take, while valuable, is not really a moral or philosophical act on par with, say, the Jesuit practice of daily reflection on your activities and intentions.
But I do now wonder if quantified self adds a little nudge to the idea that the Web is not only inescapable, but that it's wrong to even try to disconnect from it.