What leading executives need more than anything today is wisdom. And one of the things that makes it harder and harder to connect with our wisdom is our increasing dependence on technology. Our hyper-connectedness is the snake lurking in our digital Garden of Eden.

“People have a pathological relationship with their devices,” said Kelly McGonigal, a psychologist who studies the science of self-control at Stanford’s School of Medicine. “People feel not just addicted, but trapped.” We are finding it harder and harder to unplug and renew ourselves.

Professor Mark Williams summed up the damage we’re doing to ourselves: “What we know from the neuroscience — from looking at the brain scans of people that are always rushing around, who never taste their food, who are always going from one task to another without actually realising what they’re doing — is that the emotional part of the brain that drives people is on high alert all the time.

Mindfulness

“So, when people think: ‘I’m rushing around to get things done,’ it’s almost like, biologically, they’re rushing around just as if they were escaping from a predator. That’s the part of the brain that’s active. But nobody can run fast enough to escape their own worries.” Mindfulness, on the other hand, “cultivates our ability to do things knowing that we’re doing them”. In other words, we become aware that we’re aware. It’s an incredibly important tool — and one that we can’t farm out to technology.

There are some who believe the increasing power of big data (using powerful computers to sift through and find patterns in massive amounts of information) is going to rival the human consciousness at some point. But there’s also growing scepticism about how effective big data is at solving problems.

As Nassim Taleb, author of The Black Swan, writes: “Big data may mean more information, but it also means more false information.” And even when the information is not false, the problem is “that the needle comes in an increasingly larger haystack”.

Empty information

The quest for knowledge may be pursued at higher speeds with smarter tools today, but wisdom is found no more readily than it was three thousand years ago in the court of King Solomon. In fact, ours is a generation bloated with information and starved for wisdom.

Stand-up Louis CK has put a brilliant comedic mirror in front of us and our screen addictions. In one of his routines, he captures the absurdity of children’s events where none of the parents is actually able to watch the soccer game or school play because they’re straining to record it on video with their devices, blocking “their vision of their actual child”. So hell-bent are we on recording our children’s milestones that we miss them altogether. “The resolution on the kid is unbelievable if you just look,” he joked. “It’s totally HD.”

File it under: Be careful what you wish for. Big data, unfettered information, the ability to be in constant contact, and our growing reliance on technology are all conspiring to create a noisy traffic jam between us and our place of insight and peace. Call it an iParadox; our smartphones are actually blocking our path to wisdom.

— © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2014

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