Looking for a Life Less Mobile
The Internet is my morning coffee. Coffee is also my morning coffee, but I brush the sleep from my eyes and get my brain going by performing an intricate Web-based routine where I try to consume as much information as possible before 9 a.m. The routine is choreographed tightly at this point: wake up, roll over, check phone for texts and calls. Now it's time for Gmail. I have three accounts. Then Facebook. Twitter. Instagram. I used to check Pinterest, but not as much anymore -- I got tired of seeing misattributed inspirational quotes and rustic wedding favors before noon. I check in on the quitting smoking thread on Reddit. I also used to check Klout, but I think it's designed to give you low self-esteem if your last name isn't Kardashian.
Then, it's on to the news, but I've already learned about any monumental event from social media. I heard about Bin Laden's death and my grandma's heart attack first on Facebook. Sandy Hook broke over Twitter. Members of my high school class provided an online play-by-play of the recent Alabama-Notre Dame game via status updates and tweets.
You'd think I'd be inundated or overwhelmed at this point, but I'm not. New York Times, Gawker, BBC and a slew of tech blogs next get my attention. Then I go to my fun sites: Buzzfeed, Videogum and Flavorwire. I hear music using Songza or Spotify. Did I mention I work remotely? All interaction with my co-workers, bosses, interview subjects and anyone I talk to professionally occurs on my phone or computer. I've had one in-person interview in the past year. I've never met any of the people who hired me face-to-face. Emoticons are a way more essential part of my life than I ever could have imagined.
Born This Way
So, when the CES keynote centered on the idea that young people are now "born mobile," I realized they were aiming at my demographic, albeit in broad strokes. Qualcomm chief executive Paul Jacobs spoke about how mobile technology is expanding, thanks to the way younger generations adopt smartphones, tablets and other mobile tech as essential extensions of themselves, necessities.
"Mobile is breaking down barriers and bridging the digital divide," he said, emphasizing the positive impact of the technology he sells.
The tone was jubilant, calling the embrace of technology empowering. Or so the Internet tells me -- of course, I wasn't there in person, just looked at it online. Continuation of the mobile boom is seen as inevitable, an unstoppable paradigm shift where people increasingly consider gadgets as prerequisites for communication. Jacobs said the expansion of mobile will empower us. He didn't mention that the growth of his business, along with throngs of other mobile-focused endeavors, hinges on this continued embrace of mobile tech.
He's not wrong, at least not about the way mobile is so wholeheartedly embraced. I see it in my teenage siblings, who Snapchat and Voxer their ways to relationships and only spell out "you" in academic papers. And I see it in myself. I could kiss the ground with gratitude for Skype, which kept my relationship going despite international distance. The Chase banking app lets me avoid dealing with the most obnoxiously narrow parking spaces in the world in front of my branch. And even though Facebook may or may not be warping my brain, it's probably the most important communication tool in my life, sustaining multiple friendships and helping me create a record of my life.
When Jacobs talks about expanding mobile reach to encompass an "Internet of Things," I get a tingle of nervous energy. I'm a tech-lover and I get inappropriately rage-y at articles about how Facebook is creating massive social alienation or video games trigger violence. On the whole, I think our lives are better for having technology in them.
My beliefs are buoyed by reports of how tablets support learning, how smartphones are used as powerful emergency tools, how people connect with relatives using the Internet. Technology can be mind-blowingly wonderful. I wouldn't have my career without it. I wouldn't know where half of my friends are. I wouldn't have felt so comfortable three years ago packing up and moving from Chicago to Seoul if I knew my loved ones wouldn't be a simple mouse click away.
Not So Fast... Or Maybe Just a Bit Too Fast
But I'd be lying if I said it was all good. I'm basically the Fonz at writing e-mail and keeping in touch through texts and instant messages, but I get weirdly nervous when one of my friends wants to talk on the phone. Over Christmas, my old roommate called to catch up after a period of not talking. Though she and I have a deep bond, cemented by a summer gone full hippie and sleeping in a leaky tent, I admitted how anxious it made me to think of things to say on the spot, to be expected to banter, to hear her voice immediately instead of reading her words on a screen. She was surprised.
"Aren't you a writer?" she asked, perplexed how someone who pokes her nose into things for a living could feel bashful talking to someone she'd been to over four music festivals with. I tried to explain, but she's a rare 25-year-old who avoids social media and genuinely has no idea what "Android" means. She's also a successful and respected artist, and I wonder if these things don't have anything to do with each other.
Conducting professional work from home gives me freedom, but leaves me feeling awkward and extra-nervous when I do have to meet people face-to-face to network. In college, I called alumni as part of a fundraising team, and barely batted an eye at the prospect of ringing up hundreds of people a day, even when they were rude. Now, it gives me itchy palms to dial an unfamiliar number. I still do it, but I get a pit of sharp anxiousness in my stomach when I hear a voice on the other end. I joke to my friends about being a hermit, but it's one of those that comes uncomfortably close to the truth -- more sad than funny. I may develop scurvy.
In some ways, technology is the best thing in my life. I am grateful to be part of the mobile generation, and I have no doubt these innovative companies will continue to expand their scope and develop paradigm-shifting new technology -- still waiting for hovercrafts though, come on science! And I'm okay with that.
Getting Closer or Pushing the World Away
But sometimes, this lifestyle makes me sad and makes me wonder if I wouldn't be better off taking a step back. Returning to work as a lifeguard at North Avenue Beach in Chicago, where I looked out on a glittering tumble of gentle morning waves on early June days. Sand got in between my toes and I leaned up against a rowboat with chipping paint. People walking their dogs came up and chatted with me. That's what I did as a teenager, and I didn't see the Internet all day. We weren't allowed to have our Nokia nugget cell phones on duty, but even if we did, we wouldn't have had much to look at besides SMS and that Snake game. Life felt visceral and vivid.
There are still lifeguards, obviously, but I wonder how they do it, if it feels the same -- to go through the day without gulping gigabytes of information with their eyes, without Instagramming pictures of the sunset from Beach 5. Maybe -- probably -- they're sneaking their phones out there. I feel like I can't be a successful person and step offline. Like I was born mobile but I can't stop moving. It's not necessarily a bad thing, and I think it's kind of how things are going to be for me from here on out. But sometimes I feel like I'm using technology to try to slice towards the center of life and I'm actually cultivating a thicker barrier between me and everything else. ♦
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