Variable Rates of Connection

by Derek Coté

Thoreau understood that the path to a greater understanding of our life on earth is through an understanding of the natural world around us and of which we are part. I love my smartphone. I really do. Even though I am always a couple of models behind, I have to admit that I really love getting an upgrade. What’s not to love? Phones are increasingly getting sexier and smarter. The physical ergonomics of a new device is like being fitted with a highly-engineered appendage that can think for you – silky soft, tactile, and indispensable.

Ringfree is in the business of connecting people. Technology is a vital component of that process, and an internet connection is necessary in order for that technology to function effectively. However, while my phone allows me to quickly connect with people and information on a whim, it often hinders me from connecting on another level. I can think of several occasions where my phone has actually deterred me from interacting with my family even though we were sitting in the same room. By commanding my attention, it makes it so that I am always reachable, and is always enticing me with notices about the day’s news events (I’m also a news junkie). And let’s not forget about the time spent managing social media feeds, checking the weather, looking up recipes, and ordering socks online. In fact, research performed by Dscout suggests people engage in as much as 132 phone sessions per day. That’s 8-9 times per hour for the heaviest of users. Often without being prompted by an alert. Cell phone use has even been labeled as contagious much in the same manner a yawn is contagious. Due to the effects of social inclusion and exclusion, people are more likely to check their phone while in the proximity of someone who has just done so themselves. Sure, I could ignore my phone or activate the ‘Do Not Disturb’ function. Hell, I could turn it off. But I don’t. Because it’s there. And deep down I know that at any minute it’s going to deliver me some super important nugget of information.

Recently, prior to departing on a road trip through California, I used my smartphone (and my laptop) exhaustively to research locations, plan routes, and book accommodations for my colleagues and I. This is just how stuff gets done. My device’s retina display allowed me to get a really accurate visual sense of what our trip might be like, or so I thought. I was very excited about this road trip. I had traveled the U.S. extensively before this, seeing 46 of the 50 states by car, including Alaska and Hawaii. But this time was going to be different. In eight densely packed days, we were going to experience (experience is key here) a vastly diverse cross section of climates, cultures, and landscapes, from barren desert to ethereal alpine forests, while navigating multiple elevation changes exceeding 8,000 feet.

We remained well within cell range for most of the trip – even a very minimal 3G signal can abruptly bring a device to life. But for some of the trip, we had absolutely no signal whatsoever. One could see this as cause for panic. One could also recognize it as an opportunity to raise one’s head, experience one’s surroundings and deliberately make eye contact with others. Joshua Becker, author of The More Of Less, suggests that most of our time is spent either consuming or creating. Clearly, the argument can be made that technology helps us create. However, unplugging promotes creation and collaboration by virtue of the absence of the distraction of consumption. The German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, composed “the art of not reading’s ‘high-importance’.” Think of reading as his period’s version of being “connected.” His theory was that excessive reading could potentially lead otherwise clever minds (read creative) to become “the playground of others’ thoughts.” In other words, originality succumbs to emulation. There are other more basic, scientific reasons to unplug and spend time outdoors as well. These include improved short-term memory, restored mental energy, stress relief, improved concentration, sharper thinking, improved mental health and, perhaps most importantly, a reduced risk of early death.

On our California trip we spent much of our disconnected time actually connecting with each other, talking about business strategy, devising marketing plans, joking around, exploring and amassing content. Had we been plugged in, we likely would have forwarded each other links to articles or spreadsheets in lieu of actually discussing and solving problems. Instead, we took pictures, collected volcanic rocks, scouted canyons, made snowballs, and wandered amongst giants. In essence, we were reacting to the freedom being disconnected offered and were, therefore, insulated from the fear of missing out (FOMO), a psychological disorder introduced by the advance of social media.

Henry David Thoreau eventually returned to civilization after his time at Walden. His purpose was to isolate himself from society to gain a more objective understanding of it. Now that I am back — recharged and refocused — I can plug back in and get some work done. Hopefully I won’t get distracted.