How Do Our Screens Distort Our Sense of Time? | St. Louis Public Radio

How Do Our Screens Distort Our Sense of Time?

Originally published on February 3, 2017 8:05 am

Part 5 of the TED Radio Hour episode Screen Time - Part II

About Abha Dawesar's TED Talk

After Hurricane Sandy hit Manhattan, writer Abha Dawesar watched people scrounging for outlets to charge phones. She wondered: Do we miss out on what's real when we dive into our digital lives?

About Abha Dawesar

Abha Dawesar began her writing career as an attempt to understand herself — at age 7. It's a goal that remains at the center of her work: Sensorium, her most recent novel, explores the nature of time, self and uncertainty, using Hindu mythology and modern science as prisms. Dawesar moved from India to the United States to study at Harvard. Delhi appears at the center of her novels Family Values and Babyji.

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So here we are, moving into a future where more of what we see and feel and experience might happen in a way we can barely comprehend. And the thing is, it's not that far off. And if a part of you feels like we've all unwittingly opted into a kind of crazy mass human experiment with an uncertain outcome, you're not alone.

ABHA DAWESAR: There are a lot of things sort of happening at all kinds of subconscious and subterranean levels that we are really not equipped to be aware of, but we are in it. It's very hard to see and observe and know when you're part of the experiment, and there is no control group.

RAZ: This is Abha Dawesar. She's a novelist who has thought a lot about this - about how our screen selves are transforming our real selves, even the way we perceive space and time. Here's Abha on the TED stage.


DAWESAR: So many of us today have the sensation that time's arrow is pointing everywhere and nowhere at once. This is because time doesn't flow in the digital world in the same way that it does in the natural one. We all know that the Internet has shrunk space as well as time. Far away over there is now here. News from India is a stream on my smartphone app, whether I'm in New York or New Delhi. Your last job, your dinner reservations from last year, your former friends, lie on a flat plane with today's friends because the Internet also archives and it warps the past.

With no distinction left between the past, the present and the future and the here or there, we are left with this moment everywhere - this moment that I'll call the digital now. This digital now is not the present because it's always a few seconds ahead with Twitter streams that are already trending and news from other time zones. This now bears very little physical or psychological reference to our own state. Its focus instead is to distract us at every turn of the road. Are you reading an interview by an author? Why not buy his book? Tweet it, share it, like it, find other books exactly like his, find other people reading those books. Not just is the digital now far from the present, but it's in direct competition with it.

And therein lies its greatest convenience and horror. I can order foreign language books in the middle of the night, shop for Parisian macarons and leave video messages that get picked up later. At all times, I can operate at a different rhythm and pace from you while I sustain the illusion that I'm tapped into you in real time. Just how can we prioritize in the landscape of the digital now?

RAZ: So another idea that you talk about is this idea that, you know, the overall time we have for our narrative, our lifespan, is increasing.


RAZ: But the actually - the moment - the moments that we have are smaller.

DAWESAR: I think this is really related to the computers and the speed at which they operate. We're living at their speed now. Our own innate rhythm of time and the rhythm of that thing are not in sync. It also explains why we can spend a long time on it, and the next thing is, you look up and two hours have passed. So it's using some very real parts of your body and your brain to hold you there. It uses all of the things that evolution has prepared us, you know, like, something is blinking, pay attention. There's movement in the corner of your eye, pay attention to it because it's going to matter. All of those ancient reflexes in us are hijacked by the computer through its - you know, it's a very rich medium and you stay with it.


DAWESAR: Time-warping technology challenges our deepest core. You and I know exactly what it means like to be truly present in a moment. It might've happened while we are playing an instrument, or looking into the eyes of someone we've known for a very long time. At such moments, our self's are complete. The self that lives in the long narrative arc and the self that experiences the moment become one. I first expressed these feelings with my grandmother. I wanted to learn to cook, and she kept me in the kitchen cutting, cubing and chopping for a whole month. My grandmother taught me that things happen in the time they take, that time can't be fought. And because it will pass and it will move, we owe the present moment our full attention. One of my yoga instructors once said that love is attention. And definitely for my grandmother, love and attention were one and the same thing. The digital world cannibalizes time, and in doing so, what it threatens is the completeness of ourselves. It threatens the flow of love. But we don't need to let it. We can choose otherwise, and in our lives and in our actions, we can choose those solutions and those innovations and those moments that restore the flow of time instead of fragmenting it. We can slow down, and we can tune into the ebb and flow of time. We can choose to take time back. Thank you.


RAZ: How do we do it? Like, how do we reconnect to our human reality?

DAWESAR: I think it's for each one of us to ask what's important and whether we want this or not. So for me, the physicality of things - which is what is missing in the digital world - is really what sort of gives me something to hold onto.

RAZ: Yeah.

DAWESAR: And if you think about our own memories, there's a digital world where we are spending a lot of time. But if I think of the highlights of say, my year last year, the things I remember are hiking, you know, the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, not the hundreds of hours spent on the Internet. And part of who we are and our sense of self is about the memories we carry, the experiences we've had that have shaped us. And so the biggest story that we have of our own life that we carry in our head, is that going to get emptier as a result of this, or what will fill it if real life is not going to fill it?

RAZ: Do you think that we can do this, as a species as we are moving towards a digital future and reality, that we can actually pull back and say wait a minute, we need to reconnect with our physical reality?

DAWESAR: Yes, absolutely.

RAZ: We can do that?

DAWESAR: Absolutely, I think we can. I think deep down, all of us have a desire and a yearning for things outside of us. Just, you know, going to the beach on a Sunday, you see a lot of people out there trying to listen to the sound of the waves. And even if they may have their cell phones with them, they're at least somewhat present. Something brought them there. You know, we want to feel the sand. We want to feel simple things. We want to be able to be look up at the moon. We definitely have a larger reality which is outside of us that is calling us all the time. You know, we are, at the end of the day, biological creatures.

RAZ: Abha Dawesar is a novelist and an artist. She lives in New York. You can hear her entire talk at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.