It isn't just information we're gorging on. We're also snacking constantly, like freeloaders at an all-you-can-eat buffet, on personal digital relationships. All of this cyber-nourishment has a dark side.
On a recent vacation, my family Twittered, Facebooked, texted, and blogged our way through an eight-hour drive to the mountains. We were all having fun and connecting—just not with the other people in the car. When we finally arrived we discovered there was no cell signal. Panic set in. My teenage son railed against nature while envisioning his social life unraveling. His father lamented, "I have to work!" Me, I calmly decided to go for a walk—hoping I might find a signal. The uncomfortable feeling that we were missing out on something important overtook our intentions to enjoy downtime together.
I was a half-mile into my stroll before I wondered, Is there some reason I can't just go offline?
There's something seductive about being constantly connected, says cultural anthropologist Genevieve Bell, director of user experience at Intel's Digital Home Group. "In Western culture we are measured by the value of our network." A cell phone is a leash, tethering us to that network. The slight jolt that comes with a new text or e-mail reminds us we are connected to something bigger than ourselves and gives us a little thrill that we crave in its absence.
Dropping the leash is good for the soul, though. Humans function better when they occasionally disconnect, says Bell. "Every major religion has some sort of built-in break—Saturdays, Sundays, every few hours, a week each year. There is some time when you are supposed to stop and focus on God."
I pocketed my phone and enjoyed the view of the mountains. When I got back to the cabin, my family was sitting on the deck, admiring the snow that had just started falling. We had come here to have fun together, not poke at gadgets. So we went skiing, sledding, and had a snowball fight. Sure, we had to occasionally curb the urge to check phones that weren't connected to anything anyway. Three days later, even though we knew the cabin was completely off the grid, we all agreed to make this an annual thing.
TMI (Too Much Info)
According to Steven Petrow, a nationally syndicated etiquette columnist, technology keeps moving the thin line between public and private, leaving people unsure of the difference. I agree wholeheartedly, having suffered through multiple conversations with a friend who seems to think I won't notice if he goes to the bathroom while we're chatting. Unfortunately, he's not alone in this delusion. According to an Intel study, 75 percent of people believe it's okay to bring phones and laptops into public restrooms. "Just because people think something is okay does not make it so," says Anna Post, great-great-granddaughter of manners muse Emily Post and author of Do I Have to Wear White? (William Morrow).
When you add social media to the mix, boundaries get even blurrier. My buddy Alison, who asked that I withhold her last name to protect the guilty, has been shocked by things she has witnessed. "One of my Facebook friends posted before-and-after photos of her bunion surgery," she says. "I wish I had never seen those." Alison unfriended this person to avoid future too-graphic posts, but still. Outside of her realm, things are worse. According to a study by electronics shopping site Retrevo.com, 36 percent of respondents said they post to Twitter immediately after sex—about the act or their partner!
Advises Petrow: Remind yourself that anything you share could get reposted in other people's networks and spread like wildfire.