Technology and Its Discontents: Mainly Mozart

On Friday, January 11, 2013, I went to the opening of the Mainly Mozart spotlight series at the invitation of a work contact. I went both because I was interested in the opportunity to see world-class musicians perform classical pieces, and also because of the networking opportunity for my job. There was a wine reception before the concert, and I was excited to go and meet new people through my contact, who is a prominent person in the community.

The dress code for the event was semi-formal, and I had a small evening bag with me that held my keys, ID, and phone. Throughout the wine reception, I periodically checked my phone for messages and didn’t think much of it. However, once the concert began, I had to forcefully face the reality of the hold technology has taken over my life. Imagine the scene: a small auditorium, an intimately set stage, three musicians of the highest caliber (one is the principal violist for the New York Philharmonic, and the violinist and cellist have played for some of the most prestigious orchestras and music ensembles in the nation), and two pieces of music, one by Mozart and one by Beethoven. You could not ask for a better opportunity to be transported by the artistry and mystery of music. Yet, even as the incredibly beautiful sounds of the strings began, a tickle in my mind was telling me to look at my phone. For what? For a move in Words with Friends? For an e-mail alert? For a text? For a Facebook notification or status update? The sound was off on the phone, but I could still surreptitiously pull it out and look at it if I wanted to. I resisted the urge, and felt ashamed. Even as I was amazed by how horsehair drawn over strings could produce such complex and arresting sounds, even as I strove to meditate on the performance and concentrate all my focus on it, that tickle in my mind persisted.

I know what is going on here, and it is part of my overall discontent with technology. I’ve read articles about the neurotransmitters that our brains emit in response to stimuli, and how researchers are finding that responding to our gadgets produces that same dopamine squirt. Dopamine is our brain’s way of rewarding us. It’s the little rush of excitement we get when a message or text or tweet arrives. It’s the same anticipatory feeling and satisfaction I used to get as a child when checking the mail: if I received a letter or card, my brain released that little squirt of pleasure. Our quest to feel it again is what has us checking our devices obsessively.

I can blame the dopamine, but the dopamine does not have to control me. As I listened to the Mozart and the Beethoven, as I was simultaneously moved by the music yet distracted by my brain’s tickling desire for stimulation and reward, I resolved to wrest control back from the technology. There are things we can do: set limits on computer time (e.g., no web-surfing, Facebooking, etc. after 8 pm). Leave the phone in the car when attending an event like a concert, movie, or play. Ask ourselves if others really need or want to see photos of what we are eating or watching or doing, and resist the urge to Instagram everything. Get back to meaningful communication: send a card or letter instead of an e-mail; make a phone call instead of texting or emailing. It can be done, and I would go so far as to say it should be done. There are limits to everything. Technology has its place, and it can even improve and enhance communication and human relationships, but I believe we need to remember what it was like before we were inundated with technology’s relentless dopamine squirts.

It is almost 8 pm – my curfew for technology. Perhaps you may decide to set one for yourself.

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