It’s been several weeks since I read a very interesting and thought provoking NY Times article by Ben Stein. The article really grabbed my attention and gave me an idea. This happens sometimes, I get an idea and need to let it simmer for several weeks until it is cooked to perfection. Sometimes I have so many ideas simmering that they start to blend together and form a disgusting murky stew of thought. This time around, however, I’ve been very focused on one thing. Like a series of kitchen timers going off at random moments, its bells have kept me focused on every call, every text, every email, every thing my iPhone keeps track of. It is constantly demanding my attention, and I have mixed feelings about it.
We, as collective group of technologically driven people, like to think that our portable electronic devices have minds of their own. We take great joy in using the adjective intuitive to describe them. A good software program knows what we want before we even know what we want. It can even give us choices if we want. These devices enhance our lives and help keep us organized, connected, and entertained. However, they also do a really good job of sequestering us from the world around us. They distract us from a distracting world.
Cell phones, in particular, are this way. If we aren’t talking on them, we are texting on them. I think that in our efforts to stay connected, we are actually being disconnected from our immediate environment. This is acutely evident when people drive, talk, and text; and it’s why there are so many cell phone related car accidents. Not to mention train accidents, in San Francisco alone this year I know of at least three train accidents that involved a conductor and a cell phone. We are the ones in control, though. We have to choose to turn those devices on, although in some cases our devices know to turn themselves on. We can most certainly, however, choose to turn them off. Or, even more simply, let the call go to voice mail.
I witness this struggle that occurs when one tries to “disconnect” from their world on a regular basis. At work, every time I make the announcement to “turn off and stow all electronic devices” there is a collective state of denial that permeates the entire airplane. I guess that before they can officially enter denial I must first get their attention. And that is no easy task. Sometimes I have to stand directly over them and speak to them personally, since they missed the numerous and repetitive PA’s. That’s really when the denial sets in. I can almost hear them thinking, “Oh, he’s not talking to me, I don’t need to turn it off,” or better yet, “maybe if I just ignore him, pretend not to hear him, I’ll be OK.” Even some of my co-workers have an extremely difficult time with this moment of disconnect. I see them struggling to get that one last test message out before we take off.
I witnessed the cashier at my grocery store attempt to text on her phone and scan groceries at the same time. It was a multi-tasking sight to see. It got me thinking that maybe I don’t want to be this kind of person. I don’t want to be kind of guy that walks down the street and texts at the same time. Maybe I don’t even want to be the kind of guy that is always wearing his iPod headphones. I want to be more present than that. I want to notice the changes in the world around me. I want to be open and engaging to people. Not off in some electronic world of distraction.
Granted, I’m obviously not opposed using to cell phones and iPods and laptops. But we need to take back the reins. We are the ones in control of our devices. We need to make them work for us. We need to know when to turn them off, or to ignore them. If we can’t grasp that, then we are being controlled by them. In many ways electronics are the modern drug of choice. We use them to medicate and detach. It’s easier to deal with the world if you are detached from it. And, as a society, we are addicted. Fortunately for us, unlike most drugs, we can quite literally just turn it off.