This is an article from the fall 2017 issue of LSA Magazine. Read more stories from the magazine.
Every culture has an idea of what it means to be magnanimous, says Professor of Psychology and Women’s Studies Ramaswami Mahalingam. “In my native language, it means to be a big-hearted person—that’s the direct translation. In our culture, that’s where the magnanimity is, in the interconnected self.”
By interconnected self, Mahalingam means having an emotional connection to the places and people around you. He also means making a connection to the world through your cellphone.
Cellphones are ubiquitous, indispensable, and they often get a bad rap, Mahalingam says. “The anti-cellphone camp laments that people are not talking to each other anymore, that people are constantly texting, that there’s a disconnect,” he says. “The other camp says cellphones make people more connected because they send each other pictures and catch up with friends on Facebook. They say our cellphones are actually good for us.”
The truth, of course, is more complicated. It’s not surprising that what you do with your cellphone determines if it will have a positive or negative effect on your life. It may come as a surprise that Mahalingam’s research finds that whether you get a positive or a negative effect from your phone is partly dictated by how mindful and attentive you are when you are using it.
I Text, Therefore I Am
Mahalingam sees cellphones as portals through which we can create, transmit, and archive all of our various selves. They contain all of our identities — our professional selves and our romantic involvements and our private penchants for Scrabble or ’80s TV. As our phones have fused our diverse identities into a single device, they have created a state of hyperconnectivity. Everyone we’ve ever known and every place we’ve ever been is likely available, in some way, through our phones.
Cellphone technology has stripped away the time and distance the physical world once inserted between our various selves. Without it, we can, in theory, almost always be reached, and that quickly becomes exhausting.
Technology’s omnipresence isn’t going to fade anytime soon. As phones become smarter and more sophisticated, the notion that technology can actually merge with our bodies takes cyborgs out of science fiction and puts them into the not-too-distant future. Mahalingam believes this transition is already underway.
Apps, Mahalingam says, are already mediating human experiences. Our memories no longer live exclusively in our heads, and a fact we might once have held in our memories we now access through our phones. Mahalingam says that these changes aren’t necessarily a bad thing.
“On the one hand, there is a humanistic impulse to say, ‘Oh, it’s awful. The machines are in control,’” he says. “But the challenge lies in creating an awareness about how you think about everything, so when you do something habitual you become much more aware of it. As you become more deliberate, you use the phone more deliberately, too.”
One example that Mahalingam uses is the connection between cellphones and social comparison. If you scroll through Facebook or Instagram, for example, you might start thinking about how you measure up to other people in your feed, which research has found often leaves people feeling depressed.
“If you become more mindful of the connection between feeling sad and looking at Facebook, you become attuned to other social comparisons, too,” he says. The same is true for noticing generosity or kindness—the more attention you bring to bear on a thing, the more you notice it happening around you. And because cellphones are always with you, you can load apps that can prompt you throughout your day to notice and record thoughts or feelings and what’s happening around them. You can create an objective dataset you can use to guide your decisions. Such data open avenues for social research, too.
Mahalingam teaches a mindfulness class to undergraduates that stresses, among other things, mindful texting and noticing generosities around them. The effect of being more intentional about their phones means that students feel less compelled to look at their phones, which gives them more brain space to think about other things or connect more deeply with the person sitting next to them — not to mention engage with their studies.
“Ultimately, technology creates a broader set of tools to foster interconnection,” Mahalingam says. “It should help us see the expanse of who we are, and to adapt to changes with magnanimity and grace.”