A lesson in connectedness from solidarity

While I personally wouldn’t give up the Internet for a year (nor could I do my work or research), I am very intrigued by what Paul Miller is doing over at The Verge. He is trying his best to go a year without the Internet, and his dispatches from an Internetless world are a must read for any of us who study why people use the Internet or are just interested in why people use technology.

Ultimately, and clearly, I think that technology, computers and the Internet strongly benefit humanity. I would put the Internet right up there with the printing press for great technological advancements in human history. Still, we are in a weird period where we don’t know quite how to use this new technology; our social mores on mobile technology haven”t been written.

In many ways, we over these new technologies. We rely on them as a crutch, especially as one to excuse ourselves from interaction with human beings who are in the same room with us. Many people fear social occasions — parties, happy hours, conferences — and thus retreat into something that lets others know that we’re busy.

Many of us have become dependent on our phones like they are drugs. We feel phantom vibrations in our pockets where we think we have gotten a new message, email or push notifications. But we haven’t. We just don’t know what it is like to live in a world without that constant buzzing anymore, and when we don’t get that buzzing, our brains fake it for us.

We’re addicts. And for what?

Miller doesn’t even care a phone with him all the time, and the phone that he does own is really old and doesn’t support all those fancy things that buzz our pockets and keep us tethered to the online world at all times. Still, he feels the phantom buzzes:

You know when you think you feel your phone buzz, so you have to pull it out just to make sure? Most of the time it didn’t buzz, but it’ll bug you in the back of you mind, so you have to check. If you don’t, that phantom reminder will haunt you for hours. A phone alert, once sprung, is as physically tangible as the point of a gun in your back, or a chunk of Command-C’d text not pasted, still circulating in the veins of your hand. The only solution to this itch is to scratch it. And this fruitless scratching describes my entire week.

I kept on sensing text messages and phone calls, when there wasn’t even a phone on my person. I’d tell myself this, and yet I’d still pat around to be completely sure. At times my hand would even make it into my empty pocket before I recognized what was happening.

I find that utterly alarming, and I think it has nothing to do with Miller’s character. We are becoming addicted to technology, our phones in particular. Technology is here to help us, not enslave us, but when we go too long without or phones, we become restless, shaky, deprived.

What are we missing? Surely something important has happened since we last checked out phones.

To me, Miller’s year-long sabbatical from the Internet might help inform us on better ways to be connected. How do you do great work if you’re always being interrupted? I recently turned off push notifications and even pull noticiations for email on my phone. I am only bothered by email on my phone when I open up the Sparrow app.

If I don’t have time to actually process email, respond to it and make sure that it is all taken care of, I don’t view it. Merely viewing my email for the sake of viewing it makes me less productive. If I don’t have the time to act on my email, I have no business looking at it.

Unfortunately, I have to keep Outlook open constantly while I’m at work. Much to my dismay, the social mores of my workplace are that email can be used as an instant communication device. I’m expected to respond to urgent requests as they come in. Perhaps, I can begin to change this behavior, allowing myself and fellow workers to only check email a few times a day.

Ultimately, I use technology to get more done — to make my life better. When I feel phantom buzzing in my pocket and check my phone to find nothing has been sent to me, I’m not being more productive. I’m being a shaking, delusional addict. Where are my messages? Something must have happened in my world!

I’m becoming addicted to the dopemine hit of being noticied that something is happening, no matter how banal that thing is. I have to fight this. I cannot become addicted to banalities and trivialities, less my life become consumed by them, and I no longer create anything of substance.

I have a few times left my phone at relatives houses while visiting, and every time it’s a relief. During these brief respites, no one can call, text or harass me on the go. All communication has to be deliberate. I’m not anti-social, but constantly being bombarded with messages makes me less productive, and when I’m not productive, I’m not happy.

I’m hear to build things. To analyze things. To see life in its intricate details.

I cannot do that when I’m constantly being bombarded by texts, emails, phone calls and even push notifications about comments on a social network. I’ve been rolling back my notifications. I only want notifications on truly important information.

My phone works for me, not the other way around. This is why I’m so enthralled by what Miller is doing. What will he discover in this year?

Will he able to accomplish something that being hyperconnected is stealing from him? Like him, I’m working on a novel. But the thralls of the online world often keep me from working on it.

Will Miller actually finish his novel this year?

Going without the Internet for a year is certainly extreme, but we must find better ways of balancing technology with our lives. We’re here for the living. I doubt anyone on their deathbed says that they wish they checked more push notifications.

We’re learning how to make sense of this new technology, and this too shall pass. I imagine that much of the same issues arose when people started driving cars. Heck, there weren’t even traffic lights until 1920.

I’m sure the telephone overwhelmed some people at first. All of this will pass, and we’ll figure out ways to make this new technology work for us.

Five years ago the first modern smartphone — the iPhone — hadn’t even been released. Almost no one had 3G data. We’re learning, we’re adapting.

Some people will remain addicted. That’s life. But for the rest of us, we’ll figure out better ways to use this new technology.

Every time we’re bored, we don’t need to be staring face down in ours phones, poking at nothing. That’s the ultimate patheticness of it. We’re often just swiping around our screens, looking at older checked email. We’re not even experiencing anything new.

Who would have thought a man would need to seek solidarity from social technology in order to find connectedness? In the end, Miller will learn what works best for him.

We’ll evolve. We’ll advance. Enjoy the ride.