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Could You Live a Pre-Internet Life?

Internet connection

Just over a week ago, Eric Schmidt, the Executive Chairman of Google, gave the keynote speech at Boston University’s graduation ceremony. It was fitting that Schmidt — a vital player in the digital revolution — told these graduates about the advantages they’ve been afforded, the wealth of accessible information at their disposal, and the “new society” they’ve inherited. But what set the media abuzz, and imaginably distracted some graduating seniors from live tweeting the event on their palm-cradled devices, was Schmidt’s ironic yet earnest plea.

“You can’t let technology rule you,” he told the crowd. “Remember to take at least one hour a day and turn that thing off. Do the math, 1/24th. Go dark. Shut it down. Learn where the OFF button is. Take your eyes off that screen and look into the eyes of the person you love. Have a conversation, a real conversation.”

It might be called our digital addiction — the constant need to be connected, plugged in, up-to-date. And when Schmidt, whose own Google revolutionized how information is aggregated and accessed, is telling us all to take a break, it might be time to admit we have a connectivity problem.

Big numbers aren’t necessarily a good thing.

When it comes to being connected, the statistics are a bit daunting. For example, the modern cell phone, which packs more computing power than the entirety of NASA circa 1969, has become the hub of our connected activities. A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2011 reported that 83% of American adults owned a cell phone, 35% owned a smartphone, and most took advantage of advanced capabilities like Internet and email. It might not be surprising that 42% of cell owners used their phone as entertainment when bored.  However, 14% of respondents admitting to (at least once) pretending to be on the phone to avoid interacting with those around them is a little disturbing.

A national survey conducted by TeleNav in 2011 found 35% of respondents would give up sex for a week rather than hand over their mobile phones.

Constant connection is a necessity for the American business leader. The global marketing firm gyro, in collaboration with Forbes Insights, surveyed 543 executives — from business owners to department heads — for their @Work State of Mind Project. The findings highlighted the shifting nature of where we’re doing work with 59% of people polled making business decisions while at home, and 52% making them en route to the office.

It’s imaginable that mobile technology is responsible for transforming work from a geographical location to a twenty-four hour mindset. If surviving in business is akin to Darwinian survival of the fittest, then what does connected living mean for the next generation of American businessmen and businesswomen?

Hyperconnectivity — a term coined by Canadian social scientists Anabel Quan-Haase and Barry Wellman – refers to the numerous ways technology currently connects people. Now it seems we’re constantly pushing the boundary what might be considered “hyper.” A study from Pew recently reported “96% of those ages 18-29 are Internet users, 84% use social networking sites, and 97% have cell phones,” it’s not hard to imagine a determinable shift in not only how people work, but how people think.

The same study, which referred to the Web as a depository for our “collective intelligence,” surveyed over one thousand technology stakeholders and critics. Nearly half of the respondents agreed that the “impact of networked living on today’s young will drive them to thirst for instant gratification, settle for quick choices, and lack patience.”

Taking time off is a lost art.

J.B. MacKinnon is a Canadian author and journalist whose writing has earned him three National Magazine Awards and the 2006 Charles Taylor Prize for best work of Literary Non-Fiction for his semi-autobiographical Dead Man in Paradise. He’s currently writing a book on the natural world of the past and how it’s different from what we think of as the natural world today. In his research, he’s reviewed the detrimental effects of hyperconnectivity, and the importance of time spent away from this type of technological engagement.

“The thing that you get from that time off is your processing time,” he explains to Minyanville. “It’s where you manage to put everything into a rational order and develop your world view. A lot of the people I’ve talked to about [it] who are biologists and psychologists…have said to me they speculate that because people don’t have any contemplative time in their lives anymore, we’re mostly developmentally frozen, and we don’t have much empathy. We don’t develop into fully empathetic human beings that are able to feel for other species.”

MacKinnon’s own experiences underscore the distance technology has placed between people and the natural world. Numerous times a year he travels to his cabin in the British Columbian wilderness, accessible only by a 40-minute train ride (and not by any road) from the already remote town of Terrace, BC. Disconnected for several weeks at a time, MacKinnon explains that the initial anxiety of being unplugged soon gives way to a feeling some of us might have long forgotten.

“By the end of it, I feel so settled-in, and so calm, and at ease and more aware. My brain literally feels like its temperature goes down.”

MacKinnon recalls a neighbor — one of two who live nearby, though MacKinnon can go for weeks without seeing either — who moved in two years ago. He dug a trench, covered it with tarps and has been living in his hole ever since, while he slowly builds a cabin besides him. Far removed from any touch of the modern world, the man seems very content.

One blogger does the unthinkable.

While moving into the wilderness is probably far too extreme for most, it begs a return to Eric Schmidt’s original challenge: Could you survive a measly one hour shut-down? Seems easy enough. You’ll be back checking emails in no time. Well then, how about giving up your smartphone for an entire day? Or your high-speed Internet for a month? Seems a little tougher, doesn’t it? What about swearing off the Internet for an entire year?

One Internet blogger has set out to do just that. On May 1, Paul Miller cut the wires and quit the Internet. Ludicrous? For someone who makes his living as a senior editor of the technology-focused online newsource The Verge, maybe. But Miller seems to be doing just fine so far. He tells Minyanville about the benefits of a disconnected life.

“It’s been really calming and really nice,” Miller explained last week over the phone, which he’s allowed himself to use for calls, but not for texting or Internet access. “Although it can be a little boring.”

Figuring he’d spent over half of the past decade in front of some type of Internet-connected device, Miller decided it was time for a break. At its core, his Web sabbatical was inspired by an urge to expand his knowledge base, which is funny, since the Internet puts the world’s information at his fingertips. But herein lies the problem: There’s just too much of it. On the Web, distractions abound, and keeping focused on one single thing can be a nearly impossible task.

Nicholas Carr, a technology writer whose book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains is a 2011 Pulitzer Prize nominee and a New York Times bestseller, comments on the effects of instant access in a 2010 article for The Telegraph.

“The picture that emerges is troubling, at least to anyone who values the subtlety, rather than just the speed, of human thought. People who read text studded with links, the studies show, comprehend less than those who read words printed on pages…When we’re constantly distracted and interrupted, as we tend to be when looking at the screens of our computers and mobile phones, our brains can’t forge the strong and expansive neural connections that give distinctiveness and depth to our thinking.”

Miller — now nearly a month into his Internet sabbatical — explains to Minyanville that he’s noticing this exact effect.

“I’m reading a translation of The Odyssey that was written in the 1600s, and it’s not Twitter. It’s a little harder to wrap your mind around, and takes a calmer mind for me to be able to read [it].”

Miller takes note of some people’s reaction to his switch. There’s a sort of panic when friends or acquaintances hear he’s left the Internet, or consider doing the same themselves, or even lose their phones or momentarily can’t access the Web. Miller considers himself lucky to be one of those people who finds the break liberating.

More reasonable solutions exist for the rest of us.

This sense of liberation is one of the key elements driving the new so-called “digital detox” phenomenon. As detailed in a recent Forbes article, the anxiety of constant connection is driving up the premium for quiet time. You can purchase one of a handful of $2 apps that cut your Internet connection anywhere from an hour to a day, like 80 Percent Solution’s Freedom software, which now boast 300,000 users. Or you can seek an extended break with a digital detox vacation.

While not too long ago hotels charged a premium for in-room Internet access, the big bucks are now being spent on vacations that restrict time spent online. For example, take the tourism board of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, which has challenged tourists to leave their tech paraphernalia at home for a week-long disconnected vacation at the cost of nearly $4,000 per person. The pricey package includes a pre-trip guidebook instructing vacationers on how to survive without their devices.

With similar packages being offered stateside — in New York, DC, and Wyoming for starters — the trend can be seen as an indicator that our devices are causing more stress than relief.

It’s certain that you’ve read this all on some variation of a glowing screen, likely at the same time you’re juggling emails and texts, while somewhere across the room a television quietly rattles on. You keep it all going because of the unshakable feeling that if you let go — if only for Schmidt’s measly hour — you’ll be left behind. You don’t stay plugged in out of digital addiction, but digital necessity — or so you tell yourself.

So, how about it? Take the challenge yourself. Click off your computer screen, power down your device, and spend some time completely disconnected. When you’re back online, tweet me @brokawbrokaw and tell me how long you lasted.

Could You Live a Pre-Internet Life?” was provided by Minyanville.com.