Those who don't rush to be constantly plugged in gain freedom but lose connections
Most guys don't need to be invited to a bachelor party twice. But this past April, the moment my best man emailed my friends with the plans for my send-off from singlehood, I fired off a text message to my college friend John Pepe. "John," I wrote, "It's time to check your email."
John is an average 35-year-old guy. He has a college education, a job and a girlfriend. His passions hew to the Comic-Con vein: superhero flicks, graphic novels, Andy Kaufman conspiracy theories - the kind of stuff that was geeky before geeky sold out. But there is one way in which John is a very strange dude. He never checks his email. This can make friendship with John a challenge. If you want him to show up at an event planned by email - which, let's face it, most get-togethers among college friends are these days - John requires notification via text message, phone call or strategically executed whisper
campaign. And don't try messaging him on Facebook; he reluctantly joined two years ago and has barely logged in since. He may be the last person on earth to rely on a dial-up connection at home, and his phone is the basic flip model that comes with the mobile plan. Last year, when our mutual friend Ed had his bachelor party, John didn't show, because he had never seen the email invite. That resulted in some hurt feelings, a few of which belonged to John.
Of the roughly 6.9 billion people on earth, 3.1 billion have an email address, according to The Radicati Group, a research firm. By 2015, that number is expected to reach 4.1 billion. In 2010, a U.S. State Department study found that five billion people around the world had a cell phone. Facebook has 750 million members and counting. Twitter claims 175 million registered users (though estimates of actual, engaged users are closer to 30 or 40 million).
Clearly, digital connectivity has become the social norm, even in parts of the world that struggle with necessities like health care and shelter.
According to water.org, a nonprofit that provides water to people in developing nations, more people in the world own cell phones today than have access to a toilet.
But as is always the case with technology, there are those who find virtue in bucking the trend: the mother who won't get a cell phone, the boyfriend who looks down his nose on Facebook, the senior coworker whose email address is a black hole of forsaken inquiries. The more hyper-connected the rest of us become, the more these people seemingly relish their isolation.
As with most resistance movements, those who avoid being too connected aren't easily classified. Some are taking a righteous stand for real-time, face-to-face interaction (these are the same charmers who return every text message with a phone call); some fear the physiological effects of too many blinking lights and radio waves; some are antisocial; some simply consider themselves too old for new technology. For some, being hard to reach is surely a passive-aggressive stance, like never returning your mother's phone calls.
To be friends with such a person is to be alternately frustrated and envious. Even as we curse their inaccessibility, we suspect they are living the less-distracted life that many of us pine for. Why can't they just get with the program? How do they get away with being so remote? And why can't we be more like them?
In July, I invited John to Brooklyn to drink beer and explain his aversion to connectivity. He started by blaming his finances, saying he couldn't afford to buy a decent computer or upgrade to a smartphone with email. I accepted that - to a point. I know that as a client-care specialist for a veterinary clinic, John's job pays more in spiritual fulfillment than it does in money. And I appreciate that flashy toys are not a must-have for everyone. But, I pointed out, there are plenty of underemployed people in the world who are willing slaves to their email accounts, to say nothing of those who spend half of each day playing Farmville. Surely, I said, priorities play a role here, as well. If you wanted to check your email more often, you would find a way.
"Look," he said, "there's a lot of people that I just don't care what they're doing, and I don't care necessarily to see them. There's only so much you can take in and only so much I desire to take in, so I have to put the brakes on."
That was the answer I'd expected - and one to which everyone can be a little sympathetic. Who hasn't rolled their eyes while slogging through the Facebook news feed? Does that girl really think I crave daily updates on her Zumba class? Do I need to follow your toddler's potty training in real time? If good fences make good neighbors, maybe good friendships could use some sturdy firewalls. Maybe people like John know something the hyperconnected do not.
Indeed, cinching the flow of information is a common theme among people who resist the latest cell phones or social networks. Alexis Govan, a program leader for the Department of Parks and Recreation in Seattle, resists both.
"I really don't want people to know where I am and what I'm doing all the time, nor am I interested in all the boring things everyone else is doing," Alexis told me in a (somewhat sluggish) email exchange. She, like John, is happy getting by with her Nokia flip phone (no Internet access, no email), and without sites like Facebook or, God forbid, Google+. "For me it's less noise in my head and less pressure to keep up with relationships I'm not really interested in."
Both John and Alexis made it clear that, yes, some of their relationships have suffered because they were more difficult to reach - and they were quite happy with that, thank you very much. "The people I'm closest to know how to reach me," wrote Alexis, implying a Darwinian thinning of her social herd.
John echoed that statement, saying the relationships that matter find a way to survive. "People are starting to get it and know how to work within my parameters," he said. "There are times I feel like I got left out of certain things, and I got pissy and moody about it, but that's just me being a douche."
Of course, being connected is about more than relationships. How many times have you taken out your smartphone in a restaurant or at a party to resolve some trivial dispute? What's the name of the guy who played Lenny in Laverne & Shirley? Did the Berlin Wall fall in 1989 or 1990? I had such a moment outside the bar with John. I insisted the actress Bai Ling was in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; he said she wasn't. It turned out I was wrong, but at least I had the MyTouch 4g and unlimited data plan from T-Mobile to prove it. How, I wondered, could anyone make the conscious choice not to have seemingly magical access to so much information 24 hours a day? Alexis called it "a lifestyle choice."
"I like not knowing things and speculating about how things work," she said. "I feel like smartphones take away some of the magic of conversation. They are fancy toys, and I guess I'm just not that into those kinds of toys."
As for John, he used our Crouching Tiger moment to make his own point: "Someone else always has a smartphone, so I don't need one." It's a commonly cited irony of the digital age that all this access to information and to one another might be making us both dumber and less social - and there is a growing body of evidence to support that. In 2010, a Chinese study found that teenagers who spent more time
online were more likely to develop problems with depression. (Likewise, psychiatrists at Chung-Ang University in South Korea found that antidepressants helped "cure" teens of their habit of playing a particular computer game for up to four hours a day.) A 2007 study from ad agency JWT found that one-fifth of Americans routinely turned down sex so they could spend more time online. And Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse and one of the world's leading brain scientists, has warned that all the time we spend with cell phones and computers "is rewiring our brains." As the fear that our devices are eroding our humanity mounts, a growing chorus of voices urges us to unplug - some of them from surprising sources. In 2009, Google CEO Eric Schmidt, of all people, used a commencement speech at the University of Pennsylvania to urge students to switch off their gadgets and get outside, maybe even have a conversation. That same year, an Italian bishop urged his countrymen to give up texting for Lent.
Perhaps the most sustained effort to get people to unplug is Offlining, a campaign launched on Father's Day in 2010 by Eric Yaverbaum, a longtime public relations executive and self-described tech addict.
"I'm addicted to my Blackberry; there's no toy or tech gadget that you can invent that I don't have sitting around me right now," Yaverbaum, who founded Offlining with digital agency executive Mark DiMassimo, told me in a phone interview. "And that comes with a heavy price. It's your life. And I'm more the norm than the exception."
The centerpiece of Offlining is a pledge that urges people (fathers, mostly) to make Father's Day a "no-device day," and to have ten no-device dinners with their families every year. So far, more than 11,000 people have signed it. That pledge is promoted through clever ads ("Give Thanks, Not thx," read one from this past Thanksgiving) products (a heart-shaped box of candy with room for a Blackberry, so men could hand over their devices on Valentine's Day), and most recently a contest to rework Harry Chapin's "Cat's in the Cradle" - the song about a father who never has time for his son until it's too late - for the digital age. "We've hit a nerve," said Yaverbaum. While he doesn't expect - or necessarily want - to reverse the trend toward hyperconnectivity, he does want people to ask, "What part of it do we resist? Which part do we set aside so we can still have the same marriage, the same first date, the same high school experience?"
As for people to whom disconnectedness comes naturally, "I marvel at those people," he said. "I have a couple friends like that, and that's about it. I look at those friends and say, 'Wow, I wish I could do that.' "
When I mention that attitude to my friend John, he laughs. The idealization of his lifestyle by people who are hyperconnected strikes him as simplistic, and perhaps a little condescending. "I don't think other people are missing out on something I'm doing," he said. "It's not like I'm using that time not being on the computer going out on hikes. I'm not, like, living life to the fullest."
But there are those for whom disconnectedness is a point of pride. Take Michael Orenstein, a California man I came across while writing an article for a major daily newspaper about the auctioning of some rare space memorabilia. Orenstein runs such auctions for a living, and they routinely attract national, and sometimes international, attention.
The first time I interviewed Orenstein, I ended by asking for his email address and cell phone number in case I needed to follow up. "I don't have a cell phone," he said, matter-of-factly. What's more, he was headed to Alaska for a week the following day. If I wanted to contact him again, I would have to call his office, which would in turn call his hotel. The fact that this could jeopardize the chance to have his auction featured in a major daily didn't seem to faze him.
"I feel it's a leash that jerks you whenever it wants," said Orenstein about cell phones when I called him for this article. "Yes, there are occasions when it would be nice to call somebody on the spur of the moment or get an emergency call to me, but, by and large, most of the calls could wait."
Like John and Alexis, Orenstein says he simply sees no virtue in knowing what everyone is thinking about at all times.
"It's more of a hive mentality with this Twitter and all the rest of the stuff that everyone has," he said. "To know everything that everyone else is doing on a minute-by-minute basis - for what? It takes up time and money, and money is not something you fritter away."
Still, Orenstein admits to paying a price for his lack of accessibility. "The other day I went down to Newport Beach, which is 50 miles from here, to pick up a consignment for the next sale, and a radio station called the office and wanted to do a live interview with me," he recalled. But because his office couldn't reach him, "they ended up having to do it themselves, and they kind of fudged it." For someone trying to attract enough people to an auction to create competition and drive up bids, bungled radio interviews are a serious missed opportunity.
If I had to guess, I would say that Orenstein - and my friend John - will eventually succumb to the march toward connectivity. Not because of work, and not because of a desire to know what everyone else around them is doing all the time. Indeed, not because they want to be connected at all. But because other people want to be connected to them.
When I asked John about my bachelor party - which he did ultimately attend - he got a little serious. "That was something that I knew was coming," he said of the emailed invite. "So I was ready to be there and respond." He was acknowledging that, to maintain friendships today, you can't always expect people to make exceptions for you. Orenstein is under similar pressure from his wife. How do I know? Here's what she said (jokingly, I think) when she answered their home phone and I told her about this story: "Tell him his wife wants to kill him."
Orenstein acknowledges he will one day give in. "I think I'll have no choice," he said. "But that's the day I'm going to be old and sitting in my rocking chair, and nobody will call me."