February 16, 2011

Bully, I’m disconnected…♪

Don’t check that e-mail. Don’t answer that phone. Just do nothing. You may be surprised what great thoughts will come.

A decade ago, those times were just a fact of life: time ticking away, as you gazed idly into space, stood in line, or sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

Downtimes were unavoidable, yet also a primordial soup for some of life’s most quintessentially human moments. Increasingly, these empty moments are being saturated with productivity, communication, and the digital distractions offered by an ever-expanding array of slick mobile devices. Even Motorola began using the word “microboredom” to describe the ever-smaller slices of free time from which mobile technology offers an escape.

“Mobisodes,” two-minute long television episodes of everything from “Lost” to “Prison Break” made for the cellphone screen, are perfectly tailored for the microbored. Cellphone games are often designed to last just minutes — simple, snack-sized diversions like Snake, solitaire, and Tetris. Social networks like Twitter and Facebook turn every mundane moment between activities into a chance to broadcast feelings and thoughts; even if it is just to triple-tap a keypad with the words “I am bored.”

But are we too busy twirling through the songs on our iPods — while checking e-mails, while changing lanes on the highway — to consider whether we are giving up a good thing? We are most human when we are disconnected. To have downtime is to stop reacting to the external world, and to explore the internal one.

It is in these times of reflection that people often discover something new, whether it is an epiphany about a relationship or a new theory about the way the universe works. There is a strong argument that downtime— so often parodied as a glassy-eyed drooling state of nothingness — is an essential human emotion that underlies art, literature, philosophy, science, and even love.  I imagine it as the prelude to creativity, and being alone the prelude to engagement of the imagination. Doorways to something better, as opposed to something to be abhorred and eradicated immediately.

Public health officials often bemoan the obesity epidemic, the unintended consequence of a modern lifestyle that allows easy access to calories. Technology seems to offer a similar proposition: a wide array of distractions that offer the boon of connection, but at a cost. Already, mobile technology has shaped the way people interact and communicate. People no longer make plans in the same way; public spaces have become semi-private bubbles of conversation; and things like getting a busy signal or being unreachable seem foreign, even quaint. Today, distraction from solitary thinking is not just merely available; it is almost unavoidable.

Perhaps nothing illuminates the speed of social change better than the new fear of disconnection. Today, there is a growing fear of the prospect of being untethered in the world without the security blanket of a cellphone. In the timescale of human inventions, the iphone is still new, but it is already a crucial part of the trinity of things people fear to forget when they leave the house — keys, wallet, phone.
In a way, the entrepreneurs looking to capitalize on the small moments of spare time that are sprinkled through modern life parallel the pharmaceutical industry. A growing chorus of mental health specialists has begun to question whether normal sadness and social anxiety are being transformed into disorders that people believe need to be cured — by the companies offering elixirs. The tech industry may be doing the same thing with disconnection.

Many of the original arguments for having a cellphone — safety, security, emergencies — never figure into the advertisements. Like the commercials that show frowning people transformed into smiling, kitten-cuddling normality, technology companies project a happy world of connection where to intentionally disconnect seems freakish, questionable, an ailment.

Society has accepted connection so well that it takes a step back to see exactly how far things have come. Instead of carrying their entire social universe in a pocket, people used to walk out of their houses and into the world. Today, not picking up the phone for an hour is an act of defiance.

Perhaps understandably, downtime has never caught the attention of the psychological world. Emotions like anxiety, fear, or anger have been subjected to a much more thorough examination than merely feeling drab.

In one of the most famous scenes in literature, Marcel Proust describes his protagonist dunking a madeleine cookie into his teacup.

Dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake,” Proust wrote. “And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory . . . I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal.”

Marcel’s senses are recalibrated, his experiences deepened, and the very nature of memory begins to reveal itself. But it is only through the strenuous process of clearing his mind and concentrating that his thoughts begin to unfurl completely, immersing him in memory. Had Marcel been holding a cellphone in his hand instead of the delicately scalloped cookie, perhaps he could have quieted the feeling with a quick game of cellphone Tetris. And had Proust come of age with an iPhone in his hand and the expectation that his entire world fit in his pocket, he may never have written a single word.

I friend said that he refuses to carry a cellphone precisely because, “Every time I venture out into the confession booths that our public spaces have become I hear these stupid conversations. . . ‘I’m almost there, I’m turning the corner right now’. “Help!”

Connectivity, of course, has serious advantages. Parents can check in with their kids. Friends separated by hundreds of miles can have a conversation almost as if they were walking side by side. People feel safer.

Still, there has been surprisingly little public discussion of the broad sociological and psychological impact the technology will have. Like much change, it has crept up on people and radically changed behavior and expectations in ways we could have predicted.

Bu,t as it becomes more difficult to imagine a world without constant connectivity, the very concept of “microdowntime” may begin to lower people’s tolerance for even a second of empty time.

Paradoxically, as cures for downtime have proliferated, people do not seem to feel less bored; they simply flee it with more energy, flitting from one activity to the next. I have noticed a kind of placid look among people over the past few years, it’s a 'laptop culture' that I finds perplexing. People have more channels to be social; there are always things to do. And yet people seem oddly numb. They are not quite bored, but not really interested either.

Perhaps steeping in uninterrupted time may be the first step toward feeling connected. There’s a level of knowing yourself, of coming back to baseline, and knowing who you truly are.

Or, just go ahead. Your phone is vibrating with a message, your e-mails are piling up…


Sujit said...

Excellent poste….
as one would expect from your wonderful site/blog.
Keep it up.

cal tech gaggle of fans said...

you'll make us think about this all day...

Charles (click) said...

Interesting post.
Here is my get-away-from-it-all take...
(working on the flying part, still)

Alistair said...

love the post-
words and pics

frenchtoast said...

Microsoft has the PERFECT tool for “Bully, I’m disconnected”...
“We understand being disconnected better than anyone,” claimed CEO Steve Ballmer. “We have a customer-support division that excels in being disconnected. When a customer contacts us, we force him to stumble through voice-mail options, be placed on interminable holds, be routed to Dayanidhi in Bangalore who speaks only Urdu, and finally be told to contact the computer manufacturer because it’s not Microsoft’s problem. We can build a world-class social dis-connection network based upon these principles.”
See, no need to worry.

Anonymous said...

I want total sensory deprivation and back-up drugs.

Beata said...

I turned on the, ah, watchamacallit this morning.
I want to say telephone. No, that's not right.
You look at it.
That's it.
It was forgettable.

Anonymous said...

Black matter is dragging us all towards eternal damnation...
And before long we will all be cloned and turned into sheep.
So, to avoid this fate, I am being picked up by a spaceship that is hidden in the tail of an approaching comet.
[doorbell rings]
That'll be them now.

Became disconnected, had too many connections.

Alan (still connected) said...

I am STILL on the computer-
Sometimes you get into a porn loop and just can't get out

Charles (click) said...

Yes, Alan we understand.

Claudia Schiffer naked, naked, naked?

Charles said...

smiling, Ms. Edna?

Ms. Edna (squared) said...

for you Ms. Edna said...

David Pogue- New York Times Tech Columnist invites you to grab your piano and sing along.
Imagine (sung to the tune of John Lennon’s “Imagine”)

Imagine there’s no Apple,
No products that begin with “i,”
No monthly iPod models,
No Apple stores to get you high.

Imagine all the people
Finding other things to do !

Imagine there’s no bloggers…
It isn’t hard to do!
No viruses or spyware,
No weekly Windows patches, too

Imagine all the people
Learning to get a life…


You may say it’d be a nightmare
Without Google, Mac or Dell
We might have real conversations–
But the world would be dull as hell!

Imagine no new cellphones;
Kiss console games goodbye.
No David Pogue or Mossberg
To tell us what to buy.

Imagine all the people
Getting some exercise!


You may say that I’m a loony
But rest assured I’m almost done.
I’m pretty sure it’ll never happen
So we nerds can live as one!