Ever Present Absent

They say to be careful what you wish for. Back around 2000 I wrote a report for Ferris Research on the emergence and growing adoption of wireless handheld devices, and how they allowed people to recapture moments of lost productivity throughout the day. Back then the majority of phones had 12 keys and a postage stamp sized screen, and people had to triple-tap to text. And you could call people; that was a thing. There was an advantage to being different, to having a device with a full keyboard and bigger screen that enabled interaction with better systems, which at that time was primarily email. We have come so far in 17 years, and yet we have lost so much along the way.

– The freedom to roam unhindered and untethered, to explore the world without having to check in, check up, hashtag, and share.

– The freedom to think. Privately. For extended periods of time.

– The time and space to explore a topic quietly without posting about the fact we are exploring it, which makes it a noisy and ineffective exploration, because the performance demands undermine the learning needs.

– The ability to meet up with others, without relying on micro-scheduling. “Where are you?” “I’m outside the café.” (Looking up) “Oh, yes, I see you.” The ability to give micro-updates on movements and time of arrival has devoured our patience; a 5-minute delay in someone arriving without notification is now cause for catastrophic concern.

Everywhere I look now I see people using “wireless handheld devices” (what an old-fashioned term) to engage with the Ever-Present Absent. With someone who isn’t really “there,” apart from their glowing representation through the pixels on a smart device. The light and life that could be shared with others physically nearby is sucked into the vortex of the device – and shared in pixellated form with other people physically far removed but virtually all-demanding. A tap, a like, a share, a poke, a comment. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

A grandmother commented to me about a recent breakfast with two grandsons. “The three of us had breakfast together this morning. I was on my iPad. And both of them were on their phones.” This is the Ever-Absent Present engaged with the Ever-Present Absent.

Our devices are better, but we have lost so much along the way.

We are forgetting how to be present with others, a state of being that’s much more than just existing in the same physical place. The ability to have a conversation without picking up devices, and without relying on carefully crafted sentences that give us time to portray ourselves in “the right way.” We are increasingly unwilling to expose the messy reality of our humanness, preferring to edit out anything that’s less than picture perfect. Sherry Turkle has explored this in her recent book on Reclaiming Conversation.

We are losing the ability to do the hard work of learning, growing, and developing mastery in a topic, prioritising endless pointless chatter over knuckling down and doing the work. Our brains are fried from the never-ending interactional demands; we have trained ourselves to rest momentarily on a topic and drink its easy sugar, and then move quickly before the going gets too hard. Cal Newport explores the costs and consequences in his book Deep Work.

We are paying the price in worsening mental health and decreased wellbeing. A study published earlier this year concluded that:

… while real-world social networks were positively associated with overall well-being, the use of Facebook was negatively associated with overall well-being. These results were particularly strong for mental health; most measures of Facebook use in one year predicted a decrease in mental health in a later year. We found consistently that both liking others’ content and clicking links significantly predicted a subsequent reduction in self-reported physical health, mental health, and life satisfaction.

And we are doing this to ourselves! And it’s not just Facebook.

While the emergence of wireless handheld devices was a pressing issue back in 2000, today’s pressing issues are about learning to get on with other people, recovering focus, rebuilding attention, and carving out spaces of disconnection for creativity and contribution beyond the microsecond.

Let’s start today. Do less with the Ever-Present Absent. Stop being the Ever-Absent Present. Put. Your. Phone. Away. Be present with the people in front of you in the real-world, not the fantasy world we have inhabited for too long.

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