To Be Where I Am

Is it convenient to check email anywhere, any time? Yes. Is it helpful to be able to confirm arrangements, check locations, or find someone I am meeting? Of course. But I eschew these kinds of ease for the sake of something that means more to me.
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I like to be where I am. If I walked around with a cell phone or a web-connected device, I could be taken away from who or what is around me at any moment. Especially if I am walking with a beloved person in the woods near my home, I wouldn't want my attention to shift to some other person and place.

Is it convenient to check email anywhere, any time? Yes. Is it helpful to be able to confirm arrangements, check locations, or find someone I am meeting? Of course. But I eschew these kinds of ease for the sake of something that means more to me.

The best illustration is a conversation I had with a bright, warm-hearted 17-year-old girl. She was tapping on a device, head down, while I was talking to her about her mother's recent stroke. "Excuse me," I said gently. "What are you doing?" There was no judgment in my voice, only curiosity.

"A puzzle. Don't worry, I'm listening."

"I wonder if you would be willing to shut that off, just while we're talking."

"Believe me, I'm getting everything you're saying. I even listen better while I do this."

"I do believe you, but it's not about you. It's about me. I would feel so much better if we were looking at each other."

"Oh." Long pause.

She shut off the device and looked up at me. What a difference! I am certain she experienced this difference as fully as I did, but when we said goodbye after a fine conversation, she remarked, "It's just a generational thing."

Just a generational thing. Indeed, I am afraid that a whole generation is coming of age right now who do not know what it is to have a sustained conversation between two people without the intrusion of a device. Many people in my generation (I am 59) are regularly accepting such disruptions, but at least they can recall having experienced the immediacy of two people in each other's presence without beeps, buzzes, ringtones, games, email, and the like.

Is there anything sadder in this regard than a couple at a restaurant, one speaking on a cell phone and the other staring off into space? Perhaps worse is a child on the monkey bars calling out, "Look, Daddy!" while he is so involved in his email that he misses her upside-down flip. In a single afternoon, I witnessed both of these sights and felt a rising despair for the encroachments on our experiences that we are not even counting as losses.

Yesterday, I was driving slowly up a steep hill in a residential area. Just as I reached the top of the hill, a man wearing earbuds started crossing the street without looking in either direction. He could have died for depriving himself of the sounds of the world around him and not compensating by using his eyes. I could have killed someone with my vehicle, even though I was under the speed limit and proceeding cautiously due to limited sight distance. At 25 miles per hour, a hulking piece of metal can crush a human being irredeemably. I slammed on my brakes, stopping maybe 10 feet in front of him, and he happened to glance my way. I waved him across the street, my heart in my throat.

This man in his early 20s was also missing the abundant birdsong I could hear when I halted so abruptly. He was probably not observing the quality of the sunlight on the trees if he wasn't seeing an approaching car. Clearly, whatever he was hearing in his earbuds had taken precedence over the sensate world.

This fellow was taking a walk on a perfect spring afternoon and wasn't there for most of it, yet why am I such a curmudgeon as to grieve for him? There will be other days in his life when he can choose to unshackle himself and open up to the smells and sights and sounds all around him. But what if he takes walks in this way with his intimate partner, both of them hooked up to devices? (This is becoming more common all the time.) What if he and his partner don't shut off their devices while they are having a tender conversation? What if this becomes his way of life?

Multitasking is not new. Surely cavewomen tended the fire while using a grinding stone and keeping an eye on the kids. But our sensory-motor and fight-or-flight systems evolved long before web-connected devices, and thus there is some evidence that modern multitasking is raising our cortisol levels. We are not meant to have 10 things going at once with split screens, audio messaging, and (soon) images projected in front of our eyes by Internet-enabled glasses. Stirring a fire with a stick, clutching a grinding stone, and checking to see that children are playing safely are tasks containing many sensory elements like motion and real touch. These are primal sources of satisfaction, rather than pressures and distractions, and they are not packed in to fit the shortest possible timeframe.

I am not holier than thou. The reason I don't carry a cell phone or web-connected device is because I would be on it all the time. Gone would be the glorious times in my car rocking out to oldies while running errands. I would be getting things done. I am just as pressured as anyone, and thus I might even do email while in the park with my little granddaughter. Thus, it is likely that I will end up being one of the last people on earth walking around unconnected, just alive.

For more by Wendy Lustbader, click here.

For more on unplugging and recharging, click here.