Monday, June 6, 2011

Screening

I decided I couldn't live without seeing pictures and updates from the little girls I used to babysit for, so I reinstalled my Facebook account, but eliminated everything except what directly involves them.

They were the original reason I signed on, so I decided to pare back to my initial purpose.  After all, I shouldn't let other people ruin what started out as a very good thing for me.

It's actually quite nice: now, when I open Facebook, I can simply see how they're both doing.  And I see nothing else.  And no one can "friend" or contact me anymore.

This is good.  This works for me.

I'm also in a good mood because nothing works like running off to the Berkshires on a beautiful weekend and spending the entire time hearing about how beautiful and smart and funny you are, and that you don't look 42 years old at all.

I highly recommend it.  It's good for the soul (and the ego, of course).

What was interesting about the Berkshires (in addition to the fact that it's a beautiful location and walking around is like walking through American Literature 101--Melville, Hawthorne, Wharton, Edna St. Vincent Millay all hung out there, to name only a few), is that you simply can't get cell phone coverage or GPS in a lot of places.

This was good timing for me, because I've been reading Hamlet's Blackberry by William Powers.  Powers examines the electronic over-saturation we're experiencing in the digital age by looking at the ideas and experiences of great writers and thinkers, including (of course) Shakespeare, Plato and Thoreau, and by describing his own experiences as someone who is highly connected to technology.

Powers argues that, in all of our connectedness, we've lost sight of the fact that, in order to make sense of experience, we have to disconnect from time to time, simply to process what we've seen, read, heard and experienced.

If we simply go from Google search results to link to link to email to Tweet to Facebook posting to YouTube video, and if we do this for hours at a time sometimes, we never delve beneath the most superficial surface of anything.  We live a world of constant distraction and inattention, and we lose the ability to focus and think through the images and ideas we're presented with.

Maybe it isn't about diagnosing everyone with ADD.  Maybe it's about shutting off the computer or the smart phone, so that we can relearn how to experience depth and nuance.

I was at a party for an entire afternoon when I was in the Berkshires, and NO ONE checked their cell, no one "needed" to Google anything, and no one sat staring at a screen (in fact, no one so much as glanced at one).  They simply couldn't.

And because they knew they couldn't, they didn't.

No one suffered in the slightest.  Conversation never lagged.  Everyone paid attention to another person.  We talked and listened and thought about what was said.

I think that Powers' ideas about disconnecting and achieving depth are interesting.  I'm generally pretty disconnected, most of the time, and I think that's why I have such awkward experiences when I connect or encounter the Continually-Connected.

I still think that anyone who sits and stares at their phone or checks email while in the presence of another human being is either rude, avoidant and/or self-involved.

You're not that important.  You just aren't.

(Neither am I, by the way.) 

I still think Tweets are beyond absurd.  If an experience can be captured in 140 characters, I'm pretty sure you can either 1) tell me about it the next time you see me --if you even remember it, or 2) skip it entirely.

Not all of life is meant to be documented electronically.  Even interesting people have mundane lives and activities that we don't need to hear about.

What makes people's lives and thoughts interesting is what they value and give dedicated attention to, over days, weeks and months.  This can't be captured moment-by-moment, and it doesn't need to be.

According to Twitter's webpage, "the real magic of Twitter lies in absorbing real-time information that matters to you."  But information isn't important simply because it occurs in real-time, and it only matters to you because it has depth and connection to your own life over a span of time.

If it has that, you should invest more than 140 characters' worth of attention to it.

If two people are talking and a cell phone rings, it is no longer considered a social faux pas to answer it, but five years ago, if someone had done this, the other person would have been insulted and annoyed and everyone would have agreed it was quite rude.

My current policy is, if I mention something interesting and you immediately grab your smart phone to Google it right there in front of me, I'm going to leave you to your blessed Googling and go have an actual conversation with an actual human being, since that's why I'm on the planet.

Or at least I think that's why I'm here...

I think we have to start questioning our own sense of self-importance.  Our uses of technology often demonstrate a lack of depth, but they are also accompanied by a lack of self-awareness and humility (both qualities associated with depth, in my opinion).

All this said, I should probably point out that, in my own personality tests, I tend to fall in the "Idealist" category of the four Keirsey temperaments: I'm what's known as an INFJ ("Introverted Intuitive Feeling Judging") personality.

So at the end of the day, I think maybe it's just that screen-relationships are simply not for me.

My time in the Berkshires helped drive that point home, in the best possible way.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."