Thursday, November 02, 2006

We Are Everywhere

I am talking on the phone with someone. They are playing solitaire on their computer as we converse. I can hear the “bling” of their game every few seconds. Our conversation is never interrupted, per se, but it never quite attains a satisfying fluidity either.

I am sitting in a meeting with six other people. We are having a fruitful and satisfying discussion. Except that one of us keeps glancing down at his Blackberry, reading incoming email messages. He is with us, making a comment every now and then, but he’s not really with us.

Thomas Friedman, a New York Times columnist, reflects on a taxi ride in Paris recently. Arriving at the airport, he is met by a professional driver holding a sign while deep in conversation with someone via a Bluetooth wireless phone clipped to his ear. He and Friedman communicate by hand gestures, head to the hotel, arrive at the hotel, and deposit Friedman without ever speaking to one another except to identify the destination hotel. The driver chats on his Bluetooth; Friedman works on his laptop computer and then listens to his iPod. Friedman feels nostalgic for the days when taxi drivers were great conversationalists and fruitful sources for journalists.

Welcome to the era of personal “communication” technology. We are so connected we’re disconnected. We are so available we’re unavailable. Friedman notes what technologist Linda Stone has named the disease of the Internet Age: “continuous partial attention” – two people doing six things, devoting only partial attention to each one. “We can’t find the off switch on our devices or on ourselves… We are everywhere – except where we actually are physically.”

I am driving through my neighborhood. A mother pushes her (awake) daughter in a stroller while chatting on her cell phone. As I head back the opposite way from my short errand, she is still pushing her daughter in the stroller and chatting on her cell phone. Pretty intimate parenting moment, eh?

I ponder this sometimes vis-à-vis my vocation of delivering twenty-five minute talks to audiences whom I hope will sit and listen attentively without a remote control, cell phone, or computer screen with which to multi-task. The whole thing seems hopelessly quaint.

I think of how much the Scriptures urge us to times of silence and prayer and reflection and listening and “being still before the Lord.” I wonder how in the world we can exercise muscles that we actively neglect in the midst of our hurried and “connected” lives. I find myself thinking of the expression “Pyrrhic victory.” King Pyrrhus of Epirus defeated the Romans in 297 B.C. but suffered such severe and irreplaceable casualties in the process that he declared “Another such victory over the Romans and we are undone.” Any more “communications” technology and we will be unable to communicate.

The friend Friedman is visiting in Paris doesn’t respond to cell phone calls and has to be tracked down (gasp!) on his home phone. Turns out his cell phone was stolen and he elected not to replace it, tired of how often it broke his concentration. He exults, “Since then, the first thing I do every morning is thank the thief and wish him a long life.”

I am wondering if we aren’t robbing ourselves.


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