connecting to the right grid

Hyperconnectivity. It's a recent cultural touchstone (some call it a revolution) that I find myself loathing more and more everyday, yet I still partake here and there. I can't seem to decide if I'm being self-protecting or self-righteous when I decide not to partake. I do realize that I am being a bit self-righteous when I laugh after someone asks if I "tweet" - but I also believe I am simply protecting my own sanity and well-being when I decline a request to join in on someone's vampire posse.

I am often guilted for not answering phone calls. Most of the time it is simply because I leave my phone in my car all day. Whoops. I don't do this on purpose all the time, it seems to be a sub-conscious thing. I just see it as a false sense of connection. I find it ironic that as we head further and further into the realm of hyperconnectivity, we seem to grow further and further disconnected. Perhaps, to be more accurate: As we grow more and more connected to one another via technology, we grow more and more disconnected from creation and Creator.

While I don't know if linking this whole (short) article is necessary, David Sirota raises an important question: What are the psychological and societal consequences of the revolution’s radical notion that always being connected and available is a necessity? And, I might add, Do you think that notion even exists? Do you feel pressured to be available? Do you agree with my assessment of how this affects our relationship to creation and Creator?

I wish we could all have this discussion around a table of good food, but the comments section of a blogger account will have to do for now.

--Getting Off The Grid--
As you read this, I am somewhere in rural China, probably disoriented, perhaps eating a fish eye, and certainly not paying attention to the news. This column was the last thing I wrote before embarking on what’s become an all-too-rare experiment in human life: I decided to see what will happen when I go fully off the grid.

Because I am completely cut off, you cannot call or text me from your phone; you cannot IM, Friend or Tweet me from your computer; and you cannot message me via my avatar on Xbox Live. You cannot even e-mail me or leave me a voice mail—my mailboxes tell you that all messages are being deleted, and that you will have to recontact me when I’m back. (Legend has it that Napoleon waited until he received two letters to respond to requests, figuring that most problems become moot in the interim—I guess I’ll find out if he is right.)

The prospect of going technologically cold turkey was daunting for me, one of millions of information junkies now hooked on connectivity. I vaguely recall a life without cell phones and computers (well, other than Nintendo), but my addiction has clouded that memory in sepia tones, making it seem a century ago. And so as I prepared for my current plunge into information deprivation, I felt like I was readying for a journey in a time-traveling DeLorean.

I can’t tell you whether I’m enjoying my isolation in the Middle Kingdom or going crazy from it—as mentioned, I wrote this column just before leaving. But I do know that the pretravel fear about cutting off is neither unique to me nor healthy.

Today’s Internet and technology revolutions have been rightfully celebrated for improving everything from education to medicine to commerce. We understand these benefits well—hell, we have magazines and blogs and RSS feeds and pornstachioed triumphalists like Tom Friedman constantly telling us how great it is that the revolution is being YouTubed. We don’t, however, consider the psychological and societal consequences of the revolution’s radical notion that always being connected and available is a necessity.

Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about. It’s that urge to answer your cell phone in the middle of a family dinner, that impulse to check your e-mail before going to bed, knowing your boss expects you to. It’s the urge to text-message a business colleague while driving—a problem so prevalent and dangerous that state legislatures are outlawing such behavior. And it’s that reaction you get when telling people you don’t have a Facebook page or a BlackBerry—that disgustedly stunned look as if you said your name is Fred Flintstone. The expectation is that you are—and must be—on the grid at all times.

Though we don’t talk about it much, it’s obvious that this rewiring of expectations will inevitably come with consequences for, among other things, families, interpersonal relationships, psychological stability and work. It becomes difficult to conduct face-to-face interpersonal relationships while Twittering, hard to find inner calm with a perpetually buzzing cell phone, and nearly impossible to be productive at a job when bombarded by e-mails all day.

That’s probably only the half of it, too—nobody really knows the full ramifications of hyperconnectivity. Either way, I hope my Chinese experiment gives me some deeper insight into the phenomenon, just as I hope the fish eye I’m probably slurping down right now tastes good. I’ll certainly let you know via Twitter, Facebook and e-mail. But not until I get back on the grid in a few weeks.

And (as I keep having to remind myself) that delay is actually OK.
--David Sirota via Truthdig


David said...

you should talk to my old roommate Josh again :) i definitely see this in myself. i may generally avoid facebook and twitter, but i live and breathe on gmail and google reader, checking compulsively every waking minute, and feeling that strange rush when i see the white line indicating an unread message, even if it's not a message i care about . . .

benjamin said...

haha, isn't it great? there is so much irony inherent in this -- using a blog to reach out to others to connect and converse about whether or not connecting via blogs is always worthwhile. good stuff.

I guess another question I would like to throw in the mix is:

Is there ever anything inherently wrong with technology (specifically cyber, social networking technology) or does it only cause harm because of our abusive nature?

stan said...

while certainly ironic, i think the fact that you're using a blog to communicate about technology-imposed alienation is a good argument that it's not technology's fault but our own. i think all the critiques are absolutely correct. social networking technology does seem to dumb down our interactions to the lowest common denominator. at the same time, it can also allow meaningful communication in areas previously not possible.

i guess there is a healthy level of ambivalence to have towards the internet. while it is certainly is not going to usher in any kind of meaningful revolution, it still has the ability to provide an outlet for interaction.

the older i get, the more it seems that many of the questions worth arguing about have answers that involve balance rather than extremes.

benjamin said...

Jason, I think you are right -- Social networking reflects the attitude of the user. I have discovered this during my ongoing love-hate affair with Facebook (and my hate-hate affair with Myspace). I discovered that social networking is something that can easily be abused -- but I am to blame if that relationship ever becomes abusive, not the tool itself. With great power comes great responsibility, right? And I can either choose to delete my account or learn self-control -- or as you say, practice "balance rather than extremes." I like that.

The Internet and all of it's applications should be arenas where we practice self-control (and expand the talkaboutable, as David Dark would bear witness), because, I believe a certain disconnect can occur if we aren't careful. That disconnection is tricky, though, because it seems to happen while millions of other connections are being made.

For example, it's so easy to forget how conversations really work in real life when we get so used to anonymous name-calling and racial slurs in online comment forums. Or we forget what money actually is while spending it with a click of a button, only to see a digital number decrease in an online bank account. Or we forget how to BE ALONE because we thirst for the constant sense of connection we feel while Twittering or blogging.

Of course, I believe God can connect to us through any avenue He wants. God could just as easily speak to us through Twitter as He could through a rock concert, a novel, or a beautiful 5.12b arete with an under-cling crux lit by the setting sun. And He chooses to speak to each of us in different ways. I have a friend who doesn't gain much insight or inspiration through being in the great outdoors, instead he receives through technology (specifically when ogling a curvaceous new Apple product).

So while being careful to remain connected God's Grid, I don't want to be so careful as to write off anything my inner-Luddite hesitates to partake in. Although, I think I was given my Ludd sensibilities for a reason. :)