The distinguished physicist and novelist grapples with the pervasive network of digital distraction he calls “the Grid” and discusses how we can disengage while salvaging its benefits.
Lightman (Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, 2018, etc.) critiques the negative impact exerted not only by the internet, social media, and smartphones, among other elements of information overload, but the louder, faster, fragmented nature of our time-driven lifestyles. The effects on our young people are particularly worrisome, and it all happened so quickly. The author demonstrates how, for all its useful features, the wired world takes an enormous toll on our psyches. Where is the space for reflection, for processing, for simple downtime, for “free grazing of the imagination” amid all this relentless input? Without that space, writes Lightman, we risk damaging our inner selves. He argues for the need to allow “our minds to wander and roam without particular purpose,” stressing the importance of creativity and detailing all that we risk losing by failing to recognize the threat. Perhaps as much as anything, he writes, it is the irony of increasing isolation in a hyperconnected world that should concern us. He frankly admits to being a “user” himself, seduced by some of the same electronic entreaties that afflict the ranks of the addicted. This call to disconnect from a hyperactive, overly structured existence, at least for a mental breather, is not new nor unique to Lightman. But few present their arguments so cogently or more persuasively present the advantages of cultivating a contemplative habit of mind. A sober, companionable writer, the author rarely exaggerates, and his argument rings true: To unplug (now and then) is to prosper.
Lightman, who lives less than a mile from Walden Pond, takes a page from Thoreau, convincingly arguing that we must embrace play, solitude, and contemplation to leaven our hyperstimulated lives.