Photo: Alexander Rentsch
My first encounter with a mobile phone was on a day in the not-too-distant past when my friend picked me up to go to Ocean Beach in San Francisco. After soaking in the sunshine for a couple of hours, we returned to her car parked along the Great Highway. That’s when opportunity came knocking. Or so I thought.
I recognized the battery-dying sound of the engine turning over ever so faintly from my old VW Bus days, and I envisioned past trips when a breakdown by the side of the road had invariably led to an unforgettable adventure. Like the time when a horde of barefooted strangers jumped out of a van to help me and my friends push the bus through the snow to a hot spring in the Eastern Sierra Nevada. The all-nighter we spent dancing in a Motel 6 room due to a broken accelerator cable. Or the wicked funny mechanic dude with the taco grill in his Mojave desert repair shop. You know, unchoreographed divine interventions.
My heart began to beat just a little faster as I was contemplating which direction we would walk to find help and what kind of a good Samaritan we might encounter. But it immediately sank when my friend pulled out her shiny new mobile phone to call roadside service from inside the car. Yes, the tow truck arrived within 30 minutes to jump start us. Yes, we had a nice conversation sitting there, waiting. Yes, everything went smoothly, the way it’s supposed to. Yes, we never had to leave the car. And yes, that was the problem.
It was hard to imagine back then that barely a decade later the practice of asking a stranger for help or directions would have become almost completely obsolete in some parts of the world, an anachronism from a bygone age. These days, with every last shred of information under the sun at the tip of our fingers, the conventional wisdom — especially in the super-wired Bay Area — is that the quicker and more conveniently you can find out what you need to know and get to where you need to be, the more successfully or even happily you will navigate through life. Google, Apple, Foursquare & Co, for their part, are making sure that no kernel of data they can glean from our devices to predict our next thought — or rather, purchase — is left unanalyzed, as they are “trying to solve the problem of telling people what they need to know before they need to know it.”
This equation, of course, would work flawlessly if life were a video game with the main objective to pick up as many badges and trophies as possible. However, since the most meaningful stories we tell almost always recount what happens along the way — including the wrong turns, stumbles, and mishaps — a little bit of nonlinear mystery and unpredictability seem like essential ingredients to a fulfilling journey. As George Harrison once said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.”
Don’t get me wrong — this is not an anti-technology rant. There are wonderful things about smartphones, the internet, and a bevy of new apps. Old friendships have been rekindled and new ones sparked, thanks to social networking. Stories have been shared and real life adventures inspired, thanks to travel blogs. Distant galaxies have been found and marveled at, thanks to star-watch apps. And writers like myself get to wax poetic with people we would never have reached before, thanks to online magazines.
It’s not an all-or-nothing proposition, as anything ever is. But as I see more and more people walking into street signs while trying to figure out what street they’re on and looking at pictures of their friends while sitting next to them at the table, I wonder if we’re now simply trying to recreate what already exists, only with expensive, resource-extracting toys. Is there a point at which the costs of 24/7 access to unlimited information outweigh the rewards? Is there an upper limit to the daily number of hours spent perusing virtual reality at which we run out of time to apply the connections made and knowledge gained to our lives in the real world? At what bandwidth does data stop being useful if our actual pursuit is knowledge or wisdom?
When I talk with friends about how many pixels we can still add to our daily diet without our minds getting bloated, I often joke that you can’t eat your computer, alluding, of course, to the fact that the most universal, timeless, and essential human experience we all engage in must be enjoyed offline. Aside from being a good punchline, food and the ritual of eating help me personally to stay grounded in the physical world. Visits to my local farmers to watch the patience and care it takes to grow anything at the speed of soil have been tremendously helpful in forgoing many offers of instant gratification beckoning incessantly from my laptop.
Our relationship with food also serves as a helpful guide in finding the right balance between life spent on- and offline. Just as the food industry realized in the 1970s that the only way it could sell more of its product to a finite number of consumers was to supersize its portions, we are now getting to the point where the only way the tech industry can keep growing is for the billions of people already hooked into the worldwide web to up their daily doses of cyber chores. As the Facebooks, Googles, Twitters, and LinkedIns of the world are going public, they are under a lot of pressure to get each of us to do more clicking, friending, and tweeting, and so the constant onslaught of new interfaces, networking opportunities, and new apps is relentless.
In the case of food, we’ve learned that the Big Gulps could only be sustained for so long before society began to pay a heavy price in the form of obesity and diabetes, not to mention the problems of soil erosion, mono-crops, and chemical fertilizers. As a result, there’s been a huge movement toward local and organic food, and anyone concerned with their health has become more conscious of the type and amount of food they put in their bodies. Michelle Obama has brought access to healthy food into the mainstream for good, and fast food restaurants are at least trying to sound like they’re offering a more balanced menu.
The jury is still out on whether there will be a similar widespread awakening about the negative effects of our excessive pixel addiction, but at least personally, the best way I’ve found to keep my input at a healthy level is to be as conscious and moderate in my consumption of cyber fare as I am with food. Applying Michael Pollan’s famous “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants” mantra to my relationship with information technology, I go by “Browse. Not too often. Mostly meaningful information.”
For example, while I have Facebook and Twitter accounts, I use them sparingly — mostly to share things that might make the world a better place — and while not always successful, try to not get sucked too deeply into any link farms. While I did get a cell phone a couple of years ago, I have so far resisted the societal pressure of owning a smartphone, with the express purpose of keeping myself off the grid when I leave the house.
Most importantly perhaps, I still enjoy getting lost and asking random strangers for directions. Even with all the great connections I’ve made online, there’s still nothing quite like being present in the street, smelling the scent of a lavender bush or chatting it up with the neighbor. I still enjoy paying in cash, waiting for the next bus, getting lost in a lesser known neighborhood, and a number of other ways to be inconvenienced. When I get hot, I don’t need to know the exact temperature, and when I get hungry, I don’t need to know exactly how many restaurants are within 0.6 miles — I just start walking.
What about you? Have you found the right balance between your physical and cyber worlds? Do you get overwhelmed sometimes by oceans of information we’re swimming in?
What’s the best thing you’ve ever experienced that you couldn’t find online?