What Does It Mean to Disconnect?


Are we too connected to our gadgets? Many journalists and social thinkers seem to think so. Are we all too fixated on emailing, tweeting, just plain staring at our screens to participate in the world around us? The answer may be more complex than that, but you won’t find it in posts like this recent effort from TechCrunch:

[O]ur obsession with technology, the right and wrong of it, the speed with which we have to create, consume, and engage with it, is not sustainable. People aren’t meant for this, not forever. It’s an imperfect state of being. We humans are always looking for balance. Today’s parents are realizing that they can’t achieve work/life balance with their children, for example. The same goes for technology. Tech/life balance is a similar myth. There’s no such thing, not really. You’ve just gotten used to it in the same way a coffee drinker gets used to caffeine. The effects are still there, but you don’t feel them until the drug is gone.

These sentiments will likely resonate with many tired of seeing iPhones whipped out during dates and family events, but we should recognize that they are based on emotion rather than careful analysis. As Nathan Jurgenon observed on Twitter, the post equates disconnecting from technology with not looking at a screen. Online and offline are synergistic—Facebook is, after all, populated by real beings rather than machines. Our entire motivation for going online is the real-life social and professional networks embedded into our technologies. I post a cat picture, for example, in part because I know that certain people on my FB field will find it enjoyable. I’m also motivated to log on because I care about the people in my network and use Facebook as a means of following their lives. I may see Alex Olesker and CTOVision alum Dillon Behr in person, but social networks are also an important way for me to keep in contact with them. It doesn’t replace in-person contact, but as Jurgenseon says, “[I]f we can fix this false separation and view the digital and physical as enmeshed, we will understand that what we do while connected is inseparable from what we do when disconnected.”

This leads us to the more troubling implication of the recent trend of “disconnect” pieces: they confuse disconnecting from technology with disconnecting from social and professional networks. The TechCrunch post bemoans the way that the demands of modern work life and social life motivate people to constantly plug in. But is the problem technology, or modernity itself? There is nothing said in the post that sociologists like Georg Simmel or Zygmunt Bauman have not said better over a hundred year period: modernity is fast-paced and constantly demands stimulation and attention. And what is the solution? Unmaking the structure of modernity is not really a reasonable option for most workers and consumers. The TechCrunch post at least looks at some technological solutions for making automated agents take on the burden of connection, but that’s not without significant problems either.

Having Internet-of-Things automated agents handling one’s life does not constitute disconnection. People will still monitor their agents, as they cannot isolate themselves from the social and professional consequences of what those agents do. There is something also highly bizarre about the idea of handing progressively larger and larger slices of one’s social and professional lifeworlds to robots in order to combat technological alienation from everyday life? It may be more efficient, and less stressful, but let’s not pretend that it somehow means a decoupling of information technology from our social life. Wouldn’t that also alienate us more? To take an example from the online dating industry, it’s one thing to use OKCupid’s sophisticated matching systems to help us find a mate, another to entrust those systems with handling replies to messages sent from prospective suitors.

If people highly value their work life and social networks, why should they be ashamed of using technology to interact with them? Calls to unplug and the fetish-making of being “offline” should be seen for what they really are: a fantasy of solitude that privileges the individual’s absolute desire to be free from the demands of the outside world. Is selective disconnection good or helpful? Sure, everyone could use a break. But the assumption that taking a break is somehow revolutionary has to go, as it inevitably privileges solipsism. Taking a break does not mean that you escape from the consequences of larger networks you are personally embedded in. The IRL fetish is at heart an urge to have the control necessary to be an island whenever you want to be. Sherry Turkle , for example, can run off to Cape Cod to completely withdraw from family, friends, colleagues, and the rest of the world. Not everyone has that luxury, but not everyone needs or wants it.

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Jerry Schmidt

The idea of “disconnecting” may well be rooted in the dehumanizing aspect of technological communication;that is, communicating exclusively through a social or business network. I value face-to-face contact (I work for a company that deals almost exclusively with governments) and I work tradeshows and seminars as a face-to-face networking opportunity. The question is, what is your PERSONAL technology limit? Mine has a relatively low threshold, but I don’t force that parameter on my co-workers. I insist that my kids unplug and talk directly to us, their parents (I know, enormously cruel) but I do that to ingrain in them that communication is first and foremost a PERSONAL thing, not a way to fill up spaces on a screen. If you need to “stay connected” for work, do so; I cannot and will not judge. If the “connections” are the only way you interact, I feel sorry for you. You need to get away from the machines and interact with real people in real time in the real world. Granted, that may be too much “real” for some people, but it’s not fatal.

Cat Robinson

Great zooming out Bob.

Jerry I think as a parent it is great that you are “enormously cruel” by teaching your kids the value of face-to-face interaction, for this is the first time we have had to “teach” this.

I think the beauty in digital connection is it’s reach. Hypothetically: say you and grampa have a google hangout every Sunday because he lives remotely. I think where it becomes a problem is when grampa is present for Sunday dinner…and you are tweeting about it, rather than just being in the moment.