Patience in a digital age

Patience is a virtue that’s been vanquished in the digital age. It would be interesting to know if our threshold of annoying things that impede our “getting on with things” has changed over the years. In the 1970s my computer science class developed programs/software on the Dartmouth Time Share system. We carried around boxes of IBM punch cards that took hours to punch. When had to carry them to the data center and submit them…and wait. When the paper punch strip came out that was amazing! This was progress!. Now if my webpage take more than 200 msec. to load, I am annoyed. “Who designed this thing? What’s wrong with our internet connection?” Just some of the inner thoughts that arise when we are impeded.

And travel (back when we were free to travel…) is another whole area. We can be annoyed that our flight to the west/east coast takes so long –  even without having to change plans. “You can lose a whole day traveling!!” We then wonder that Star Trek transporter technology will become a reality. Things that our great-great-grandparents or grandparents would have found miraculously efficient now drive us around the bend. And that is air travel. Closer to earth, the slow walkers on a crowded sidewalk – annoying. The person ahead of you moving at a snail’s pace in the parking lot – annoying. The person doing 65 mph on the interstate (with a limit of 65) who is totally clogging up the smooth and steady flow of traffic wanting to travel at 75 mph… ok 75+…annoying.

We are not a patient people.

Cognitive science tells us that we possess an internal clock that serves its own purpose. A prehistoric ancestors’ internal clock told them it was time to stop foraging at an unproductive patch or abandon a failing hunt. That internal clock made sure we didn’t die from spending too long on a single unrewarding activity. It gave us the impulse to act. That was a good thing.

But that good thing has been subject to evolutionary change stemming from the environment in which we live. The increasingly fast pace of society has thrown our internal timer out of balance. It creates expectations that can’t be rewarded fast enough—or rewarded at all. When things move more slowly than we expect, our internal timer fools us, stretching out the wait, summoning annoyance out of proportion to the delay. We are frustrated and annoyed.

In his book, Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity, Hartmut Rosa informs us that the speed of human movement from pre-modern times to now has increased by a factor of 100. The speed of communications has skyrocketed by a factor of 10 million in the 20th century, and data transmission has soared by a factor of around 10 billion. And it is not just tech, psychologist Richard Wiseman found worldwide walking speeds had gone up by 10 percent.

We respond to our environment. One study showed that exposing people to fast-food symbols like McDonald’s golden arches, increased people’s reading speed and preference for time-saving products. If the wireless companies want to lure us into new phones and service with 5G-speeds, their ads are peppered with “speed” language… “This is so amazing; downloading an entire movie in 20 seconds!” Compare that to the days when Blockbuster was amazing delivery service, not to mention Netflix used to deliver to our mailbox!

The result is a less-than-virtuous cycle. The accelerating pace of society resets our internal timers, which then go off more often in response to slow things, lowering our threshold of annoyance. And it is all the elastic response of your internal clock to its environment.  Einstein’s theory of relativity lets us know there is no absolute measure of time. If you move at near light speeds, you will age more slowly that the ones stationary. If you an arachnophobe, you will overestimate the time spent in a room with a spider. People in car accidents report watching events unfold in slow motion. But it’s not because our brains speed up in those situations. Time warps because our experiences are so intense.

We human are a complex data sensing and measuring instrument. The insular cortex of our brain monitors all kinds of input: internal (heartbeat), external (sight and sound), emotional (impatience) and more. Add it all together and the brain judges time by counting the number of signals it is getting from the body. So if the signals come faster, over a given interval the brain will count more signals, and so it will seem that the interval has taken longer than it actually has.

What’s the remedy? Will power? Northeastern University psychologist David DeSteno, who admits to being “the guy that sighs in the Starbucks line” notes that if he uses all of his self-control to stay silent in line, he might give in to a craving for a Double Chocolate Chunk Brownie when he gets to the front. Meditation shows progress in helping stave off the feelings of impatience and annoyance.

Other suggest fighting emotion with emotion. Research has found that gratitude is a mental shortcut to more patience. In one study, people who did a short writing exercise about something for which they were grateful were more willing to forego smaller rewards now for bigger rewards later. Counting your blessings—even if they have nothing to do with the delay at hand—may remind you of the value of being a member of a cooperative human society and the importance of not getting all riled up.

I am often given to repeating St. Bonaventure’s wise counsel: humility is the guardian and gateway to all the other virtues…and the first evidence of it is gratitude. We can all have moments in which we are profoundly grateful, but are we grateful people? The first is a description of a moment in time, deeply remembered; the second is an intrinsic condition of who you are as a person. It is at the root of your being, it is the lens through which you see the world, and it is the mode by which you engage the world.

We are not a patient people. Makes one wonder if we are a grateful people. The digital fast-paced age isn’t going away. But in taking moments to be grateful we can become that grateful person, and that may well just be a pathway to being a more patient person.

1 thought on “Patience in a digital age

  1. The Hail Mary and Lord’s Prayer help me a lot in my senior stage to slow down. God is very patient with me and I feel humble. For this, I am grateful for the gift of prayer.

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