Monday, May 7, 2012


At the risk of sounding like an old fart, I remember a time when phones had cords and when you needed to talk to someone, you had to stay in one place to talk.   You might do something else like read or draw while you were on the phone, but you didn't have the ability to walk around the house.    When cords got to be 10 feet, it gave you a little more mobility to make dinner while you were on the phone.   Multi-tasking wasn't much of a concept back in the 1970's - you just did one or two things at a time like your mom catching up on her soaps while ironing.    When you got into your car, you put in the radio and that was it - your job was to drive.   Sure, there were moms then as now, who needed to keep their kids entertained while they drove to errands, but that's what books were for.   People were able to focus better, actually talked to each other either in person or on the phone and made eye contact when they spoke in person.   These days we have cell phones that can text, give you GPS, let you know when you have appointments and gaming systems that can give the the sensation of running, bowling, playing tennis, dancing, playing games over the internet with someone in a another state or country.  What these these things can't give you is basic human interaction so that you can gauge how the people you are talking to are really doing and (gasp) give you some quiet down time to think. 

In improvisation, one of the first things I teach is how important it is to stay present.   We live in a world where even if you are talking directly to someone, there is the constant threat that your cell phone might buzz to let you know that you have an e-mail or text.  The person might glance to their iPhone to see if it's more important then you.   Worse, even if you don't have that infernal smart phone buzzing, you're still thinking about the text you need to send, project you need to finish, e-mail you need to respond to, phone call you need to return and bill you need to pay on the web.   You might be looking someone eye-to-eye, but your brain is giving them, at best about 30%.   When did being able to focus on one thing become a liability.  If you're constantly being asked how you are at multi-tasking, generally the person asking probably means - "Hey I have a hard time managing just one project at a time, and I hope you do too, so I won't feel so bad."   I've seen entire staffs share a collective ADD because they have to handle so much.  It all manages to get done, but usually not as well as it would have if everyone had been able to focus on just doing one thing at a time.  And yet, being able to juggle multiple projects and still take on more seems to be a twisted badge of honor.   I'm not saying that you have to just do one project for a week at a time but at least while you're focusing on it for an hour you're not also trying to do six other things.   It creates a whirlwind that just sucks the life out of you and you feel like nothing is getting done.  

One thing I will say for Skype is that at least you can see the person that you are talking to see how they are responding to what you have to say.  It's also hard for them to try to do something at the same time because the other person would see it.   Because the laptop camera is stationary, you can't really wander away to another room because that would take you out of view.   So, just like the days with the short phone cord, you can't really move around that much and have to stay present. With a smart phone, you can move around but who wants to be having a conversation while walking and web casting at the same time?   That sounds more like a trapeze act then a conversation.    In my recent job search, I've had countless phone interviews.  For me, that 's a tough way to interview - you can't see the body language to know if you are truly answering their questions the right way or if you need to give them more.   I had one phone interview and when I finished answering I was met with silence.   I wondered if the call had been dropped or I had said the wrong thing.  I then heard the clacking of the key board and realized that they were typing and might have been sending an e-mail while I was talking.  Of course they could have been taking notes but then they would have noticed when I stopped talking and would have mentioned that they were in fact taking notes. 

Another reason to like is that Skype it keeps you in touch with the people you hold near and dear.  I'm always touched by the fact that military families are able to Skype so that the soldier, their kids and spouses can be reassured that everything is alright.   The soldiers get to see their children as well as talk to them and the kids can show their dad or mom their latest grade, art project or loose tooth.   Even if they are half a world away, for that moment it seems like the only thing separating them is a slim computer screen.  The children can hear their parent read a bedtime story and go to sleep with the image of someone they love reading Winnie the Pooh.  Skyping is the next best thing to being there.   

Technology is supposed to make our lives easier and yet the more plugged in we are, the less down time we have.   It was supposed to cut our work time in half but it seems to have doubled it.   You can't go on vacation without promising to check your job e-mail or voice mail once a day so if there's a crisis, you know about it.   Wanting to say, "Hey, I need to unplug, so I'll check my e-mail when I get back," makes you seem like you're not a team player.  I once worked for a guy who expected me to check my e-mail at least twice a day while I was on vacation to justify the time that I was taking off.    It was my vacation time, yet that wasn't good enough.  I had to stay in touch in case I had to put out any fires by remote and I needed to be able to text back within an hour if he needed me.    Frankly, that's not a vacation it's just not being in the office.  

Facebook is another technological entity which is a two edged sword.    It's a vehicle that's supposed to let people know who are and what you think.  You can use it to network and let others share in some good news.  You also have be careful about what you post if it's not always positive.   I've posted a few political quips only to be roundly criticized by my "Facebook friends" who didn't share the same opinion.   I'm all for differing ideas, but I have to wonder if the vehemence of the response would have been so strong if it were in person or on the phone.    I'm guessing I could would couched my terms more carefully, and the responses in dealing with a live person would have been more muted.   It's also interesting that when people don't have anything to say or anything new happening in their lives, they often rely on some really cute kitten pictures with a caption just to get people to notice them.   

Probably the most disturbing technological trend is texting and driving.   It should be a no brainer that in choosing between maneuvering a gadget that weighs a few ounces versus a vehicle that weighs a few tons - the car should win out.   Yet some people - particularly teens are so addicted to texting they can't let it go once they are behind the wheel of a car.   Unfortunately that behavior affects more than just the errant texter: 

About 6,000 deaths and a half a million injuries are caused by distracted drivers every year.
While teenagers are texting, they spend about 10 percent of the time outside the   driving lane they’re supposed to be in.
Talking on a cell phone while driving can make a young driver’s reaction time as slow as that of a 70-year-old.
Answering a text takes away your attention for about 5 seconds. That is enough time to travel the length of a football field.

There are apps that you can get on your phone to let people know you are in your car and you'll return their messages later - no one deserves to lose their life over a LOL :p.    Yet our obsession with being plugged in is killing us and taking it's toll on our quality of life.   It's okay if you can't be contacted every waking hour of the day - it doesn't make you less worthy - it just makes you sane. 

I guess some of us are afraid to be alone with our thoughts. I once worked for a woman who had to schedule and double schedule every hour of the work week.   I'd also notice on her calendar that she tons of events planned for the weekend.    There was no down time, no time for introspection.   It didn't make me admire her ability to juggle tasks it made me wonder what she was running from - why couldn't she stop - why couldn't she just say no?   She was frequently frazzled and late for almost every appointment but she had to keep going - her schedule was handling her - she was not handling her schedule.  And yet, if you tried put in an hour to two in which she was not meeting with someone or on her way somewhere - she'd rail like somehow she was losing her edge.   In reality being so over extended was making her less sharp not more.    

I try as much as possible to unplug before I go to bed and read.   I also like to run with music and then pull off my ear buds for my last mile so I can feel the rhythm of my breath with the sound of my feet on the earth.   I try to listen the birds in the trees who use their own songs to talk to each other.   I like to take long walks in the park and have found my own thinking spot that's quiet and has the sound of a stream running nearby.   It's calming for me to be near water and just listen - to hear the sound of life running quietly on it's own.  (click here to see video
I sat for 20 minutes and watched a bird clean itself in the stream and then fly to a tree to be with his flock.   It was calming, it was uncomplicated - it was simply nature.    I think we all need to unplug on a regular basis.  It doesn't make you less important, it makes you more human.   This new technological frontier has benefits but without limits it can push you towards gadget-cide.   To quote Albert Einstein, "Why does this magnificent applied science which saves work and makes life easier bring us so little happiness? The simple answer runs: Because we have not yet learned to make sensible use of it."  If Einstein could see it 80 years ago, we need to see it now.   So go outside, breathe in the spring air and just be - trust me, you'll feel much smarter than your phone.   

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