I first started writing full-time in 2001. That first year, my kids were all young, so I remember buying a one-inch thick piece of rigid insulation at Home Depot and attaching it to the interior door of my office. The sound-proofing worked--I could barely hear a thing during the day. Then, the loneliness crept in. Sitting in front of a computer all day is a bit like sailing in a yacht by yourself on a still blue ocean. The view out my office windows was stunning; Microsoft Windows and a mousepad are no substitutes for an actual person who can talk to you during the day and show actual empathy.
It wasn't supposed to be like this.
Back when we all began staring into the eternal abyss of an LCD screen all day, the promise of computing was that these digital connections would create less social anxiety not more. Social media and email would foster better communication and encourage us to share deeper feelings and reveal more about ourselves. We'd feel more connected because we could text each other at all hours of the day.
The truth is that we're consumed by gadgets. They do help us connect and communicate in a way that's essentially a digital transfer of bits and bytes, but they have also created a legitimate nightmare scenario where we have decided to all become diehard narcissists who are more interested in Beyonce's social media feeds, flipping through photos mindlessly, and obsessing over our apps than the person sitting right next to us.
I'm a guilty party in all of this. I've pulled out my phone during a conversation with my wife over breakfast way too many times, holding up a pointed index finger in the air and sending her a loud and clear message that the information on my iPhone takes precedence.
James Cameron, the famous director, recently noted how airports have become a sign of the coming roboapocalypse, and he is 100% serious. (If anyone would know, it's the guy who created The Terminator movies.) Everyone sits in silence staring at their phones, thank you Apple and Google. As someone who has covered technology for over 25 years, I can say that this was not what we wanted. Cameron says we are becoming transfused with our gadgets. I agree. It's only a matter of time before we realize it would be much more beneficial and practical to use an implant in our brains to communicate with Siri rather than holding a greasy phone.
Here's a highly personal example. My daughter and son-on-law moved to Austria about two years ago. We Skype once a week, but it's often hard to hear what they're saying. More importantly, while video chats are a fantastic invention (it's better than writing letters), they are a long way from actual human contact. And, really, that's the problem. Something "electrical" happens between humans talk to each other in person as opposed to a computer screen. We miss some of the most important signals.
Of course, some of those signals make us uncomfortable. We're hiding from them.
I get how this all works.
In 2000, my corporate career had dried up. This was a year before I became a writer. (On September 18 of that year, a week after 9/11, I was "downsized" and had to find a different career.) A series of conflicts, misunderstandings, and broken promises had made me feel isolated from my coworkers and on a circuitous path. I've always noted in this column that I became a writer after being down-sized, but the truth is that things were already on a downward spiral. So, for the past 16 years, I've kept pushing myself to write. In some ways, my tech obsessions (and that insulation on my door) reduced conflicts.
Then, about nine months ago, something changed.
I started mentoring students at a local college. I decided to turn the computer off, usually on Friday afternoons. This has not been a conflict-free decision. Anytime we put our phones down or turn off our monitors and engage in actual conversation with a living and breathing human, we will have conflict. Our gadgets do not create conflict. They do not argue with us. They do not talk back (usually). They do what we say.
Real people are not so simple. We get tired. We get grumpy. When we don't eat, we tend to get grouchy. Our opinions do not match up perfectly on every topic. And, I love it. I have learned to embrace conflict with others as an electrical signal (the good kind) that reminds me: We were not meant to become zombies who look at screens. We were meant to have personal connections with other humans, engaging in a dialog with them.
So, the question is--can we put down the phones once in awhile? Or are we really OK with becoming transhumans, beings who are melded with silicon and bits?
The answer is obvious. We need more balance. We need more contact.
That's why, way back in 2001, I tore down that insulation barrier on my office door. I started to realize the interruptions were gifts. I volunteers in my community. But it wasn't enough.
Lately, I've been leaving the phone in my office. I'm closing the lid on my laptop. And, I'm making progress. Most mornings, I look my wife in the eyes and listen to what she's saying. I don't drift off and think about my email. On Fridays, I bring a couple dozen donuts with me to a college and meet with students, listening to their questions and staying clued in to what they are saying. I'm learning that empathy works much better when I'm not on a computer typing all day. And, it works better when we set the phones down.
Will you join me?