No Fear of the Void – The Courage to Disconnect!

Das Smartphone ist immer mit dabei
© Andrey Popov –

No fear of the void – the courage to disconnect!

Yet another message via WhatsApp, two emails to send, the news portal to check, and another SMS must be quickly sent; and where actually is the restaurant where everyone will meet tonight? I’ll just look it up quickly…

People staring at their displays can be found in subways, trains, waiting lines, in restaurants, alone or by two, everywhere – and also in lecture halls and in courses. “Man and smartphone go together perfectly well. As if we had longed for this symbiosis for centuries, the devices serve us as a crutch for compensating human frailties such as forgetfulness (photo collection), mental laziness (Google), and shyness (Facebook, emails, SMS). A portable gambling den, disco and video library, the smartphone eliminated all boredom once and for all, while our entire personal and professional life is bundled in the device – and so it comes as no surprise that we hardly lay it aside.” [1]

Between physical presence and virtual reality

The smartphone blurs the limits of time and space: Although we are present, physically, our attention leaps back and forth. Does our partner pay attention at all? We are not quite sure, because his attention continuously oscillates between presence and virtual reality.

Take the young student for example, who just explained how her team thinks about an issue regarding the use of mobile communication devices, and who is already absorbed again by her portable information processor once I start and try to give an answer. Or take the bicyclist riding his bike in front of me in wavy lines, barely missing a collision with the lamppost: totally submerged into his smartphone world, and in addition acoustically screened off by huge headphones.

Defensive reactions reach from confusion – does the other listen to me or not? – to irritation by “phubbing” (from “phone” and “stubbing”): Warnings of “abuse” or excessive use of portable terminals span from “digital dementia” [2] to attention deficits and poor performance as a consequence of multitasking [3], depression, anxiety and sleeping disorders [4]; and even a true addiction potential is diagnosed.

A tool of busyness reflecting the zeitgeist, mobile terminals always come in handy to eliminate possible boredom, avoid feelings of emptiness and to fill any vacuum. This type of bustle can also be a “manic defense” [5], and any void or boredom can no longer be used to grow aware of one’s own world, thoughts and state.

Always available, always online

According to a survey of Techniker Krankenkasse, a German health insurance, an average of 87 per cent of people between the age of 18 and 25 are always available and always online [6], which means: At very short intervals, they check their messages during the whole day, interrupting any activity for that purpose.MBS-Blog-Smartphone-TK-en

Complaints about distress by an excessive information flood, stimuli and ongoing interruptions (and the related diseases) are increasing, although we ourselves willingly provoke them with our smartphones by forever checking if something new has happened in the cyber world during the past few minutes.

Any advice for reducing distress and for more relaxation must therefore be understood as a plea for the courage to disconnect: Taking walks, doing breathing exercises, mindfulness training, leisure – all of these serve the purpose of becoming aware of the here and now, and to abstain from all activity. Disconnecting can – in this respect – be taken quite literally: It means to take a time out – from information processing devices and also from the smartphone. “The most effective executives are those who are capable of both, acting and reflecting – which means they must make time for doing nothing.” [7] We need the void for thoughts, creativity and intuition to unfold, in good dose, every day. Therefore: Have the courage to disconnect!

[1] see Rutenberg, Jürgen von (2015): Since the smartphone is always with us, we are never completely where we are, Zeit Magazin no. 29, August 3, 2015.
[2] see Spitzer, Manfred (2012): Digital Dementia: How we drive our children crazy, Munich.
[3] see Junco, Reynol (2012): In-class multitasking and academic performance, Computers in Human Behavior 28, pp. 2236-2243.
[4] see Demirci, Kadir/ Akgönül, Mehmet; Akpinar Abdullah (2015): Relationship of smartphone use severity with sleep quality, depression and anxiety in university students, Journal of Behavioral Addictions 4 (2), pp. 85-92.
[5] see Kets de Vries, Manfred F.R. (2015): Doing nothing and nothing to do: The hidden value of empty time and boredom, Organizational Dynamics 44, p. 171.
[6] see Techniker Krankenkasse (2013): Bleib locker Deutschland! TK-Studie zur Stresslage der Nation, Hamburg, p. 25.
[7] see Kets de Vries, Manfred F.R. (2015): Doing nothing and nothing to do: The hidden value of empty time and boredom, in: Organizational Dynamics 44, p. 171.

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About Prof. Dr. Gabriella Maráz 34 Articles
Gabriella Maráz is Professor for Intercultural Management and Research Methodology and focuses on information and communication psychology and work techniques.