Ever see the movie The Insider with Al Pacino and Russell Crowe? At one point Al's TV producer character is at his beach house, walking in ankle-deep waves and talking on his phone to somebody important about some detail or another regarding an amazingly important and dramatic news story he's about to break.
I love that scene. Why? I love the idea of being in the thick of things while walking along the beach miles away from the action itself. Heck, I live my own less-dramatic version of that story every day, riding my bike to my office, sending Emails to phone company executives from coffee shops, and showing up for work in shorts and flip-flops only to be met by FedEx packages bearing goodies destined to be viewed by thousands on our YouTube channel. My words and images and videos show up on line, but really I could be posting them from anywhere.
At its best, technology can be incredibly freeing. Mobile phones in particular give us the freedom to connect to one another no matter where we are, which makes it easier for parents to let their teenagers go out unchaperoned and bosses to let their employees work from home, the road, or pretty much anywhere else besides the office. The benefits to the freedom of staying connected without having to stay in once place are amazing.
But there's a second side to this freedom, a dark side in which freedom becomes "hermetically sealed," as Ben Stein (of "Win Ben Stein's Money" fame) points out so well in an op-ed piece in Sunday's New York Times. Stein writes of "the chains of all kinds of devices, like the BlackBerry, the iPhone, and the Voyager ... the chains with which we have bound ourselves, losing much of our solitude and our ability to see the world around and inside us."
Obviously I'm a gadget fiend - communications gadgets in particular. I work as an editor at a mobile phone site, and before that worked as an editor at a portable computing site. I share an office with a friend, but actually work with people hundreds if not thousands of miles away, and so I spend far more time each work day communicating via Email and IM than on the phone or in person. I always have Email, SMS/IM messaging, and the Web in my pocket, thanks to my phone.
I genuinely love that I can stay in touch, stay on top, and stay in the loop no matter where I am or what else I'm doing. But I also fear becoming "that guy." You know, the guy who can't pull his head out of his BlackBerry or gets yelled at by his friends or wife/girlfriend for paying more attention to his SMS conversations than the people he's eating dinner with. On the one hand it's super cool that I can keep in touch with my old friends back in New York, where I used to live, without having to travel 4,000 miles. On the other hand, I sometimes do so at the expense of my new friends here in California who I can actually see and talk to right here in person on a daily basis. "Hang on, let me just text back," I say. Right, let me ignore you the person in front of me to immediately respond to some blinking lights and vibrating plastic buried in my pocket.
I'm no fool - earning my living depends on mobile communications, and the world has become an always connected, always mobile place (at least a good part of the world has). I used to teach junior high; I may not know what's up, but I at least have an idea of what's going on. But - as legions of grumpy old men have long said - people got along fine in the olden days without those crazy cell phones (or TVs, radios, silent movies, cars, bicycles, landlines, and so on).
Stein, in his Times piece, paints a picture we can all relate to - the modern airplane ride:
Consider an airplane flight. We are soaring across the country. We listen to music. We read books and newspapers. We sleep and dream. If you are like me, you look at the cloud formations and listen to Mozart's Clarinet Concerto in A major. Maybe you talk to your neighbors.
You are free to think and to reflect on existence and on your own small role in it. You are free to have long thoughts and memories of high school and college and the first time you met your future spouse.
Then, the airplane lands. Cellphones and P.D.A.'s snap into action. Long rows of lights light up on tiny little screens ... The bonds of obligation, like handcuffs, are clapped back onto our wrists, and we shuffle off to the servitude of our jobs and our mundane tasks. A circuit is completed: the passengers who were human beings a few moments earlier become part of an immense, all-engulfing machine of communication and control. Human flesh and spirit become plastic and electronic machinery.
Sure, he's being a bit dramatic. But it's true. What's the first thing I do when my flight lands? See if I can get my new voicemails and Emails before the plane's done taxiing, that's what. Why? Because I want to know what's going on? Sure, that's part of it. But at this point it's mostly habit. Being always connected and always available isn't essential to my work, nor to my life. Sometimes it's fun, sure, and often it makes work easier, better, and even possible (I couldn't live in California and with folks in South Carolina without technology). But there's a line I crossed long ago that I'm trying to get back to: On my current side of that line is Obsession and on the other side of the line is Falling Behind. I think I check my E- and Voice-Mail so regularly because I'm obsessed, and not because I'm truly worried about falling behind.
Stein goes into the fate of our youth, growing up on all of this screen-based communication made possible by T9 predictive text and full-QWERTY thumboards. When I used to teach computers to elementary and junior high school kids, I'd try my hardest to chase them out of the lab and into the sunshine during free periods. I quickly learned that for many of them outside wasn't a fun place to spend time, as the playground can be cruel to a kid who's not athletically and/or socially adept at the ways of football, basketball, or flirting with members of the opposite sex.
So I stopped trying to chase kids out of the lab and instead encouraged them to make friends with their fellow technology hounds in the lab. The technology of communication is great, but all of the Emails, IMs, and Facebook chats in the world can't take the place of connecting face-to-face with the person sitting next to you. Even if it's only to trade WoW tips and cell phone tricks.
But now I ask you, oh reader ... Your phone: Your flip or slider, BlackBerry or iPhone, SMS machine or Email lifeline ... Does your phone free you or shackle you or both? Do you feel connected or isolated when you text and IM on the go? Is Ben Stein right or just old and out of touch (like I sometimes feel despite my FedEx boxes)? What's your take?