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Could You Live a Pre-Internet Life?


When Google's CEO is telling us all to take a break, it might be time to admit we have a connectivity problem.

MINYANVILLE ORIGINAL Just over a week ago, Eric Schmidt, the Executive Chairman of Google (GOOG), gave the keynote speech at Boston University's graduation ceremony. It was fitting that Schmidt -- a vital player in the digital revolution -- told these graduates about the advantages they've been afforded, the wealth of accessible information at their disposal, and the "new society" they've inherited. But what set the media abuzz, and imaginably distracted some graduating seniors from live tweeting the event on their palm-cradled devices, was Schmidt's ironic yet earnest plea.

"You can't let technology rule you," he told the crowd. "Remember to take at least one hour a day and turn that thing off. Do the math, 1/24th. Go dark. Shut it down. Learn where the OFF button is. Take your eyes off that screen and look into the eyes of the person you love. Have a conversation, a real conversation."

It might be called our digital addiction -- the constant need to be connected, plugged in, up-to-date. For now, pay less attention to Facebook's (FB) $16 billion IPO (and questions over its gloomy prospects) and more to the one billion users projected to be signed up by this August. The landmark number is a testament to our hyperconnected lives. And when Schmidt, whose own Google revolutionized how information is aggregated and accessed, is telling us all to take a break, it might be time to admit we have a connectivity problem.

Big numbers aren't necessarily a good thing.
When it comes to being connected, the statistics are a bit daunting. For example, the modern cell phone, which packs more computing power than the entirety of NASA circa 1969, has become the hub of our connected activities. A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2011 reported that 83% of American adults owned a cell phone, 35% owned a smartphone, and most took advantage of advanced capabilities like Internet and email. It might not be surprising that 42% of cell owners used their phone as entertainment when bored. However, 14% of respondents admitting to (at least once) pretending to be on the phone to avoid interacting with those around them is a little disturbing.

A national survey conducted by TeleNav (TNAV) in 2011 found 35% of respondents would give up sex for a week rather than hand over their mobile phones.

Constant connection is a necessity for the American business leader. The global marketing firm gyro, in collaboration with Forbes Insights, surveyed 543 executives -- from business owners to department heads -- for their @Work State of Mind Project. The findings
highlighted the shifting nature of where we're doing work with 59% of people polled making business decisions while at home, and 52% making them en route to the office.

It's imaginable that mobile technology is responsible for transforming work from a geographical location to a twenty-four hour mindset. If surviving in business is akin to Darwinian survival of the fittest, then what does connected living mean for the next generation of American businessmen and businesswomen?

Hyperconnectivity -- a term coined by Canadian social scientists Anabel Quan-Haase and Barry Wellman -- refers to the numerous ways technology currently connects people. Now it seems we're constantly pushing the boundary what might be considered "hyper." A study from Pew recently reported "96% of those ages 18-29 are Internet users, 84% use social networking sites, and 97% have cell phones," it's not hard to imagine a determinable shift in not only how people work, but how people think.

The same study, which referred to the Web as a depository for our "collective intelligence," surveyed over one thousand technology stakeholders and critics. Nearly half of the respondents agreed that the "impact of networked living on today's young will drive them to thirst for instant gratification, settle for quick choices, and lack patience."

Taking time off is a lost art.
J.B. MacKinnon is a Canadian author and journalist whose writing has earned him three National Magazine Awards and the 2006 Charles Taylor Prize for best work of Literary Non-Fiction for his semi-autobiographical Dead Man in Paradise. He's currently writing a book on the natural world of the past and how it's different from what we think of as the natural world today. In his research, he's reviewed the detrimental effects of hyperconnectivity, and the importance of time spent away from this type of technological engagement.

"The thing that you get from that time off is your processing time," he explains to Minyanville. "It's where you manage to put everything into a rational order and develop your world view. A lot of the people I've talked to about [it] who are biologists and psychologists...have said to me they speculate that because people don't have any contemplative time in their lives anymore, we're mostly developmentally frozen, and we don't have much empathy. We don't develop into fully empathetic human beings that are able to feel for other species."

MacKinnon's own experiences underscore the distance technology has placed between people and the natural world. Numerous times a year he travels to his cabin in the British Columbian wilderness, accessible only by a 40-minute train ride (and not by any road) from the already remote town of Terrace, BC. Disconnected for several weeks at a time, MacKinnon explains that the initial anxiety of being unplugged soon gives way to a feeling some of us might have long forgotten.

"By the end of it, I feel so settled-in, and so calm, and at ease and more aware. My brain literally feels like its temperature goes down."

MacKinnon recalls a neighbor -- one of two who live nearby, though MacKinnon can go for weeks without seeing either -- who moved in two years ago. He dug a trench, covered it with tarps and has been living in his hole ever since, while he slowly builds a cabin besides him. Far removed from any touch of the modern world, the man seems very content.

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