The Difficulties Of Disconnecting

I often worry that those things that are most important to me -- spending time with my family, doing my martial arts practice -- are slowly under assault by the very gadgets that I bought to make my life easier.
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A couple of weeks ago, just before I took some vacation time, I was chatting with a student about my trip. He asked if I would send him some photos of flowing lava from the active Hawaiian volcano I planned to visit. I told him I would do so when I got back.

"Just send them from your phone," he said.

"I don't have one with a camera," I answered.

"From your laptop, then," he persisted.

"I'm not taking one with me."

The student, a successful physician, stared at me with slack-jawed amazement. "You mean you're going to disconnect?"

"Sure," I said. "It's spring break time. I want to spend it with my son and enjoy nature. You know the sky, the sun, the ocean, stars and wind."

"But all by yourself?"

"Not all by myself, although I often do that. With my boy."

"But not the Internet," he said.

I shook my head. "Not until I get back."

He looked at me in frank admiration. "That's really living," he said.

Connecting and disconnecting have switched places of late. When I was growing up, having a telephone in your car meant you were a person of great importance. Only a politician of cabinet rank would have one, or maybe a senator, a police commissioner or spy boss, a mogul, tycoon, or captain of industry. To be available to others while on the go and to have them available to you meant that your electronic presence, your judgment, input, direction or counsel was so essential that your personal life, your peace and quiet, took second fiddle to some Greater Good; to be able to be reached anywhere anytime was a real status symbol.

Nowadays precisely the opposite seems true. Being able to disconnect has become the status symbol that high-tech connection formerly was. An Internet publicist of good reputation -- she appears to live and breathe the Web -- recently confessed to me that her fondest ambition was to get offline and write a novel, to stop e-mailing and surfing and blogging and reading and, instead, set pen to paper (or at least fingers to word-processor keyboard.) Doctors and lawyers and businessmen alike -- at least the type who seek me out for lessons in tai chi, mindfulness, Chinese philosophy or just a good story -- sigh wistfully at the idea of being able to spend time away from cell phones, keyboards and screens. These are the same folks who just a few short years ago ridiculed me for resisting a cell phone, called me a Luddite and suggested I be pelted with stones and other hard and simple things I seemed to like so much.

Eventually I did get a cell phone, and found it convenient, though not without demerits. In addition to the pluses and minuses of being available and having others available to me, there were the occasional close calls while talking behind the wheel. Of course, everyone knows driving while chatting is dangerous, but it seems that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration now claims this is because it is the mind that is occupied, not the eyes or the fingers.

It is the mind I worry about, mine at least, all the more because today, years after the original, simple wireless telephone, I bought an iPhone. It allows me to blog on the fly -- small screen typing remains dicey for me though -- and even to send pictures of erupting volcanoes to friends while standing by the lava and ash. I'm sure that in five years time it will look positively antediluvian, but for now it seems a brilliantly designed technical marvel, intuitive, smart, and already capable of doing more than I will ever likely ask of it. And yet, and yet, as I pondered its options and menus at a traffic light on my way home and explored the list of applications available for it via wireless signal -- even perused ring tones and podcasts to add to it on my home computer as it synched my contacts and calendar and put my favorite tunes aboard -- I wondered the technical marvel inside my head is being compromised by this one in my hand.

I am one of those folks who dials numbers manually rather than using the contacts list or issuing the verbal order "call home" so as to keep my memory sharp. I like to do arithmetic in my head so I don't forget how, and to use a map when I'm lost or rely on directional cues rather than a GPS with a friendly voice telling me to turn left in half a mile. I get that the new way is easier, I'm just not sure it's better.

In short, despite communicating with friends and readers of my novels all over the world by e-mail, and despite being a great fan of the Web (you're reading my blog, perhaps you've already visited both of my websites?) -- even though I'm conversant with the theory that the Internet is in the process of uniting us all into a great big superbrain that represents the next level of consciousness evolution -- I'm not convinced that the virtual world is better than the real one.

I know, I know. I can always turn off the phone, turn off the computer, retire to the garden to meditate under a tree, practice my tai chi in the park, or, my absolute favorite -- saunter over to my easy chair and read a great novel. I know it's up to me. I know it's an issue of character and discipline. I know my electronic devices are just tools. I know they are, or should be, the slaves to my will. To your will. To our will. I know that temptation, distraction and enticement are always there, and that only people of weak will succumb to them. But even in choosing not to do something some little bit of time and energy is required, and as the number of those temptations grow, so do those packets of energy.

I worry a bit that those things that are most important to me -- spending time with my family, writing my novels, doing my martial arts practice -- are slowly under assault by the very gadgets that I bought to make my life easier, smoother, better. I worry that where once we made our tools, our tools are now making us. I worry that if we don't keep this point alive and keep this dialog going we are in danger of forgetting the really deep parts of being alive in favor of the titillating trinkets of technology. I worry that when my son attends a friend's birthday party at a video arcade and a dozen young boys spend two hours in front of screens and never so much as say a word to each other -- what happened to ball games, board games, wrestling matches, parties at the beach? -- something dangerous may be happening, something that benefits the companies who make these tools more than it benefits those of us who use them.

I'm not a Luddite -- although I appear to be an endangered species -- and I don't want to totally drop out. I enjoy being part of an exciting new world. But at the risk of the wrath of the technorati, I'd like to suggest that perhaps a bit of balance is required, that mindfulness is fading and direct experience growing rarer by the day, and that perhaps we all need to give ourselves some of the new kind of "status" and turn everything off now and then.

What do you think?