“In choosing to digitally enhance, hyperconnect, and constantly share our lives, we risk not living them. We have collectively colluded to take this journey… ” Baratunde Thurston
Baratunde Thurston was once billed as the world’s most connected man. In that context, so profound did he find his 25 day self-removal from the virtual world over the New Year period that he writes extensively about it in this cover story of the July/August issue of Fast Company. In many respects, his experiences and “revelations” are so prosaically obvious that it is hard to discern whether he is being humorously humble or narcissistic. Thurston is, among other endeavors, a comedian and I suspect I am missing the satire in the Fast Company piece…
What is surprising to me is that the experiences were surprising in the first place. At a party, Thurston experiences this modern era’s odd echo of the Cartesian mind-body distinction, where Descartes suggests that our minds and our bodies are two distinct substances that are connected but capable of existing apart. “I engaged in conversation without once taking out my phone to see what Twitter had to say about my conversation.” Thurston says. “My mind left the party only when my body did, at about two in the morning.” You might ponder this at an abstract level and wonder how it is that the immaterial virtual world can disconnect us so completely from the material physical world of our lives? Then again, you could just note that Thurston’s observation is banal. I want to offer simply, “pay attention,” but maybe I am missing the post-modern irony?
What Thurston does appear truly to express is the joy of being human that is often found by recognizing the human experience in and with others. Thurston relished what Anand Giridharadas described poetically as, “being thickly in one place, not thinly everywhere.” Being present allowed random ideas spontaneously to arise, for relationships to blossom, for incipient experiences to ripen into something more purposeful, and for solitude and silence to be nourishing not terrifying.
Perhaps my concern is less the fact that there is the seductiveness of the snake oil salesman about these numerous “get back to nature” and #unplug types of messages than the uncomfortable feeling that people really do need help with their uncontrolled virtual lives. My sympathy had tended more towards those addicted to, say, cigarettes, drugs, alcohol or gambling than to those addicted to their virtual lives, experienced through the media of technology. The narratives of those escaping the vice-like grip of nicotine seems more courageous and engaging than the #unplugged tales. That said, as Thurston notes, “Email lets us leave. Social media services, however, are not interested in making absence easy.” We are woven either by external forces or we weave ourselves into a web; rather, the Web.
“We are letting [technology] take us places that we don’t want to go,” says Sherry Turkle. What we should be considering is the degree of our complicity in this dysfunctional relationship. Perhaps I too am being prosaic when I suggest it is not time for a new anti-technology, iLuddite, cultural shift where we untether ourselves entirely from technology, but that it is time for our conversation to be about the length of that tether, and whether it is our real selves or our second virtual selves that are holding the leash.
[This post is the first in a series of three posts considering the relationship between us and our technologies, the conversation between our real selves and our second virtual selves, and the perpetual endeavor to find meaning and purpose in our lives.]