I was sitting in a faculty meeting the other night and snickered as the conversation turned to how we can better reach our millennial students: “The millennials have completely integrated technology into their lives. The millennials are extreme multitaskers. They will watch a movie, listen to music, and play a game online, all while doing homework for your class.” I heard a few gasps from my baby boomer colleagues. Tempted to speak up, I refrained. I didn’t want to point out the fact I was the only millennial in the room. Maybe it’s time I grew a beard.
I don’t agree with everything being written about the millenniels these days, but I do resonate with this bit about technology and multitasking. I admit I’m a multitasker and a technophile. Years ago, I got into the habit of watching television while working on my laptop. I got work done while being entertained; sounded like a good use of time to me!
As a grad student, I regularly wrote and edited papers during classes (yes, they now let me teach). I’ve always found ways to use technology to make my life a little easier and more efficient. There have certainly been costs, but it seems I’m not alone. Apparently, this is something fairly common to my generation.
This can become a problem if we develop a continual need for technology and media to fill the margins of our lives, that time when we can do whatever we want. I’m afraid more and more young adults are filling their margins with activities that don’t really matter. We aren’t just distracted by technology; we are distracted by a profusion of technologies. If you’ve ever played Angry Birds while watching “Deadliest Catch” and listening to the Gladiator soundtrack, you know what I’m talking about.
One of the things I do to avoid living in a continuous state of distraction is holding daily moments of quiet reflection. I’m reminded of Blaise Pascal’s words in his classic, Pensées, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Pascal couldn’t have anticipated the current technological scene back in the 17th century, but his words prove timeless. He recognized that humans are prone to distraction — whether entertainment, drugs or drink — and we all struggle at some level to sit quietly and think about our lives.
And so I believe it’s not good to be completely preoccupied with distractions. Young adults have a historically unprecedented amount of free time. Of course, there are times when it’s fun to watch a show or play a game, but we should be careful not to let this become an entrenched pattern. Part of being fully human is the capacity to be reflective and thoughtful about our own lives. It’s what makes us different than the animals. Far too many are content to leave the thinking and reflecting to someone else.
I feel this proclivity myself, and I worry what this could mean for a generation that has grown up with ever-improving technologies. As technology improves, the proclivity to be permanently distracted by it can only drift in one direction. When I read about my heroes and the great things they accomplished during their lives, I wonder if they would have been so productive and impactful in our day. Would they have fallen into the same distractions, or would they have persevered in carving out time to do the things that really matter?
I’m obviously not completely against the use of technology. It can have a very beneficial place in our lives. But I do resist the temptation to fill all my free time with it. Cultivating my mind, my soul and my relationships is far too important to get entirely sidetracked. I choose to heed Pascal’s wisdom and keep daily moments of reflection to protect against drifting toward increasingly distracted margins.