The perils and pleasures of easy connection
I spent the first two decades of my life without a smartphone or cellphone of any kind. Today, I wouldn't leave home without one. When I awake, my iPhone is there on the nightstand, ready to be consulted for news about the world and latest from my friends and family. Multiple spheres of my life and work pulse below glowing icons, accessible with a tap, swipe and scroll.
I've identified the optimal way to find specific friends, family and contacts through my pocket computer. Txts for cousins, email for parents and friends. For the most persistently connected connections, a ping on Skype, Google Talk, Facebook Chat or IM works. For some, a DM on Twitter is the best way to get their attention. My grandmother, however, is still only accessible through a phone call.
Across the United States and world, my love affair with my mobile device has been replicated billions of times. 53% of American adults now have smartphones. 6 billion people around the globe have access to mobile phones. We use them to find information, share what we're seeing, navigate roads, and connect to one another, across time zones, nations and vast oceans.
As is so often the case with love affairs, however, my relationship with my mobile device is …complicated. Without my smartphone, I can no longer instantly access information, share ideas or images with the million or so folks following me online, or call for help if someone is in distress.
With it, I'm accompanied by one of the best surveillance devices ever invented, gathering metadata about all of my communications and my location over time, exuding data exhaust and a wireless tether to a never-ending stream of calls, requests and notifications.
When I've traveled to see friends and family in recent years, however, I keep cracking the same joke: "I'm glad we could all be here to use our phones together!" Devoting our attention to the screens below us instead of the people around us can create emotional distance, particularly across generations.
For me, a true vacation increasingly means letting those who might need me know I'll be unreachable for a given amount of time and simply turning the device off, or at least to airplane mode. When I periodically unwire during the weekends, the offline space I've created is often when I find new insights or ideas bubble to fore of my consciousness. That's not to say that intentional serendipity of unmediated digital interaction isn't intensely creative at times, only that finding quiet in my own, uninterrupted thoughts when I'm riding or running remains deeply satisfying.
While I've often shared what I'm seeing or doing during my down time over the years, from honeymoons to hikes, setting expectations about being responsive creates the space I need to be fully present in moments of intimacy or wonder. The addition of a six week-old infant daughter puts an even higher premium on that focus, although being fully awake requires extra coffee now.
Her presence requires and inspires me to seek and find a new balance between work and family, shaped and shifted towards more efficiency of purpose and intention. As with so many other aspects of modern life, my choices are not binary, between disconnection and hyperconnectivity.
We live in a moment of intense wonder and danger, where images and words can fly around the globe faster than the shockwaves of earthquakes, spreading hope, grief, triumph and tragedy as humans collectively weave a rich, digital tapestry of our times. Where history was once written by the victors, it is now depicted by the connected. Here's to sharing the moments that matter.
Alexander B Howard
Alexander B. Howard is a research fellow at the Networked Transparency Policy Project at the Ash Center at Harvard University and a fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. Previously, he was the Washington Correspondent for O’Reilly Media, where he chronicled how the intersection of technology, government and society was changing and why. Howard began his writing career as the associate editor of SearchCompliance.com and WhatIs.com, where he covered technology policy and nearly every aspect of enterprise IT.