NOT NOSTALGIA

January 19, 2016 at 11:00 pm | Posted in Books, creativity, digital technology, Writing | Leave a comment

Andrea Goldsmith

A little over a century ago, E.M. Forster wrote ‘The Machine Stops’, a short story that depicts human civilisation some time in the future. I expect Forster was projecting into the far-distant future – millennia not centuries – but in certain respects the world of his story bears a remarkable resemblance to human society today. In Forster’s story people live by themselves in their own room (children are raised in special nurseries). Within these rooms everything necessary for life is available at the push of a button. When you are hungry you press a button and food appears, when thirsty, another button produces a drink. When you want to sleep you push a button and a bed materialises, when you wish to wash, the right button will conjure a bath. If you are feeling ill, a thermometer, stethoscope and other diagnostic tools will appear to test and diagnose, following which…

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Meeting the sunlight: taking time to think

December 21, 2015 at 5:38 am | Posted in Books, digital technology, Quotations, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The picturesque town of Mallaig is on the west coast of the Scottish Highlands. I was waiting for a coffee at the Mallaig Tea Rooms when I saw a framed scroll on the wall above the little coal fire. It read:

‘These are times of more convenience but less time, more knowledge but less judgement, fast foods but slow digestion, tall men but short character, steep profits but shallow relationships.

‘It is a time when there is much in the window but nothing in the room.’

The Dalai Lama.
It was when I was travelling for six weeks between writing the text of Inspiring Australians and organising the book’s photographs. The quotation put me in mind of my book because a Churchill Fellowship enables the opportunity for time and expansion of thought, for slowly unfolding realisations and deepening rapports with overseas peers. Many Churchill Fellows told me that one thing they really treasured was the luxury of time to think. In the daily work world of back-to-back meetings and multi-tasking to meet competing deadlines there is little time to think.

Time to think shouldn’t be a luxury. Time to think is a necessity.

In the time since publication of my book, I have treasured my own time to think (about topics unrelated to my book). I’ve been cycling to the local library and coming away with an enormous pile of books to put in my basket, then riding home and devouring them. In one, Daniel Levitikin’s The Organized Mind: Thinking straight in an age of information overload (Viking, 2015) the author tells us that the brain is not wired to multitask and doing so increases our levels of cortisol and adrenaline. This overstimulates the ‘wrong’ parts of our brain, the prefrontal cortex, and causes foggy thinking, and sometimes aggressive and impulsive behaviour. If students watch TV while doing homework, the schoolwork information goes into the stratium, a region specialised for storing new procedures and skills, not facts and ideas. Without the distraction of TV, the information goes into the hippocampus, where it is organised and categorised in ways that make it easier to retrieve.

Focusing on one thing reduces the brain’s need for glucose. Multitasking chews up glucose, causing ‘the brain to burn through its fuel so quickly that we feel exhausted and disoriented after even a short time. We’ve literally depleted the nutrients in our brain. This leads to compromises in both cognitive and physical performance.’ (The Guardian Weekly Feb. 2015, p. 27)

Writer Norbet Platt said, ‘The act of putting pen to paper encourages pause for thought, this in turn makes us think more deeply about life, which helps us regain our equilibrium.’ Of course the act of putting fingertips to keyboard, though not as pleasantly alliterative, does the same thing. So those of us who write blogs or journals or columns etc are doing the right thing in these times of having no time for reflection. It is our job to reflect. We must think in order to do our job properly. (And must try to in spite of those competing deadlines.)

American writer Pat Conroy thinks that ‘blog’ is the ugliest word in the English language. But he has a blog (www.patconroy.com) and he uses it ‘as a way to sneak back to his writing without being noticed’.

I thought that blog was the abbreviated combination of ‘biography’ and ‘log’ like a ship’s log but for a life (even if not aboard a ship). But no, apparently it is short for weblog. I hadn’t read Pat Conroy (Prince of Tides) in years, then my friend Bernadette recommended his memoir, My Reading Life (Random House, 2010), which is enjoyable, funny and rewarding. All Conroy’s life, books have been for him the portal to a wider world. He writes:

‘I have always taken a child’s joy in the painterly loveliness of the English language…. What richer way to meet the sunlight than bathing each day of my life in my island-born language, the one that Shakespeare breathed on, Milton wrestled with, Jane Austen tamed, and Churchill rallied the squadrons of England with?’ (p. 300-301)

Winston Churchill was steeped in these writers, as well as Gibbon and the King James Bible, and he loved the English language as much as Pat Conroy does. Unfortunately, most Reports of Churchill Fellows for the last 15 or so years are not written in language found in books like these but in the corporate jargon we are so familiar with now. Churchill would blanch if he could read what is being done to his beloved language. Exceptions include Rifaat Shoukrallah on road safety, virtuoso recorder player Genevieve Lacey and Courtney Page-Allen (digitising 1,535 portraits of Australian soldiers of World War I). All Reports can be viewed on the Trust’s website: www.churchilltrust.org.au

‘If you don’t breathe through writing,’ wrote French writer Anais Nin, ‘if you don’t cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don’t write, because our culture has no use for it.’ Times have changed. Now our culture has plenty of use for the leaden and deceptive obfuscations of managerial language. But although it is everywhere, most people don’t want to waste time on this unreadable bilge so popular with politicians, bureaucrats and bankers. They want to read people who do what William Wordsworth long ago advised: ‘Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart’. That is what we should all be doing, in fiction or blogs, letters or reports, articles or cook books. (Look at Nigella Lawson’s books – a delight to read them.) If you write in plain English with an open heart like she does, and like her compatriots George Orwell and Winston Churchill did, you won’t go wrong.

Measuring our lives

June 2, 2013 at 12:00 pm | Posted in Books, digital technology | Leave a comment
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In Seneca’s time, ‘Elite, literate Romans were discovering the great paradox of information: the more of it that’s available, the harder it is to be truly knowledgeable. It was impossible to process it all in a thoughtful way. So there was a tendency to graze, skim the surface, look for shortcuts.’ (William Powers, Hamlet’s Blackberry, p. 112)
This is just like today – except surely our situation is worse in this respect. Seneca tells his friend Lucilius, ‘Measure your life: it does not have room for so much.’ (Powers, p. 113) Just like today. There is too much to do, too much work, too much ‘stuff’, too many responsibilities, too many deadlines, too many new digital toys – and the learning curve never ends.
Someone said, ‘The theft of our time is the theft of life itself.’ She was talking about work hours but it could apply to many other aspects of our society, such as the time it necessarily takes to learn the ever-changing technologies for communicating – or for doing almost anything these days.
If I have to fiddle with a computer or device for ages – and it always takes ages – it feels like dead time. It’s not stimulating or relaxing or entertaining or challenging (there’s that awful word again) – it’s just unbelievably tedious. Whereas when I paint I feel happy and calm and free. When I write I feel stimulated and infused with a calm awareness as my mind makes connections and remembers relevant facts and sparks ideas. I’m drawing on a lifetime’s education and experience, I’m using every level of myself. I feel alive and happy.
But we can’t live without computers and digital technology now. And there are plenty of good things about them, specially concerning communication. Powers in Hamlet’s Blackberry presents advice about how to deal with new technologies from philosophers and inventers etc throughout history in his intriguing book. He points out that instead of celebrity philosophers we have celebrity chefs. But they never tell us how delicious life itself could be if we followed a different recipe.
Marshall McLuhan said that our reality is shaped, even created, by our tools. Human freedom and happiness should come before technology. Our digital devices have a big influence on our lives of course, but we should control them, not the other way around. Powers quotes Thoreau and states, ‘Walden shows that, even in the midst of a frenetic world, one can create a zone where simplicity and inwardness reign – a sanctuary from the crowd. The need is far more pressing now.’ (p. 190)
Powers writes that the only way of cultivating a happy inner life is to spend time there, [in the depths of your mind] and that’s impossible when you’re constantly attending to the latest distraction.’ (p. 201)
So Powers and his family have a rule: no digital anything over the weekend. Every weekend. As a result they communicate better, are more creative, have more time for outdoor life, conversation, books and friends. They are healthier, physically and emotionally. That’s a tall order today – to not open up a computer or Facebook or text friends. But the author reckons both parts of life are invigorated by it – that they approach work and school refreshed and look forward to the digital world on Mondays, and in turn appreciate the refreshing peace from the digital world on their weekends.
Could I do it? Phew – let me think this over. I might compromise. Maybe I could just do this blog on Sunday nights.

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