Distractions of Electronic Devices and the Value of Connecting with Others

Jun 7th, 2013 | By | Category: Nick Kemper's Blog

I watched a TedTalk the other day with Sergey Brin from Google showing off the new Google Glasses, which is basically an eye-mounted camera/computer. You wear them like glasses and you can take photos or video with voice command, or open messages which you can view in the upper right corner of your field of vision. Very cool. To demonstrate part of the inspiration for this product, he stood on the stage sliding his thumb around on his blackberry, looking down at his phone, mumbling intermittently to the audience. He wondered if this posture and activity is how our bodies are designed to function.

Of course, our bodies are not designed to look down and caress an electronic device. They are meant to stand and walk and run and swim and jump and make eye contact with others. So the Google Glasses are an advancement. I made a challenge to myself as I watched the video (on my laptop, not on my phone), to resist looking at my phone when engaging with others — even if only for a day or for a few hours. You see this now all the time, almost everywhere you go, most people are looking at their phone, even while they are talking “face-to-face” with someone.

Most of you have crews of drivers out on the road, so you can place an economic value on keeping the phone in a pocket or a holster. It’s almost refreshing to get behind the wheel now and drive according to the new rules of the road, those regulating “distracted” driving. Your eyes are looking up, your shoulders back, you see into the distance, something “outside” catches your eye — if only there were similar laws for distracted walking or distracted meeting participation or distracted eating at the dinner table.

All that day I saw Facebook posts about the tragic tornado damage in Oklahoma and I resisted reading or watching any of it. I have a theory that bad news is not good for you. No, it isn’t good to hide from reality, but sitting in front of a screen for hours on end watching the same repeating human drama is not good for your mental and emotional health, I believe. I’ve even stopped listening to NPR on the way to and from work unless it’s something interesting and maybe even uplifting.

Later that same day I was watching some movie on the Cinemoi channel about James Joyce (I can cover some serious metaphysical ground in a 24-hour period) and a woman was at the cinema watching a silent movie in which a character dies and a funeral takes place. For the woman in the cinema, it was a very moving experience. It got me thinking about how, prior to movies and television, we could not “witness” events unless we were directly witnessing them, or maybe attending a play. So you might go to a handful of funerals in your lifetime rather than watching 200 on screen over the course of your lifetime. I can’t help but think the overload of stimuli in which we are immersed every day is an inorganic form of existence. I don’t have anything to personally compare it to, however, so I can only guess that social media does not really make life richer. Sure, you might read something funny or share something worth sharing, but if it’s at the expense of the conversation with the person in the room with you, is there sufficient value in that? Or does all of the exposure to “experience” just dilute the “real” experiences we have, or perhaps even block them? Will life eventually be only virtual?

The day before (I’m not joking) I watched a 9-minute video called “This is Water,” which included excerpts of a commencement speech by David Foster Wallace at Kenyon College in 2005, which was later published in book form. The video was put together only recently and the day after I watched it, the David Foster Wallace Literary Estate (Mr. Wallace passed away in 2008) had it removed from the internet. A tragedy. It was so thought provoking that I wrote in large, capital letters on the next day in my day planner: THIS IS WATER. I can’t remember the details of it well enough to try to impart any of its wisdom here, and if I try it sounds like the Estate might sue me anyway. It had to do with finding meaning in everyday existence, having empathy for others and the value of connecting with others. I’m glad I got to watch it in that narrow window of web availability. You can find the book online, and probably written excerpts. Look for it. Wait for the video to come back.

Once again, I’m trying to pull divergent events together to make a coherent blog whole, so I might as well diverge some more. The coincidence of coming across all of these things within a day or two underscores how we make sense of the world around us. But coincidences are interesting, I think. Today I got fed up with UPS while trying to find a lost package and I hung up on the rep (another problem with blackberry phones – you can’t hang up on people with the receiver slam). A moment or two later, the power went out in our facility. It got very dark in my office (kind of like the darkness in my heart for UPS). For about an hour or so, we had no power in the building. I had a nice talk with a customer in Atlanta about tow truck builders, and I looked for batteries for a flashlight. When the power came back on, the customer who had reported the lost package called me to tell me he’d found it, literally within two minutes of the power coming back on. It’s all connected I tell you. Which reminds me of a joke:

How does a Buddhist order a hamburger?

“Make me one with everything.”

Have a safe and profitable week.

Nick Kemper