This past year was one of my busiest years, largely because of 4 factors: I re-launched two sites, started shooting more (note: Canon 7D purchase), I seemed to be on the road non-stop and clients expected more than ever and yet they want to pay less for results.
Let’s start by looking at some of the technology trends and mindshifts in 2010 which led to such a chaotic schedule.
Social media tools exploded. Living in Silicon Valley, you get hit with more beta trials than anywhere else in the world and testing new shit out is what I do among other things, so it’s no surprise that I was hit with more than one person could possibly digest. Yet, some of those tools started to go mainstream, so suddenly things that were on my back burner couldn’t go unnoticed anymore. For one, location-based services started to get a lot of attention.
Last January, I found myself in a hotel room in Munich desperate to connect and “check in” before heading out for a stroll in the fresh fallen snow.
How F-Ked up is that? Foursquare doesn’t seem to want to acknowledge that I’m in another country when I am, regardless of how decent “connectivity” is, yet I can’t seem to give in to technology controlling my environment even when it doesn’t work. What’s wrong with acknowledging that I’m not an engineer, don’t try to fix this…..just let things/it be?”
Later in the year, I went through something similar in Paris. Refer to my blog post: When in Paris, BE in Paris, Disconnect.
That brings me to Part B of this story. Technology DID in fact control my environment more than any year in my life.
I relaunched We Blog the World this year because of its organic growth and growing interest from bloggers around the globe who wanted to contribute.
Launching a site isn’t what it used to be because of the fact that a site isn’t just a site anymore – it’s connected to multiple digital personas on the web.
With the site had to be a Facebook “fan” page or whatever they now call it, a Twitter update to match the look-and-feel of the revamped site, as well as photo and video online personas to go with the rest of it.
Then there’s maps, mobile optimization, geo-location, custom RSS feeds, online newsletters and editing to ensure the world sees what you want them to see rather than poorly curated clutter on the web. (see Linda Stone/continuous partial attention — not new to 2010 but still highly relevant).
Enter the growing focus on curation. We’re long overdue for attention on intellectual and relevant curation of content that matters to us most.
Since tools can’t curate content automatically in a way that is useful to us yet, human curation needs to be part of the process and for anyone who has spent time curating and tagging content on the web knows, it’s bloody time consuming. Pearltrees, a curation tool, was a big part of my life this year and I spent time alerting content creators in various vertical markets about the aspect and value of human curation as an integral part of their workflow.
I switched to Chrome this year as my main browser, suddenly I ended up with three phones, one of which was a Google phone that simplified my local calls and texting when in Europe, and I was nearly tempted to buy an iPad so I could carry around yet another device with me to ensure I was connected 24/7 just in case the three phones and two laptops were not enough.
What’s important to note is how the ‘always on’ part of my life which used to largely happen in my office and to and from meetings during my work day migrated into every aspect of my life.
Not only were my digital personas growing in numbers, but so was my attention to them. Suddenly I had a flash page (see about.me, currently still in beta), 3 new sites, 3 new Facebook pages, 4 new Twitter personas, Foursquare and a growing number of international connections to “manage.”
By summer, I was seriously feeling the effect of The Shallows (see Nicholas Carr’s book: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains). In synthesizing recent cognitive research, he shares his own experiences, something that I could personally relate to. Carr writes “I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something has been tinkering iwth my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going — so far as I can tell — but it’s changing.”
By late July, I found that I couldn’t sit still when I was out without a device and moreso, my attention span had shortened dramatically. The same thing was happening to others around me. We couldn’t concentrate for long without new digital stimuli, even if that be a simple text message. My reading moved from reading whole books to skimming them, the rest left for online editorial only.
Reading and re-reading books have always brought a sense of calm to my otherwise chaotic world and yet, I had stopped reading novels for awhile. Instead, my reading time was filled with learning how social media was changing our lives and the impact it was having and will continue to have on business and the world. I read about new tools, solutions and trends. Of course, none of it had heart and soul but it was great insight for what to adopt early on.
Carr asserts that “every technology is an expression of human will. Through our tools, we seek to expand our power and control over our circumstances — over nature, over time and distance, over one another.”
And so, with this growing tension between feeling and fearing that my brain was actually changing chemically and the need to be “always” be connected to some device at any given time, I decided to leave the country in August without a device.
Off to South America I went with a friend who brought a Blackberry with her and I, a netbook, largely to be used for checking email once every couple of days, but moreso to offload photos from camera to hard drive. So, while technology wasn’t off limits for me, having a device in my hands so I could be reachable and in turn reach out whenever and wherever, was not an option.
When you have close to ten online digital personas you are ‘managing’ at any given time, not being connected for a few weeks is highly uncomfortable. As I was boarding a plane from Miami to Guyaquil, I noticed how many people fidgeted when the pilot told them to turn their electronic devices off.
Some people stared down at their devices as if they would give them something stimulating even though the screen was blank. A few picked up magazines but flipped through as if bored without the energy of their device, their “adult” pacifier.
I found myself going through the same awkwardness, yet because the device was “home” and not an option when we landed, I was forced to find both my energy and my calm from a static page of a book or an old fashioned notebook which I brought to record thoughts using an actual physical pen.
Since I was with someone who had not made the same choice, I was somewhat forced into the digital world by watching her fiddle with her Blackberry, nose down into its addictive energy while we were driving past the Amazon jungle. It was astonishing that she could get a connection up there and because she ‘could,’ she did.
There was a moment where I felt like asking her for “it” to check into the Amazon on Foursquare for the world to see, as somewhat of a novelty. There was a moment where I felt like asking her for “it” to tweet out to the world that the Amazon was in trouble and attach a photo of chain saws on the side of the road with piles of timber lined up in rows a couple hundred miles away from the nearest big town.
I had to refocus my energy away from the device and her fingers upon it and onto the lush green wildness out my right window and as soon as I did, slowly but surely, my center found calm. It found presence. It found wonder. It found marvel. It found gratitude. It found wow. It found real physical life that was breathing its beauty into me as I decided to participate IN IT rather than watch or engage with it on a screen.
I didn’t blog about my experience that week since we were camping in the middle of the jungle, but I also decided not to blog about it as soon as we were connected in another town. I waited until I returned to the states, and for multiple reasons, it was the right thing to do. Reflections followed – here, here and here. I also wrote about my detaching experience called Hey Digital Maven, How Okay Are You With Silence?
Being present and recalling that presence later on because I had time to reflect on gratitude was key. Being constantly connected doesn’t give us the time or more importantly, the ‘space’ to reflect and go deeper. Our ability to go deeper is limited because of what this constant digital stimuli is doing to our brains, and in turn, our behavior.
As Carr reflects from the discovery he made through his research, “while we know that our brain is an exquisitely sensitive monitor of experience, we want to believe that it lies beyond the influence of experience.
We want to believe that the impressions our brain records as sensations and stores as memories leave no physical imprint on its own structure. To believe otherwise would, we feel, call into question the integrity of the self.”
Having a break from managing digital personas for a few weeks reminded me of the essential need for balance — not just life/play and work balance but digital balance.
While I found that others were going through the same thing, the addictive quality of the lifestyle shift is gradual, and people often find it hard to talk about or perhaps explain.
When I first picked up the iPad and browsed through my blog using Flipboard, a wave of excitement flew through me as the pictures I created in the real world came to life on the screen. A beautiful screen.
The display was magical and an actual device was re-sorting or curating if you like, the content….my content. It was telling my story in its own way and the stories of other bloggers I knew and respected. I thought about how “cool” it would be to have this experience with me at all times, so wherever I was, I could have that dynamic engaging experience rather than a much blander web page.
Yet, when all I sometimes need is the information on the web, having that extra visual pleasure brings me into the web experience more than it does my physical surroundings. When I choose “it” more often than the people around me in the physical world, I’m losing something valuable as well am I not?
Digital addicts will argue not of course since for them, the additional dimension of what these devices bring to their online life (where they spend 90% of their time) is so much greater that they would argue making another choice is ‘halting a change’ that is not only inevitable but critical.
Inevitable as it is, it doesn’t mean we can’t be more aware on the impact it is having on our daily lives and decide with our human brains during this explosive evolution and revolution, that human interaction without a digital pacifier at our side, does still hold tremendous value.
Being present without anything in our hands or a list of “online to dos” on our mind makes us so much more aware of a friend’s breath across the table as they listen to our words and the intensity in their eyes as they dance with a story they’re sharing.
As more and more moves online and away from physical paper and objects, we’re reminded of privacy concerns and location-based services knowing our every move and offering products to us as soon as we walk into a store or cafe.
We’re reminded that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was a runner-up for Time’s most important Person of the Year regardless of whether you see him as a hero or a villain.
We’re reminded that the world has changed as we know it and there’s no moving back in time.
While I’m certainly not proposing that we fight the inevitable, or stop technological progress and advancement, I’d like to offer some suggestions as a way to have more physical experiences in our lives amidst the growth of all things digital:
1. Pick a Day a Week to Disconnect from the Digital World: Remember we’re talking about only one day a week. Use that day to engage with the physical world – trust me, it still exists. Choose something you’re passionate about that is physical and doesn’t have a digital extension to it, i.e., skiing down a mountain, cycling through a forest without your cell in your pocket, playing with a child on the beach, or discussing philosophy over dinner at the table with a friend without your iPad or iPhone in a bag by your feet.
2. Practice Using Your Brain Not Just Your Digital Pacifier: When you’re tempted to rely on something digital to get you through an experience, choose a time when you don’t need to rely on it and use your brain instead. A great example is your car navigation system.
The time to do this is obviously when you’re not in a hurry to get from A to B. It’s an interesting exercise for those who have relied on a nav system for awhile now. Male friends have commented that they have lost their acute directional sense since they put that part of their brain to rest for awhile. It’s not unlike what happened with the introduction of calculators and over time, discovering how hard it was to do math on the fly.
3. Automate some of your Digital Life: While it’s important to have a presence on the web if you run a company or work for one, and as part of it, engage, engage, engage, some of it can be automated. Focus on the voices and conversations that matter to you most and automate the rest.
The more scattered your presence, the less you can truly engage and prioritize on the people and passions you most identify with. It’s not just about numbers. Quality matters and quality takes time, concerted time and effort.
4. Become the Artist you’re Designed to be and Backburner the Rest: Create don’t react. Remember that you don’t have to respond to everything and everyone all the time. When we’re constantly responding to things on our screen, the “lizard brain” is taking over, not the genius inside us. When we’re reacting to online chatter, there’s less time to “create our true art,” which is our gift to the planet while we’re alive to share it. In other words, our purpose.
As Seth Godin writes in Linchpins, one of my favorite books this year, “the Lizard Brain often sabotages the progress we have made and stops us from creating our best work.” Refer to a great post Seth wrote on ‘quieting the lizard brain.’
In my opinion, albeit one of the most useful things to hit this decade, social media has given us so many distractions, that it’s difficult to take a step back and realize that we don’t have to choose and use it all.
Make the time to create the art you’re designed to create and the life you want to have.
Once we realize that we have a choice to pick and choose what’s most useful for us and leave the rest, we’ll create an opening to create our best art. Let’s remember that our digital personas are not the whole picture of our lives, just a piece of it.
As a wise Nepalese elderly man once said to me on my way up a long Annapurna trail many years ago, Patience on your journey grasshopper, patience.