A life unplugged

The scene is one that plays out on every freeway many times a day. In a hundred zone one car is doing 90, half in the emergency lane, while its driver talks on a handheld mobile phone. “At least she’s pulled over,” jokes my husband.

In fact, mentioning that the phone is handheld is somewhat spurious, because although it’s illegal while driving, talking on a handheld phone is no more dangerous than using one hands free. The issue is not the way you use the phone. The issue is using the phone at all.

Research has shown that using a mobile phone while driving is as dangerous as driving drunk. But the backlash against any government that tried to ban all phone use in cars would be extreme, because mobiles have become indispensible, ubiquitous, and apparently impossible to turn off.

I have a feeling that this is a problem that we have yet to recognize, quite apart from the danger on the road. With a phone switched on in your pocket, you are always contactable. There are certainly times when that’s a very valuable thing – when a baby is due, when children fall ill at school or childcare, or when there is some other emergency. It’s often useful to be able to call someone when you’re out and about, too. But there is something about always being switched on that actually winds up switching you off – taking you away from the present.

When you’re sitting at a cafe with a friend and the phone rings, even if you decide not to answer it, it steals some of your attention. It takes you away from the moment you are in, and transports you elsewhere. It detracts from the conversation and from the bonds you were building, or strengthening.

It is something we don’t often question – the benefits of being ever contactable, permanently plugged in, are worth it, we assume. Yet even the downtime that we are so tempted to fill with connectivity – waiting for a train, walking to the shops (wait, who walks these days??), or sitting on a bus – even that enforced stillness has value. Filling it with being obsessively online – posting to facebook, texting madly, or making those terribly important calls “Hi, I’m waiting for a train…” -ramps up the hectic, constant onslaught of busy-ness in our lives. Frustrating though it may be, that quiet time that feels wasted might be more productively, or at least more positively, filled with meditation, contemplation, or interaction with the surrounding world.

By walking through the world plugged in, whether to a phone or an iPod, we disconnect ourselves from our environment. It makes conversation all but impossible, and we certainly don’t hear the birds singing, or notice the children playing nearby. Last week when I caught a bus early in the morning, the very sad morning I was having was considerably enlivened by a wonderful, cheerful bus driver. After he cracked a friendly joke as I stepped aboard, we got chatting and wound up showing each other photos of our children (ok, the photos were on our phones – there’s an upside!), sharing tales of our lives and both feeling vastly uplifted. All in the space of a 15 minute trip to the train station. Yet if I had been on the phone, busily texting, or listening to my iPod, I would have missed that joke entirely, never connected with that driver, and my day would have been immeasurably poorer as a result.

Every week I walk with a friend along the Scotchman’s creek trail. We frequently interrupt our conversation to chat with passers by – about the weather, or their children, or their dogs. Each interaction makes us smile. But there is an increasingly large number of people who make that walk plugged in. They are usually not smiling, and although they are in a beautiful environment, they don’t appear to notice it. They are grimly immersed in their portable information cages, and they are oblivious to all attempts to interact with them from outside the cage, in the real world their bodies inhabit.

It’s interesting that many musicians have had great success with unplugged albums – quieter, slower acoustic versions of their music. I think we could all have very similar success with unplugged versions of our lives. Mark Twain famously said “whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” Although I rarely find myself on the side of the majority, I think we all need more time to pause and reflect.

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