29 June 2013

10 – Fear, Freedom and The Power To Disconnect

I get along with my younger sister. We've never had any major differences or falling outs. Apparently we didn't even cause our parents too much grief as kids. Except for the time we played Barber Shop and I ruined her bangs. What else do you expect from a five-year old with scissors?

We disagree on one thing. Recently, my sister expressed her frustration at not being able to reach our parents by text message or phone call. They'd both turned their phones off. She wasn't impressed.

My sister was adamant in her belief that a person should never be unreachable via mobile device. According to her, turning off our Blackberries and I-Phones is a luxury no one has anymore. For some of us, shutting our gadgets off has become a mortal sin. 

I didn't voice my true opinion on the matter. My sister was pretty agitated and I had no interest in fanning the flames. Besides, I don't have the fire department on speed dial. Nor do I have a tiny gnome with a soulless voice named Siri living in my phone who I can ask to find out for me. But I knew what I really thought then. And I'll tell you right now.

The idea that we no longer have the luxury of disconnecting is a complete and utter crock. The notion that you cannot unplug yourself from your gadgets is false. It's a myth constructed by institutions that thrive off people becoming utterly dependent on the machines they produce. It's simply not true. I'll highlight three reasons why.

First, every mobile device and online communication network provides the option to log out or power off. Your phone and computer both have buttons allowing you to shut them down. Use them every once in a while. They won't explode, and you'll gain piece of mind. Likewise for your Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr and email accounts.

Second, too much information is simply not good for you. The brain is a high-powered processor in its own right and well-equipped to handle some multitasking. Hell, it even benefits from some exposure to the ever-increasing complexity of modern popular culture.

Watching TV, a movie, and playing video games ain't all bad!

But allowing our eyes, ears and brains to suffer an unrelenting barrage of information, sounds and images is kinda like opening the door to your basement storage room for the first time since you'd moved in. It's overwhelming and hinders your ability to ask the very basic question 'OK, where do I start sorting?' It might even force you to lie down until the feeling passes.

The point is this: like a cluttered storage room, unchecked exposure to the information our gadgets hurl at us can be too much for our brains to handle. Duran Duran even sang about this idea in the Dark Ages before Google, Wikipedia, I-Phones and Bluetooth. I never would've predicted that I'd ever call Duran Duran visionary. But there you go, I guess.

Third, and most importantly, the ability to disconnect is not a luxury at all. It never was. And it's not now. The real luxury is the gadget and the digitized information it provides access to. Your phone, laptop and tablet are not essential to your survival. They're often very useful. But they're not essential. And when something is not essential to our survival it can only be deemed a luxury. 

Unplugging ourselves is essential to our mental and spiritual well-being. In a world where everything we do, watch, buy and Google is tracked, quantified and calculated, our ability to disconnect from the wireless information cloud that swirls about us is of critical importance. It may even be our last line of defense of a thing the digital information age has endangered: our privacy.

At a certain point wireless information becomes a greater nuisance 
than a swarm of black flies.

So do I think handheld devices and digital information networks that never sleep are bad things? Not really. Having a little box in your pocket or on your desk that lets you contact someone half a world away or find directions to the appointment you're in danger of being late for is a pretty wonderful thing. There's nothing inherently wrong with being connected through our gadgets. It's the question of how we use them that makes all the difference.

Many of us have grown terrified by the notion of being unplugged. We believe that in doing so we would cease to exist on some level essential to our being. We've allowed disconnecting our devices to become synonymous with severing ourselves from the world. This is dangerous thinking. Being afraid to disconnect is to admit that the technologies and gadgets we use control us. Even worse, this suggests we're allowing machines rather than our essential humanness to define us in the world.

What a pile of foolishness. If you can see your reflection in a mirror, feel warm blood pulse in your neck, and feel air enter your lungs with every breath then you do in fact exist. More importantly, in no way is being connected to a virtual network through an electronic gadget vital criterion for making the cut. You don't need access to your Facebook, Twitter or email account every minute of the day to validate your existence.

Some observers believe that the technologies and gadgets we create are recreating us. They see a day in the not-too-distant future when the line between machine and man will be erased. They believe it's the next step in human evolution and that there'll be no turning back from it.

Big book. Complicated read. Clear and essential message for EVERYONE. 

Is the day when we open our eyes to the Apple or Microsoft logo upon us? I don't know. But I do know that day has not yet arrived. Machines are still machines. And humans are still humans. We still have the ability to use machines to our advantage without binding ourselves to them. The creations have not remade their creators yet. 

Obsessive reliance on our gadgets may very well lead to this.

We can still disconnect from our phones, laptops and digital social networks without lessening ourselves. And it's vitally important to do so. We need mental room to think clearly and focus our senses on the world we're really immersed in. Walking in the woods. Listening to birds sing their welcome to the sunrise. Looking up to the stars and thinking hopelessly on how far away they are. Sitting by the ocean and listening to what the waters tell you. Meeting up with friends and family in person. These connections are essential to our being. They allow us to be fully alive and human.

So contrary to what my younger sister believes, I say turn the damn phone off every now and again. She may not like my view on the subject, but I'm not apologizing for it. Ruining her bangs on the other hand, well . . . sometimes you just can't say sorry enough!

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