Turn Off, Tune Out, Drop In

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Is your head buried in your lap?

After attending the TED 2012 conference in Long Beach, California last week, I could not help but think about how pervasive technology and media is in our lives. Surprisingly, I have not been thinking about it in the best possible light. If you could be in a room with over one thousand of the world’s most interesting business leaders, thinkers, scientists and artists, would you spend every free moment sitting in the corner alone thumbing your smartphone or would you immerse yourself in the live experience and do your best to "press the flesh," as the saying goes?

There’s something about the here and now.

Prior to the many sessions at TED 2012, the hosts would remind people to turn off their mobiles. It’s become a ceremony at almost each and every conference, but in this instance, they took it further by pleading for everyone’s attention and allowing those we were seated next to that same accord. The hosts didn’t just ask us to set our phasers to vibrate, they demanded that we put them away and forget about them to truly benefit from the event. Our kids are texting, our heads are buried in our laps and we can hardly hold a conversation for more than five minutes without a ringing, vibration or desire to look at our smartphones to see if someone has emailed, tweeted, texted or pinged us.

Is this what connections are really about?

Multiple speakers at TED questioned our connection to technology. Sherry Turkle (author of Alone Together – Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other) questioned whether we’re living in the now or living to create an impression to others of how we would like to perceived, while Thomas P. Campell (director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art) questioned how digital media can be compared with spending real time in a museum. It didn’t stop there. A theme of anti-Web sentiment (or a digital connectedness unplugging) was pervasive. Even Chip Kidd (famed book cover designer) pleaded for a return to the admiration of books in their dead tree format. While we embrace technology and race forward with it, it seems like the past two decades have now culminated in what can only be described as a backlash to our connectivity.

It’s not a zero sum game.

I fell in love with Turkle’s message. I made a personal promise to spend more time in museums after Campbell’s plea. I do love and appreciate the beauty of a great book cover (but I’m just more in love with the portability of my digital book collection to go back to paper, sorry Chip). And yes, it’s true that we probably do spend too much time with technology and not enough time having a meaningful conversation with others while looking at them, directly in the eyes. That being said, it’s not an all or nothing proposition, either. I’ve heard many stories of troubled teens using platforms like Facebook to ask someone out or even ask for help because it allows them to feel more confident. I’ve heard stories of kids with disabilities leveraging Social Media to connect and then finding their school experience that much better because those they had connected with online felt some kind of closer connection. Personally, some of my best friends are people who I first met in the digital sense and because of shared values, we created much more powerful connections after either meeting in person or staying connected in a more personal way online.

It’s you… it’s not technology.

It’s easy to win in the battle against technology. You have to control your technology and you have to be very aware if you’re letting it control you. How can you get started? Turn off your notifications. All of them. You decide when you’re going to look at your smartphone and not have your smartphone ping, beep or blink to lure you in. Next, if you find yourself reaching for your smartphone while you’re spending time with family and friends, stop yourself and don’t do it. Acknowledge the moment, and tell yourself that you will check your messages when no loved ones are in the near vicinity (this doesn’t mean you should sneak off and check in the bathroom… it means to wait until your personal time is over). Download the application called Freedom. Freedom locks you out of the Internet, so you can actually get some work done instead of checking emails, playing with Twitter or watching videos on YouTube. Imagine that, modern technology to block you out from using modern technology.

Don’t kid yourself.

Technology is very seductive. We love our iPhones (I love my iPhone). For many people, it’s the last thing we stroke before we go to bed and the first thing we touch when we wake up in the morning. You may not like it, but this is who we have become. Next time you’re in a public space, study the people around you. Notice how they flirt and caress their smartphones. It’s bordering on sexual, isn’t it? This isn’t about getting rid of technology. This is about being conscience of our experiences. Rich experiences don’t happen via text messaging. Rich experiences happen when we’re face to face, listening, sharing and truly growing. Text messaging can be a great bridge between these very human experiences, but let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that anything on your smartphone screen is as important as what’s in front of your face.

You don’t have to unplug to become more human, you just have to make a choice.

The above posting is my twice-monthly column for The Huffington Post called, Media Hacker. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original version online here:


  1. Good points – as someone that does stand-up comedy as well as advertising/marketing the here and now is often overlooked. It’s almost like people are willing to be distracted because of what else might be happening. That another event might be better, or a friend is doing some more cool. As much as it’s distracting for the person doing the surfing, it’s annoying for those people around trying to concentrate (usually a back-lit artifact in a darkened room being the centre of attention) as well. On top of that, the presenter can feel ‘why bother’ and the organizers are wondering why the audience wanted to see the speaker – only to not listen to them.

  2. Excellent post Mitch. Lately, I’ve become attuned to taking a stimulus diet as Todd Henry suggests in his book the Accidental Creative (btw, the AC podcast with you as a guest is very insightful and informative!). I think it’s important, if not, imperative to unplug or at least control the flow of stimulus one gets from the internet. Nowadays, I’d say our connections are “cold” and our digital selves that we project on Facebook and Twitter can’t help but be void of the true essence of ourselves. It’s a way of supporting a projection of ourselves we want to portray to the world. We’re encouraged to tweet certain things while discouraged to tweet others. In my opinion, most of what we see online in social media is people who seem to be curating their digital streams in order to project the “best” version of themselves to others. I’m guilty of this just as much and have begun to tweet less cause I can’t help but feel a tinge of narcissism with every tweet. This just means I need to realign my focus and purpose with what I want to do in social media. We can talk about our life experiences online but REAL life experiences happen in the “outside” world when we run into situations that cause our hearts to beat a little faster and make our breaths a little shorter. An older uncle of mine who has no knowledge of the internet and social media made an interesting comment about the younger generation’s constant use of facebook and twitter as means of communications, he said, “how are you supposed to feel your own heart beat and woman’s heart beat when you ask her to dance or when you tell her you love her? How are you supposed to feel the presence of a woman if you’re just typing to her?” It also helped that he said this in French in a thick Parisian accent. As a content creator with popular videos on YouTube I’ve become accustomed and have taken my numbers for granted. Sure, a video with a high number of views is cool but it’s no substitute for sitting in a theater with others and laughing or crying collectively at the events transpiring on screen. In my opinion, this is the connection we sever when we downplay our social lives in order to focus on our digital ones. Basically it comes down to something I find truth in often: “everything in moderation.”

  3. Great article, great message. I faced a personal battle when trying to decide whether to stop buying dead trees (books), and go digital. I ended up winning an iPad 2, and had the opportunity to trying digital. I must say that the habit of walking and staring books in bookstore isn’t something that I’m able to shake very easily.

  4. There was a Star Trek episode in which two nations were at war, and rather than going through a bloody, messy real war, they simply each sent a certain number of their citizens to be vaporized in a nice clean fashion. Considering how much time we spend in the nice clean, once-removed world of the internet, it’s refreshing to think about getting messy and real again. Thanks for a well-timed reminder. (and yes, I think there’s a Star Trek tie-in for most life lessons)

  5. “If you find yourself reaching for your smartphone while you’re spending time with family and friends, stop yourself and don’t do it.” – Great reminder, Mitch. In fact, I loved every single word in the post, but that sentence hit home. It’s funny (sad?) this obsession we have with being connected. I think a lot of it has to do with need to feel wanted/needed. Personally, it’s a double-edged sword (as you mention). I depend on connectedness for my business; however, it’s controlling me right now – not the other way around.
    I’m writing this now from Starbucks. As I look around, over half of the people are checking their mobile devices. Many of those same people are also in a “conversation” with someone at their table.
    Not good.
    Face to face – TRUE face to face (smartphone free) is really what it’s all about.
    Thanks again for another kick ass blog post.

  6. The wonders of technology… I so agree with many of your points here, but the most important one I think is the statement “Its you”.
    People talk about Social media, technology, cell phone use, texting etc, etc. as if its an epidemic – its not a disease – we all have the ability and power to manage our lives.
    30 years ago people were probably worrying about TV addiction – we’ve all heard about “couch potatoes”. Its natural as new technologies bring us extended abilities, that we as a people may take longer to adapt and integrate the use of all this into our lives. Some of us who grew up with technology know how to balance it in our daily routines – some of us struggle with this because its new, or does take up too much of our attention span…
    In some cases people may reassign time they previously spent elsewhere to being “online” or connected – but we should never as a people forget where our passions lay, what we love.
    The key to happiness is to make sure we find time for the things we love and not get lost in the fast pace of business…or technology. These things should supplement our lives, not replace them!
    Technology has given us the ability to share thoughts, to grow as humans, to expand connections – I would never have had access to this blog, or to know you Mitch, were it not for technology. BUT – I manage my time – its basic human responsibility. Too many people have made technology a bad word, they don’t see where the value is in “responsible use”. And whats acceptable from one individual to another varies greatly!
    Those who spend their time texting instead of talking to the person in front of them, or spend hours locked in video games or online games (dare I say Farmville?) and neglecting their families – those people create this – not technology.
    Unfortunately it’s this image that most people who are not involved in using social media/technology will hold onto. Technology becomes the big bad wolf, feeding fear. But as you say, its not technology, its you. Let’s live in balance, take responsibility for our lives…
    So its about choices, and individual values. We have to be responsible for our choices and not blame technology – where do you want to spend your time? Does that bring fulfillment, happiness – if the answer is yes, then you’re ok. If something is missing, then find it and build your life so it has value. It doesn’t take much to stop for a moment and look at the sky, walk through some art galleries and be in the life that we spend so much time talking about online 🙂 if it is important to us, we will make it happen.
    I think it is also worth stating that if you do not LIVE LIFE offline – what on earth are you going to be talking about? Where is the value? Its all about balance. Thank you for this great post reminding us to seek that balance and celebrate life.
    I for one am looking forward to lunch where I am going to sit in the sun and just look at the sky. Its a beautiful day and I hope you’ll forgive me if I tweet out a picture to share with the world. 😉 Does that make me less connected, less appreciative of the moment, less able to feel it – I don’t think so – for me its a way to share and I will love the sun all the more! Will I allow myself to lose myself into my emails and text messages while I sit there? No – I will draw the line because I want to be there in that moment – I deserve that , that’s my balance.

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