Digital Barrier Counterpose

Don't let strangers hack your brain.

Do it yourself.

In a book released last month, titled Irresistible, NYU professor Adam Alter paints a detailed picture of the tenacious marketing machinery that keeps us shackled to our devices — and makes us feel measurably anxious when we're not tethered to them. Meanwhile, this past weekend, tech insiders tattled to 60 Minutes' Anderson Cooper about how programmers apply sophisticated brain science to keep us hooked on smartphone apps.

Very few of us are ready to surrender the benefits of technology and the conveniences from carrying a pocket-sized supercomputer. I heart my Waze app and I appreciate how Spotify algorithms turn me on to great music I'd otherwise miss. But many of us could do with more awareness of what the digital barrier between ourselves and the real world does to our well being. So we can manage it intelligently.

When I got involved in the creation of The Mindful Unplug initiative, I began burrowing into the subject of technology addiction and the value of mindful counterposes. In advance of this summer's second running of that Montana program, the co-guides even helped me to curate some of the better scholarship about it.

Sleepwalking Teacher

A real life, uncurated reminder about the perils of the digital barrier emerged last week while on a midday errand. Early that same morning, I whispered thanks to the first azalea blooms outside our porch. They showed up again, after all, and these days I figure I shouldn't take anything that's meaningful or pleasing for granted: coastlines, bees, random acts of spontaneous mercy. The rule of law.

I'm stopped in my car at an intersection jammed with heavy traffic and scores of multi-story office buildings disgorging lunch crowds merging with droves of spring break tourists.

A pedestrian, eyes glued to his phone, strode across the busy street and narrowly missed, first, stepping into a deep pothole and, second, getting hit by a car driven by a fellow holding a cell phone to his ear. I don't know if dumb luck or a guardian angel spared the digitally-distracted sleepwalker. Either way, I was rattled.

My first impulse first was to save him. My second was to leap out of my car and give him a stern lecture — plus a brochure for The Mindful Unplug Experience. I managed neither.

No real skin off my back if he walks around all unconscious, right? Maybe it’s an object lesson for me to remember to be conscious. But that wasn't it. That was the first reliably-for-real-it’s-spring day of 2017. The skies were azure blue. It rarely gets better than that around here. Even in urban settings, like the one at that intersection, gardens flaring with life are busy requesting our consideration.

I wasn’t so much irked at the unconscious walker as I was determined more than ever that we all figure out how to stop missing so much. It matters that we help each other to wake up. That we stop taking the ongoing revelation of what's valuable and embraceable for granted. This life event is a miracle worthy of much fuller attention than we give it. Unconsciousness — whether my own or anyone else’s — is bothering me more than it used to because it nudges us to normalize the intolerable.

Remember when Alice Walker wrote, "I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it"? The contrast between the dazed smartphone sleepwalker and the velvet blossoms reminded me how much our humanity is compromised when we fail to notice what beckons us to know awe. We do a better job protecting and embracing that which leaves us awestruck, and there's a good deal calling for our stewardship just now.