I love my iPhone. I love connectivity. I hate the resulting obligation of connectivity – and that removing one’s self from it now makes you the crazy person, the weirdo in the room. I recently saw a girl on some Bravo reality TV show the other day – entirely by accident, I swear* – talking about men she would and would not date. “I don’t want someone who’s not on Facebook,” she said. “I don’t want a man who doesn’t have an iPhone or an email that isn’t Gmail. If he has Yahoo or Hotmail, I think that’s a big no-no,” she added. Profound social commentary, actually: participate appropriately, or be abandoned by society. Become the un-dateable. The loser. The left behind.
But our obsession with technology, the right and wrong of it, the speed with which we have to create, consume, and engage with it, is not sustainable. People aren’t meant for this, not forever.
It’s an imperfect state of being. We humans are always looking for balance. Today’s parents are realizing that they can’t achieve work/life balance with their children, for example. The same goes for technology. Tech/life balance is a similar myth. There’s no such thing, not really. You’ve just gotten used to it in the same way a coffee drinker gets used to caffeine. The effects are still there, but you don’t feel them until the drug is gone.
People can function like this for months, years, a decade, decades maybe if they’re good. But at some point, you have to stop, have a genuine moment outside of the hyper-interlaced web mob. Watch a sunset without posting to Instagram; think a thought that isn’t tweeted. And then string those moments together and together, without deadlines forcing a return to the land of the infinite feedback loop. Remember, relax, breathe, dream, think. We long for more than a vacation; we’re a society longing for an off switch.
We’re burning out.
A journalist at the New York Times had to switch her phone this summer because of a “no cellphones” policy at a pool. It was so incredible, so positive an experience that she then had to write not one, but two articles for the paper about its meaning. The reactions to the piece were par for the course, except for one guy who chastised our tendency to fetishize the “IRL” experience. We’re congratulating ourselves too much when we manage to obtain peace outside the grips of the digital world. We’re getting smug about it. Elitist.
Or something like that.
We should damn well fetishize it, because it’s increasingly rare. It’s something that’s nearly impossible to achieve, or rather, it’s easy to achieve if you don’t care about others’ perceptions of you. If you’re fine with the fact that some (arguably shallow) girls will think you’re a loser. If some (arguably fair weather) friends abandon you because you don’t update your Facebook. If you don’t respond to email, you somehow cease to exist (to arguably impatient people). But we’re programmed to please. We want to be liked. And the guilt. Oh, the guilt in disconnecting. It’s awful.
And it’s not just the lone reporter affected – someone whose job forces them to spend entirely too much time engaged with the pulsating beast of the web. It’s everyone. Everyone who wakes up and grabs their phone before wiping sleep from their eyes. Checks email from the toilet. Tweets drunk. Swerves out of their lane to text. Can’t maintain eye contact. Takes pictures, pictures, pictures and videos of everything. Feels naked, alone and desperately bored when device-less.
It’s society. And yes, it’s a first-world problem.**
Today, our society’s secret craving for an off switch is being thrown back in our faces, through what I’ll dub “disconnect porn.” For those of you who only watch Netflix, let me explain. There’s a new TV show called “Revolution” whose entire premise is that something happened to Earth that made all the power shut off at once. No more computers. No web. No more iPhone. No lightbulbs or air conditioning. No email. No cars. No planes.
“I used to work at a place called Google,” says the bearded, nerdy character in episode one.
“That’s a computer thing, right?” asks the child of the new world, where buses and skyscrapers are covered with vines.
If only, breathes the subtext of that exchange. If only.
What now? The call to action: make something that reflects society’s desire. Stop building more of the same. Build things that speak to our souls, our secret longing for the disconnect. Our cravings for simplicity.
Use up your youth and hyperlinked years to build something entirely different, before you burn out and long for things only, ironically, the young and connected have the energy and time to devote to, yet not the mind that could originally envision these things or actively want them. Build tools to allow us to disconnect.
Build “slow web” apps that aggregate, analyze, summarize and discover the meaning from a thousand posts. Create sharing applications that work in the background, on auto-pilot mode. (Hello, Flock). Build intelligent presence devices and tools that auto-respond so you don’t have to without sounding like the bots that they are. Build them for normal people, too, not just businesses. Make calendars that reply to appointment requests. Buttons that send auto-responses to emails when clicked. Build smartphones that adaptively learn which calls to put through and when notifications should be read or hidden. Digital assistants that can tell you about the advances the digital world made when you leave it for an hour or a day. (Siri, catch me up.) Make cameras that take photos by themselves, which can be scattered Internet-of-things style around your home snapping and recording moments with no button push needed. Build apps that disappear into the cloud when you forget them, and replace themselves with new versions and sequels to bring you back, appearing on your screen automatically.
You decide. Do this:
Go offline today.
Come back tomorrow.
What did you really miss? Name one thing. How did you have to catch-up? What would have made that process easier for you? Can you make something that would have improved it?
* Not really.
** P.S. From now on, anyone who says “first world problem” will be shot. Or the online equivalent: de-friended, marked as spam, blocked. Whatever. So sick of that meme. Everything is a first world problem if you’re not starving to death or dying of preventative disease. It’s fucking understood. Shut up about it.
Image credit: D.Munoz-Santos