DAILY INSIGHT: Digital Zombie Series: Can we ever be alone again?

By Carl Hooker, CIO Advisor

Lately I’ve noticed a strange phenomenon that occurs at traffic lights around town. The light turns green and the first car, after some hesitation, pulls forward. Then the next one, after another prolonged delay, does the same. This continues until maybe 4 or 5 cars have traveled through what would normally be a 10- to 12-car light. When I look over at the drivers, they are all doing the same thing: checking their phones.

We’ve seen a lot of commentary on the web recently about our addiction to our phones. Recently I wrote a post about the Digital Yawn, an event that seems to happen more and more in social settings. This restaurant in Beirut actually gives you a 10% discount if you turn in your phone and socialize at their restaurant. And for those of us that must remain connected, the city of Philadelphia implemented these texting and walking lanes near city hall so we don’t crash into each other.

NPR has released a couple of thought-provoking materials in recent months including this article that “We Are Just Not Here Anymore.” In the article, the author Linton Weeks takes us through the concept of the “Severed Self” and asks the question, “How can we ever feel comfortable with others when we don’t even feel comfortable with ourselves?” He mentions a course at the University of Washington where a professor actually teaches his students patience, reflection and meditation by “unplugging” for a few minutes before class.

In September of 2013, NPR’s All Tech Considered site released a short film titled “Forgot My Phone” by videographer Charlene deGuzman. It was meant to be somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but actually highlighted the fact that we aren’t really present unless we are connecting and documenting our lives on our devices. I found myself both laughing and crying during the two minutes of this video.

Lastly, comedian Louis C.K. went on a comedic rant about cell phones on the Conan show. In his interview he mentions the fact that we can’t truly ever be alone and “be ourselves and just sit there. Being a person.” He goes on to say that “underneath everything, there’s that thing…you know…that empty. That knowledge that we are all alone. It’s down there.” While he’s a comedian, I think he’s waxing poetic about the fact that we can’t let ourselves ever be truly happy or truly sad because we are constantly connected.

As educators (and parents), we need to work with kids (and ourselves) in balancing our lives in every way. We talk with them about eating right. We talk with them about manners. We talk with them on how to behave in various situations. I’m going to argue it’s time we talk to them about when it’s ok not to connect. When it’s ok to just “be”.

I’ve struggled with this personally, as I’ve always felt my phone was an extension of my hand. Then, several months ago, one of my daughters told me, “Daddy, can you put down your phone and pay attention to me?” It broke my heart but also alerted me to a larger problem. The message I was sending her then 4-year old mind was that the phone was more important to me than her. I also found myself feeding our youngest daughter her bottle at night with one hand with my phone was in the other. I was missing that magical moment of physical connection with her, because of my need to have a virtual one.

So I decided to change.

I started to enforce these 5 simple rules for myself:

1. When I get home, the phone gets plugged into the charger and that’s where it sits the whole night.

2. While the kids are awake, I don’t work, connect, tweet, blog, etc. I just spend time with my family.

3. When feeding the baby and getting her to go to sleep, no technology whatsoever.

4. After the kids are in bed, unless it’s a major project, I don’t work or tweet or blog. I spend time with my wife watching a show (lately it’s been House of Cards) or washing dishes or cleaning up toys or just talking.

5. The phone stays downstairs, connected to the charger all night. It doesn’t go into my bedroom.

Though I haven’t followed these rules every single day, I find them easy enough to maintain and actually find that I’m working a lot more efficiently because of my disconnection. When feeding our youngest her bottle at night, I take the time to connect with her, but I also use that time as sort of “reflection meditation” if you will. I reflect and evaluate my day. I think about creative projects that I need to start or problems that I need to solve.

I discovered that I can just “be alone” digitally and the world will move along regardless.

So the next time you are at that traffic light or in that waiting room, hold off on taking out your phone and checking it even if it hurts. Instead, take a moment to breathe in life.



Carl Hooker is director of instructional technology at Eanes ISD in Texas and blogs at Hooked on Innovation, where this is cross posted.

Note: This post is the second installment of a 5-part series on digital zombies, re-animated, if you will, from my SXSW presentation on Surviving the Digital Zombie Apocalypse.