Once upon a time on a Reddit thread, someone posed the question, if a person from 50 years ago stepped into a time machine and arrived at the present moment, what would be the hardest thing to explain? Answers ranged from medical marvels to space travel. My favorite response – somewhat embellished – was, “We hold the entirety of human knowledge on a single, small device in our hands and can instantly communicate with anyone in the world. And we use it to look at cat pictures and argue with strangers.”
Having technology always at hand – and often in hand – doesn’t always deliver on its promise to serve as a transformational tool for our lives. How many hours have I wasted incessantly checking email or becoming incensed over depressing news and divisive political debates? I don’t want to know, especially when research firm Dscout says the average smartphone user touches his or her device 2,617 times daily, interacting with it 6 or 7 times an hour.
That’s a lot of digital engagement. Imagine if it were more enriching.
With this idea in mind, I’ve been experimenting with how to turn my relationship with personal technology inside out. Instead of having my smartphone draw me into a narrow set of passive experiences — distracted from what’s around me and directed toward to-do lists and other people’s daily lives — I’ve been seeking out mind-expanding resources that help me learn new things and do more of what matters. There are many worth sharing, and in the collective, they make me optimistic about the role technology can play in our lives.
Clay Shirky, who studies the effects of digital innovation on our lives, frames it this way: Technology at its best accelerates a shift from consumptive to creative endeavors, unleashing unprecedented, collective collaboration and change. If we use it right, the digital world opens us up to possibility, broader connections and wider horizons.
This seems somewhat Pollyanna at a time when online content is more apt to narrow our minds and devolve into a distressing miasma of incivility, polluting our communities and polarizing people everywhere. But there is a lot of good out there. Here is some of the best: my list of tools that turn technology into a teacher – and me into a better person.
Best New Digital Habit: For me, it’s learning on the go. I’ve recently shifted my listening habits to apps and podcasts that make me think – and teach me a thing or two – while I’m driving, cooking, running or cleaning.
Best Way to Soul Search in Your Professional Life: Jerry Colonna, a venture capitalist known as the “CEO whisperer” has a gripping podcast called Reboot in which high flying professionals bare their souls, face their fears and try to navigate the challenges they encounter in work and life. It’s like listening in on someone else’s therapy session – someone a lot like you. I find it incredibly compelling, and it inevitably gets me plumbing my own depths and contemplating how to bring forward my best self.
Best Podcast to Blow Your Mind: I subscribe to about 50 podcasts on my smartphone, and one of my current favorites is the latest season of Invisibilia. If you want to transform the way you understand the human experience, you must check out the recent two-part series on emotions. It challenged all my previous thinking through a combination of scientific discussion and nuanced, mesmerizing storytelling. In part one, Hanna Rosen and Alix Spiegel explain: “A thief knocks down your door and you are flooded with fear. Your baby smiles up at you and you are filled with love. It feels like this is how emotions work: something happens, and we instinctively respond. How could it be any other way? Well, the latest research in psychology and neuroscience shows that’s not in fact how emotions work. We offer you a truly mind-blowing alternative explanation for how an emotion gets made. And we do it through a bizarre lawsuit, in which a child dies in a car accident, and the child’s parents get sued by the man driving the other car.” They explore how we are architects of our own emotional experiences. In the second part, they further this concept in following an anthropologist into a remote jungle in the Philippines where he documents an emotion he never knew existed only to later, tragically experience it himself. These episodes will cause you to reflect deeply on how you come to feel as you do and reshape your understanding of the world’s emotional landscape. At time when we are too often trapped in our own bubbles, Invisibilia will expand your universe.
Best Way to Get Moving: I just enrolled in the new fitness app Gixo, and it’s an interesting combination of real-time, real-life experience and digital, social training. You choose a scheduled, live workout with a trainer and join other people around the country in exercise with encouragement the whole way. I went on a run this morning people people from Texas and California, stopping for strength exercises along the way. The trainer and a bot monitor your time and celebrate your progress, so you stay motivated throughout. If you don’t mind breaking out in jumping jacks in the middle of a city run, you might enjoy it.
Best Doses of Perspective: As a history major, I believe past stories often broaden our understanding of the present. My favorite technology-related Podcast, Reply All, recently did a fascinating piece on technology falling into the wrong hands. It’s about the charlatan Dr. John Brinkley who scammed his way to wild success via sham medicine, populism and the newly invented medium of radio. This episode was so good it’s being made into a movie starring Robert Downey Jr. It’s a timely dose of history as we wrestle with the sometimes sinister impact of digital innovation. For a more global dose of perspective, there is the classic Life in One Day, which I am finally getting around to seeing. In a testament of the power of digital devices to broaden our world view, it tells the story of one day on planet earth through video culled from 80,000 clips submitted to YouTube by people all over the world. It will restore your sense of connectedness.
Best Way to Go Back to School: If you want to take a course but don’t have time for night school or extension classes, you can use the online university app Coursera or the app for the Great Courses. I’ve taken classes on both (though I don’t always do the homework), and it’s a wonderful way to access some brilliant professors on an infinite array of topics. Wharton Professor Stew Friedman’s class on Leading Your Best Life on Coursera will get you thinking about work-life balance in a completely different way. I’m very glad I took it. I recently streamed a novel writing class from James Hynes on the Great Courses. For my class, I listened to the video while doing other things because the visuals – the professor alternating between talking to two different cameras – wasn’t especially necessary or engaging. (I still recommend the course.)
Best Way to Stay Sane: There are a host of great meditation apps now available to bring some calm and mindfulness to life’s experiences. I keep coming back to Buddhify. You select your circumstances – such as a work break, waking up, waiting around or feeling stressed – and then you pick from a variety of guided meditations of different, brief lengths. If you are having an especially hard day, pick the seven-minute Infinity meditation under “Difficult Emotions.” It is my favorite.
That’s my list.
I invite you to add to it in the interests of turning digital devices into tools that transport our minds to new places – and, in so doing, bring us back to more of what matters in our own lives. That’s the kind of technology that is truly worth having in hand.