Talking tech with Manoush Zomorodi

Podcast star, 'Bored and Brilliant' author kicks off TLI's capstone event

cover page of Tech Expo program

Manoush Zomorodi is OK if audience members found themselves bored during her keynote address. 

 The kickoff presenter at Tech Expo ‘21 was anything but boring. She’s engaged audiences from NPR’s Ted Hour and her own podcasts like Zig Zag to countless events like this one held on a sunny Friday afternoon in May before a virtual crowd of 120 or so educators. 

Seriously, though, she’s OK if anyone was bored. These days, she’s found, boredom is not only a good thing. It’s invaluable, and in short supply.

Like a lot of us, Ms. Zomorodi says she was taught early on that only boring people are bored. But as she found herself staring at her phone all day, busy but not engaged, she began to wonder if all the tiny moments in her day, the little cracks between tasks, were gone, replaced by endless scrolling and tapping. That got her thinking hard about being bored.

“What happens in our brains when we get bored anyway?” she wondered, reflecting on the Bored and Brilliant project that later became a book title. Neuroscientists call it “default mode,” she says, like zoning out over a load of laundry.

It’s when your most original thinking happens, Ms. Zomorodi said. It’s also called autobiographical planning, where you sort out your life’s highs and lows and form a narrative from which you project your future. It’s amazing, high-powered thinking, really.

“But we can't tap this amazing brain power if we’re constantly tapping this thing,” she said, holding up her phone. 

Pay attention to Big Tech

Ms. Zomorodi set out to share with attendees of the Technology Leadership Institute’s capstone event ways we can preserve our humanity in an accelerating world. She didn’t stop at technology, let alone educational tech, but touched on finance, corporate governance, the connected world and all-too-disconnected tech companies. 

A mom of two, she veered to the topic of helping young people cope with the monetization of their eyeballs by aggressive online marketers, but as quickly she offered prescriptions for addressing the short-term incentives for CEOs to put profits over societal interests. 

Links to Keep...

Slide deck: Humanity in the Digital Age
Tech Expo Digital Backpack 
Tech Expo Program
TLI '21-'22: Save the Dates

She sounded notes of optimism bulwarked by real-world insights and suggestions — you can give up one digital addiction for a day and see a difference! At times, she betrayed the trepidation that comes from knowing all too well how Big Tech has its clutches on all our attention spans, wallets and digital footprints. 

  “I have kids, you’re teachers,” she said. “We have to be optimists. It’s our jobs.”

Her research into an array of fields has led her to speak of our prevalence of economies: gig, attention, platform, surveillance. It’s all just the economy, she’s decided. 

Our attention span shifts have sped up from just a few years ago, from every three minutes to every 45 seconds. Oftentimes we confuse productivity with reactivity, and reacting is what our digital devices train us to do. It’s a state of constant interruption of our creative flow, and we know from research it takes 23 minutes and 15 seconds after an interruption to get truly back on task. “No wonder it feels like a miracle finishing a project or even just writing an email,” she said.

A key problem these days, in her view, is that there are too few rules about what companies can and cannot do. She equated it to the arrival of the automobile. Even seatbelts were an advancement that took a long time to acquire societal acceptance. Again, she’s optimistic.

“We are asking the right questions about the rules we need in real life to govern online life,” Ms. Zomorodi said. Those questions come in the forms of legal challenges and heated political debate. There’s even an effort to rethink companies’ purpose, replacing short-term earnings with long-term social benefit. “How do we make business more humane?” she asked.

The case for slowing down

“We’re all facing twists and turns in our lives as never before, and you have all made huge changes to the way that you work in the last year alone,” she told her audience. 

Think about how you want to spend your daily dopamine allotment, she advised. You can burn through it quickly on Twitter, or you can think of new ways to use your life and your time. That’s a message teachers can convey to their students too.

“As a society, we need to rethink our relationship to time,” Ms. Zomorodi said. “Faster and more isn’t better, kinder or more sustainable.”

That might mean putting down your phone and meditating, or it might mean taking 30 minutes to find a worthwhile local business instead of taking three seconds to click an Amazon link.

“The virus showed us how closely we are connected,” she said. “What motivates us? Caring for each other and doing meaningful work. If we listen to ourselves we can feel those things.”

About Tech Expo ‘21

Tech Expo, like so much else in 2020, fell victim to the pandemic. The TLI team at the Lower Hudson Regional Information Center was determined to bring it back strong, if virtual, in 2021. The result of a year of planning and preparations was a dynamic, two-day re-engagement of educators and ed tech providers looking at the state of education in the near-post-COVID world. 

Thursday, May 20, saw an afternoon of vendor Fusion Session Focus Groups from Blackboard, Day Automation, Edgenuity and PC University. Vendor booths and poster sessions were also opened up to give attendees an early look at the dynamic content available. Day two opened with Ms. Zomorodi’s compelling talk about the implications and opportunities of ever-present, attention-grabbing technology. She was followed by a series of 15 breakout sessions from the region’s top education minds, along with continued poster sessions and the vendor floor. 

The entire conference was presented via single dashboard that will be archived and remain accessible to participants for 30 days at https://www.virtualeventplace.com/LHRIC_TechExpo.