Here’s a question for you to ponder while you’re gazing into that cold, luminescent rectangular display: In this modern age of ever-advancing web-enabled technology, do you find yourself feeling less connected? (Boom! Paradox.)

How do we know where we're going if we're not looking up?
It’s hard to tell where you’re going if you’re never looking up.

Not in the digital sense – I think it’s safe to assume we’re fully covered there. No, I’m talking about in the human sense. Do you get the somber impression that maybe the digital artifice and simulated interconnection of the always-plugged-in lifestyle is chipping away at your biological affinity to the real world?

It’s possible. As a matter of fact, it’s probable. They’ve done multiple studies on it and the conclusions tell us what we really already suspected: Our rapidly evolving digital life is taking an ugly toll on our meager monkey minds.

There’s obvious usefulness to having constant Internet access, but we’re at a point where we unquestioningly assimilate the technology that provides it into our lives. For all the good is does us, is it worth the impact it’s having on our real relationships? And how about the affect it has on our health?

Oh yes, your health is in jeopardy too. That gross overuse of media and technology is shortening your attention span, creating anxiety, and causing sleeplessness. It’s even governing your self-esteem. Don’t believe me? Ever get a twinge of transient bliss when your latest hashtag-laden selfie gets some social love? I thought so.

The Borg used to be regular folks before they got addicted.
Before becoming addicted to technology, the Borg were peaceful, happy folk. Prepare to be assimilated.

Blame the dopamine. Our brains love this neurochemical cocktail and those little moments of self-indulgent gratification release a pleasurable dose that keeps you coming back for more. It’s what’s known as reward-motivation in the psychology world. That’s your brain’s way of telling you, “Hey, nice job. Let’s do that again.” Leave it to us humans. We’ve taken an inherent evolutionary survival mechanism and turned it into a drug. You may not be a cranked out tweaker, but don’t kid yourself – you’re addicted.

You may have what Dr. Larry Rosen refers to as an “iDisorder”. According to his research, digital junkies show signs and symptoms of psychiatric disorders ranging from OCD, narcissism, addiction and ADHD. He writes, “Whether our use of technology makes us exhibit these signs or simply exacerbates our natural tendencies is an open question, but the fact is we are all acting as though we are potentially diagnosable.” It would seem that this constant connectivity is changing the way our brains work and affecting our ability to relate to the world around us.

Do you own your smartphone? Or does it own you?
Do you own your smartphone? Or does it own you?

The primary culprit is, as you’ve probably already guessed – yep, smartphones. The convenience of carrying the Internet around in our pockets has hijacked our ritual de lo habitual. It intrudes on every waking moment of our day — and sometimes the non-waking as well. I couldn’t even finish typing that last sentence without the buzz of my iPhone interrupting a productive stream of thought.

Um, where was I? Oh yes…

Worse yet, if my smartphone doesn’t notify me within a short period of time then I’ll check it anyway. I mean, I could be missing out on something “important” like who might be checking in to what restaurant and where and with who else and for what occasion. And for the love of Al Gore, please let there be overly filtered photos of beautifully plated food! #deliciousclichés

When did this egocentric nonsense become important to me? Why do I take part in it? As if anyone really, truly gives a damn about the dentist appointment I’m dreading or how many shots of espresso I’m planning to inflict on my body. Do you? And why do I have the attention span of a goldfish?

Oh look, something shiny.

If I’m honest, I don’t really have meaningful relationships with most – and I mean nearly all – of the people I’m “friends” with. It’s nice to keep in touch with old colleagues and classmates but I’m not emotionally invested into any of them. The term “friend” has been regrettably relegated to a cheap moniker for the online group of people I overshare my life with, special thanks to Mark Zuckerberg.

Remember back in the day when we used to get together with friends and, you know, talk to them.
Remember back in the day when we used to get together with friends and, you know, talk to them? Image courtesy of Twenties in Twins

On the rare chance I manage to pry myself from the busyness of daily life, I try to spend some quality time with the people I  genuinely care about – good friends and family; my favorite humans. That sentiment aside, I will inadvertently interrupt these special occasions by checking my phone repeatedly. I can only imagine how this must look. “Hey, I know we don’t get to see each other often but my online social life is more important than spending real time with you right now.” That couldn’t be further from the truth but oh how actions speak louder than words.

This behavior causes a fair share of strain in our marriage as well. My wife occasionally has to chide me into putting the phone down so I can spend quality time with her. Don’t worry, I’m completely aware of how pathetic that is. This is an addiction after all – one that most of us are afflicted with but are in complete denial of despite what we’re feeling deep down inside.

And just what is it that we’re feeling exactly? It’s most likely the nagging sense of discontent and unease – the unfulfilled pursuit for personal gratification. The fear and angst of missing out. And here’s the characteristic problem with this particular addiction: The entire framework is an inorganic manufactured existence, reducing your life experiences to pixelated pseudo-pleasures that never seem to fully satisfy. You’ve been had. We all have. But we keep tapping the vein and pushing the plunger, chasing the high that will never, ever be as good as we hoped.

iHug: There's probably an app for that.
“Oh, I’m just updating my status to let my friends know that I’m hugging you.”

Okay, let’s get real for a moment. In the time you’ve been reading this, how many times have you stopped momentarily to check your email, Facebook, Twitter, text messages, etc.? If you’re like me then you’d rather not answer that. But who can blame you. We’re constantly plagued by what Cory Doctorow refers to as an “ecosystem of interruption technologies.” We spend our time jumping from one distraction to another, relentlessly chasing the fleeting pleasure of new information. It’s a vicious cycle with no end. And at the end of the day what do we have to show for it?

Now how long has it been since you sat down for a meaningful face-to-face with a friend? Or gone on a long walk? Or played a board game? Gone camping? Read a paperback novel? Gotten your hands dirty in a garden?

When was the last time you completely disconnected from the digital world and had an uninterrupted connection with the real world?

I’ll take that palpable gulp as your answer.

Do you hate it – that untethered ache deep in your middle? As humans, we need to be connected to the world. Our spirit starves and withers without it. The artificially connected life is no match for the real deal. It may have convenient advantages but it doesn’t complete us.

Yesterday, somewhat reluctantly, I left my phone in the car and walked down a little trail into a grove of pines to unplug and tune out. The ground was covered with a thick blanket of pine needles. I stretched out on my back to look up at the big sky and then inhaled as deeply as I could – over and over again. The smell was indescribably refreshing. I dug my fingers into the needles and grass, feeling the soil and imagining the whole and hum of life underneath me.

I had forgotten what it felt like to let go and ride the Earth, listen to it breathe and gyre. No interruptions; just a pure, bona fide reconnection with an old friend. I need more of this because, quite frankly, I feel like an important part of me has been missing.

Lying there in that grove, I made the decision to change things in my life. In this case, less really is more.

I’m not suggesting we pull the plug and go cold turkey. No, we just need to find the balance. Apply some discipline. Practice restraint. Choose to take the path of most resistance occasionally. Opt for slow communication. Make our brains work for the pleasure of finding things out – exercising the grey matter rather than letting Google do all the work for us.

I think Dr. Rosen put it best when he wrote, “There is no turning back. We live in a connected world and we are better because of it. We know more than ever before and we are more social than ever before. But we have to learn to take care of our brains to avoid an iDisorder. Don’t blame Steve Jobs for your compulsions. Take control and do something good for your brain. You will be a better person for it and have better relationships with those around you.”

 

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