Most of us have seen this video of a woman so engrossed by texting that she trips into a mall fountain. It’s funny. Who is this crazy woman and how could she be so oblivious?!?!?!?!? We’d never ever do anything like that, right? None of us knows a friend who almost walked into a crosswalk against the light. None of us knows anyone who almost walked into a signpost. None of us knows anyone who nearly got into a car accident while being distracted by a cellphone call. And surely none of us knows of anyone whose phone dropped into the toilet because they needed to be connected while pooping. None of that ever happens.
Yeah, we’re connected. We know all the news Google tells us is important. We can text snarky play by play of our crazy coworkers during meetings. We’ve got that down to a science. Connection! We can keep up with all the invented controversy around Justin Bieber or be the first to share a meme to friends. Connected! We need to check the Facebook to see how many likes our witty status update got in the last five minutes. We need to do this during meetings, during phone calls, during dinner, during movies. Repeatedly. We need to respond immediately to any alert from our device, just in case it makes us more connected.
That’s our awesome reality.
The Olden Days
Fewer and fewer of us even remember what it was like before smartphones. Fewer still remember what it was like before ubiquitous wifi. Does anyone know what life was like before broadband? Was life even in color before the internet?
And then there are those curmudgeons, those luddites, those hippies, reminiscing about life without connection. Stupid dreamers!
I remember all those eras. I remember wasting a lot more time watching TV, but not nearly as much as I spend being online now. I remember a lot more time to talk, time to learn, time to exercise, time to think. And I was about 25 pounds lighter.
But I was unconnected. Or was I?
I’d argue that smartphone and computer usage has tipped beyond productive, meaningful use into simply being stimulation. TV viewing went from a shared family activity to an experience of shutting down and being stimulated for hours by whatever was on. And we got out of balance on the amount of time we spent watching TV. It became an addiction. Device usage has reached that point, but since devices are portable in a way TV never was, it encompasses our entire lives. It’s stimulation. An addiction.
Recent studies have shown the stunning level of this addiction. We check our phones an average of 150 times a day, and we check Facebook an average of 14 times a day. What a remarkable level of jittery lust for information, no matter how trivial. What a desperate need to be heard and validated. If we’re so distracted and out of the moment with others, how well can we create the fulfilling lives we want?
A recent digital entertainment series called H+ takes our current scenario to an extreme. In the near future – near enough that jokes about a quaint service called Facebook are still made – society demands to be constantly connected and industry responds. Billions of people have an injection that changes their brains and allows constant connection – until the service suddenly breaks down and causes almost all of them to die. The series follows the story leading up to the breakdown and the survivor stories afterward. All in short attention span episodes of 3-5 minutes each.
Unplugged is the New Connected.
This weekend during a 75 mile car ride, I couldn’t locate my smartphone. I was sure I had brought it, but it wasn’t there in my pocket. Immediate panic. I’d be away from home, unconnected all day. Disaster!
Before the panic completely distracted me, I remembered that I had started writing this article before leaving and that I was now unplugged. Not unconnected. Not disconnected. Simply unplugged. By not being tethered to a device, I was now free to listen more closely to what my friend Steve was saying as he drove. I was free to notice cattle grazing mere feet from the highway – something I don’t remember ever seeing on this drive. I was free to admire the redwoods as we drove over the winding highway toward Santa Cruz. I was more connected, and it was exactly what I was looking for.
How would you react in the same situation? Would you be irritated and distracted all day, wondering what you were missing? Would you roll with it? How far into the road trip would you turn back for your phone? 1 mile? 5 miles? 15? 50? 100?
I believe unplugged is the new connected. I believe we should re-prioritize what is around us and really experience it. I believe we should choose to invest our limited time on this earth in this flavor of connection rather than mere stimulation.
Unplugged is Impossible. Or is it?
I’m not advocating completely abandoning our devices. I love that some people go deviceless, and I think there’s richness and freedom available by doing it. And it’s not a reality easily available to most. What we can do is explore that rich and free world in smaller doses. We can find the equilibrium that keeps us healthy, connected with others around us, aware of the many hours in our day available to spend away from shiny screens, and just connected enough that the truly important stuff gets taken care of on a reasonable timeline.
Want to give it a try?
Turn away from your device. Leave it in a safe place and go outside. Tuck it into its little device bed, with its tiny device pillow, give it a kiss on the screen and walk around for a while. Doesn’t matter how long. While you walk, look around. What’s there? Who’s there? Say hi to them.
How did that feel? Chances are you saw something new, something within a few yards of where you always are. Chances are you hadn’t noticed it when you were device-connected. And now that you’re unplugged, you can connect with a real thing in a real place, and maybe even connect with a real person.
Want to give it another try?
Turn away from your device until you notice 100 new things? Or until you say hello to 100 people. Or until you have a truly connected, in person conversation with someone you love.
How did that feel? Did you make it to noticing 5 things before the pull of the device brought you home? Great! That’s five more things than you would have noticed otherwise. And the next time will be easier. Did your conversation get interrupted by an undeniable urge to look up a fact on Wikipedia? Awesome! You started a conversation that resulted in a mystery, and next time you can see how it feels when the mystery is unanswered for a while.
Want to give it another try?
Put an auto-responder on your email that says you’re unplugging for a day. Then do it. Turn off all your devices off for 24 hours. There’s something called the National Day of Unplugging where a lot of people do this on the same day, but you’re not going to wait for that. This game can happen on any day. Like for instance today.
Your device is off. What’s it like to take away that constant stream of stimulation? What’s it like when you turn the device back on?
What other unplugging games have you tried? What’s worked?
(This article was originally published on arthurcoddington.com)