The Pleasures of Being Unplugged

Taken with my IPhone 😦

Last night, over a Mexican meal with our sons and Bob’s parents – visiting from California – made me think about the mixed blessings that technology has brought to our lives.

On the plus side, it has allowed us to stay constantly connected with family and friends. On the other hand, it has robbed us of the ability to think deeply about anything, and of the chance for any real connection with people.

What prompted this thought was our son Ben’s announcement that he wanted to start keeping his smart phone turned off more often. This is his three-week-old IPhone 4s, with its dual core processor, voice-activated consierge “Siri,” and an entourage of apps that amuse, entertain and make life “easier.” Ben, who has always been fascinated by the latest video game or technology breakthrough, couldn’t wait to get his hands on this IPhone. He spent half a day trying to activate it on the Apple web site, along with millions of other new users.

Last night Ben lamented that he never has time to rest his brain without being interrupted by a phone call or text message, or “push” notification. Often the source is a friend who is sharing news, “checking in,” or wanting to know when Ben can hang out. Sometimes, as he’s rushing to meet his friends, Ben is bombarded by people just a block away wanting to know his exact location.

Ben said he wants to start turning off his phone to give his brain a chance to rest. He’ll start by turning it off during his workday and maybe for short stretches in the evening, but he worries about missing something.

“What if there’s an emergency and somebody can’t reach me?,” he fretted.

When pressed, he said that real emergencies don’t happen that much. More often, the emergency is just a friend who wants to hang out. Ben said he doesn’t want to miss out on these good times but would like just for once to set a time and a place several hours in advance, then turn off his phone and rest his brain.

A deep thinking and very creative young man, Ben in his high school, pre-smart phone days once wrote a brilliant essay about the potato, in response to a writing prompt that asked him to describe which vegetable he’d most want as a travel companion. The essay probably required a relaxed mind and some mental space for Ben’s ideas to meander. A mind that is battered by constant pings and push messages does not have the delicious luxury of meditating on a potato.

Moreover, I think that these technology-enabled “connections” are artificial and false. It forces us to develop this online “stage presence,” in which throw out clever tweets and witty status updates to make ourselves appear cool. How much does this online, carefully managed image truly reflect who we are? I sometimes wonder if it robs us of the chance for the real intimacy that can only result when we spend long periods in the physical presence of loved ones and show them our unedited selves. That is a lot harder than hiding behind our smartphones.

This morning I thought about how being constantly connected affects my own mind, which always has been easily distracted. Yesterday, as my family watched television, I had spent an entire afternoon being mentally absent, wandering through emails, Facebook and no less than seven games in “Words with Friends,” an online Scrabble-type pursuit.

Today I made an effort to avoid checking emails, Facebook or my Words With Friends opponents’ latest moves for a few hours. At 6 a.m. Bob and I watched several deer meander through our back yard, and we marveled at how they stood out against the green grass then disappeared into the dead leaves in the woods behind us. I listened as my aging father-in-law Gene talked wistfully about his experiences as a brash young salesman, and about writing his own obituary. I hugged my in-laws as they packed up for their plane ride home to California, and meditated on the blessing of having such a great family, on my husband’s side as well as my own. I helped John clean his trombone and listened to him play songs from his upcoming holiday concert. I looked out the window as I changed sheets and savored November’s bleak beauty, with the trees past their peak, the wilted chrysanthemums and the fleeting, muted sun.

It was a time to rediscover the pleasures of being unplugged.