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Glen Brink
Published by: Glen Brink on 05-Sep-14
Are You Chronically Connected?
Friday, September 5, 2014


Are You Chronically Connected?

Alexander Green

Alexander Green currated by Glen Brink

My colleague Joel Wade wrote an excellent column two weeks ago extolling the virtues of genuine human connection.

In my experience, however, something ominous is interfering with that connection: technology.

Yes, I know. Digital technology saves time, lowers costs, adds convenience and increases productivity.

I work online. I use the Internet to book flights and hotel rooms, pay bills, schedule appointments, watch my stocks, and check the news. But that's a few hours a day. The rest of the time I'm off the grid.

That causes some friends to think I'm dissing them. An old high school buddy shot me an email the other day...

"Man, you never answer your cell phone."

"I do when it's around," I said. "But it's been out in the car since yesterday."

This simply isn't done, apparently. The era of 24/7 connectivity is here. People expect you to play the game. After all, they are.

Whenever I'm out, I see folks gazing at their smartphones with the sort of rapt attention that mothers generally reserve for newborns. Thumbs working overtime, they are adrift in an ocean of distraction.

Dr. Gary Small, a UCLA researcher, points out that once we get used to perpetual connectivity, it feeds our egos and sense of self worth, becoming irresistible.

"In the short run," he writes, "these stress hormones boost energy levels and augment memory, but over time they actually impair cognition, lead to depression and alter the neural circuitry that controls mood and thought."

Over half of Americans now own smartphones. The paradox is that while we are more connected than ever, we have less genuine human interaction.

Studies show that a third of Americans use their phones during dinner. We use social media to "like" products and photos, publish minute-by-minute musings and post images of our meals and cocktails, not to mention an endless stream of "selfies."

There seems to be a virtual celebration of self. (No pun intended.) Take Selfish, celebrity Kim Kardashian's new book of selfies, described as "352 pages of bad lighting and self-absorption."

(Another selfie made the news last month for a tragic reason. A Polish couple vacationing in Portugal climbed over the guardrails to snap themselves with the sea in the background. While their two young children watched, they backed off the cliff and fell hundreds of feet to their death.)

A University of Michigan study published last year found that the more people used Facebook, the less satisfied they were with their lives. There's a big difference between pushing a "Like" button and seeing people laugh and smile.

They also found that as digital communication increased, the number of actual friends - as opposed to online ones - went down. Americans report having, on average, one-third fewer friends than they did 30 years ago.

All this self-absorption and documentation has a downside. We are being drawn into technology, but away from other important things. What are we not paying attention to that perhaps we should?

By devoting so much time to our desktops, laptops and smartphones, we are necessarily devoting less time to things that matter more: our kids, our parents, our friends... sunsets, falling leaves, waves on the beach, starry nights. Emails, text messages and web browsing are making these other things more expendable.

The Internet is killing high culture, too. Who has time for Middlemarch or Beethoven's Ninth when they are constantly fielding calls, texts and emails?

The National Endowment of the Arts recently released a report showing that literary reading declines significantly with rising Internet use. The report says almost half of all Americans between 18 and 24 "read no books for pleasure."

Technology connects us to many good things. But it also pulls us away from others: leisure, contemplation, creativity, relaxation, savored experiences, personal interaction, peace of mind. For many, a slower, less harried way of life is now on the verge of extinction.

In a matter of decades, no one will remember life before the Internet. Those born before 1985 will be the last (and only) Americans to know what life is like both with and without the World Wide Web.

It's like being among the first to experience Guttenberg's press, the steam engine, radio or television. Maybe bigger.

Much of what we miss when we are connected is important but intangible. In Walden, Henry David Thoreau said he escaped to the woods because "I did not wish to live what was not life."

Is there a better argument for taking time off the grid?

Carpe Diem,


P.S. To savor what it's like to connect while completely unconnected, I strongly recommend Ned Crabb's excellent short essay, "Every Chirp You Make, I'll Be Watching You." You can read it here.





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