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Technology may be breeding the blasé attitudes among us

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Charlie Bowen Charlie Bowen

Charlie Bowen is a writer, teacher and web designer. He lives in Huntington.

"Curiosity" is a word I use almost every time I talk with my journalism students at Marshall University. Whether we call it being nosy or dress it up as "inquisitiveness," a working wonder at the world around us certainly should be central to the makeup of anyone who wants to be a writer or an editor.

And it's not just journalists who need a healthy hunger for questions and answers. I think cultivating curiosity makes for better practitioners in many fields, from teachers and preachers to politicians and police officers.

That's why lately I've become concerned that our national nosiness is in decline. Am I alone in thinking that we are nurturing a cool indifference to the news of the day? Has the passing show that so amused and engaged and sometimes outraged our parents and grandparents become passé?

If so, I have, as Mom used to say, a "sneakin' suspicion" that my beloved technology has something to do with that.

Consider that the smartphones in our pocket link to the greatest library the world has ever known. Capital of Syria? Tap. Tap. Damascus. 

Highest spot on Earth? Tap. Tap. Mount Everest. How high? Tap. Tap. Twenty-nine thousand, thirty-five feet above sea level. 

Oldest person ever inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Tap. Tap. Chet Atkins. 

Creator of Kilgore Trout? Tap. Tap. Kurt Vonnegut.

And so it goes.

The Internet has become our extended memory, except that more and more we're simply bypassing the memory part. We don't need to store up facts so long as we know how to find them if we ever need them.

That's fine as far as it goes. But alas, it doesn't go very far.

Maria Konnikova, in her book "Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes," notes that critical thinking — being able to connect ideas and reach conclusions about the things you observe — requires a knowledge base that is constantly being augmented by experiences; the broader the experiences, the better the deductions.

In Arthur Conan Doyle's stories, Sherlock "reads incredibly broadly — he reads about art, music — things that you would think have no bearing on his detective work," Konnikova says. "I think that's an important lesson that we can take. It's bad to overspecialize, and we should try to remain as curious about all the different types of things we want to learn."

So, it all begins with our ability to observe. And there's the rub. We are a people addicted to a ridiculous pace. We're proud of saying we're multi-taskers, always trying to get things done faster and faster. Because of that, many of us lose our old childlike wonder of focusing on the smaller details and asking, "Why is that there?"

According to Konnikova, the first step to hooking up with our inner Sherlock is to just stop and pay attention from time to time. An exercise she suggests is simply to try to notice something new every day.

I accept the challenge. And my phone and Facebook are my allies on the mission.

Now, I'm not a photographer. I do not have the training, the patience or the eye. But like millions of us, I do now have a camera with me almost all the time — in fact, the best camera I own these days is in my iPhone — which means I can grab a picture in seconds.

My phone also links me with Facebook wherever I am. That means that immediately after I've taken a picture, I can share it with friends around the world.

That combination — instantly capturing a view of something and then instantly publishing it — along with Konnikova's urging us to see with fresh eyes, has put me on an interesting path. Now once a day I step away from my work and go outside — into my wife's garden or maybe down the block — and look for … well, for something I've not noticed before. 

This five-minute vacation almost never disappoints me. And sometimes the results are surprising.

A recent Monday, for instance, was a bear. I'd taught back-to-back English classes at Mountwest Community and Technical College, doling out rules of subject-verb agreement to less than enthusiastic reviews. I got home with a nagging headache, and my feet were sore for more than two hours of standing. Dropping my briefcase on a chair, I headed out to see what the garden had to say.

The Buddhists speak of "walking meditation," an exercise of mindfulness in motion. I'd not grace my outings in such elevated terms, but sometimes there is a touch of the transcendent in what results.

On this sojourn, for instance, the first thing I noticed was that the purple asters were blooming. That was new. They were still just buds the day before. I whipped out the phone for the day's picture. Only as I got closer did I notice that I was not alone. A half-dozen hungry ants were gingerly checking the new flowers. The closeup I shared a few moments later on Facebook drew comments from friends, some of whom even waxed poetic on the tremulous nature of that tiny terrain, where the slightest breeze could "Cry Havoc" and send the little explorers into oblivion.

No, it was not a great moment in poetry. Nor photography. Nor natural science. Nor Buddhism, for that matter. But if our powers of observation indeed can be strengthened by exercise, as Konnikova suggests, then I think I pumped a little iron that afternoon. 

At the very least, my headache was going away by the time I went back inside.