Sunday, August 24, 2008

"Connected, Yes, but Hermetically Sealed"

I often don't agree with Ben Stein's writing, but his column in today's NY Times Business section hit home.

...what I have seen of the loss of solitude and dignity is terrifying among those who travel and work, or even who stay still and work. They are slaves to connectedness. Their work has become their indentured servitude.

I feel this more and more. Despite, or because of, having worked, played, thought, and consumed time for more than 25 years now in front of screens and keyboards big and small, I find myself more and more reluctant to do so when I have any discretionary time. I think this is because of what Stein writes about -- a sense of indenturedness. Despite all the benefits I have gotten for myself, my family, and my colleagues and my co-workers from technology, it is starting to feel like a burden, something I need to get away from (even as I find myself reaching for the Blackberry to see if I've gotten any new email, five minutes after the last time I've done so). Every minute away from a screen, whether spent reading, on a bicycle, doing something else outdoors with my kids or by myself, playing music, bringing stuff back from the garden, feels like a gift. Being back in front of the screen -- even if doing something ostensibly worthwhile, like writing this, or valuable yet mandatory like keeping up with work stuff even while on vacation -- feels something like succumbing. It is ironic that so much of my computational time is about communicating with other people -- email, IM, twitter, blog, facebook, on and on -- yet it so rarely about truly connecting.

I often say to my family that the reason I'm not working on my phd research as much as I should be is because, in the small amount of discretionary time I have, I don't want to spend even more of it in front of a screen. I already spend 70-100 hours a week "there". That is only partly true, good old procrastination has something to do with it as well.

Really it's not at all the screen that's the problem. It's the working in isolation while in front of the screen, even if surrounded by others, like on the airplanes Stein talks about where everyone is looking at their PDAs. Compendium, to me, has its roots, and its value, not so much in being yet another application to create representations and manipulate symbols (though yes it's a good one for that). Its real value is using it in live events, places where people are interacting with each other as well as with the screen. It's where my motivation came from, and still comes from, and it's probably because such Compendium events have become rare for me in the past few years that it has started to feel thinner. I want and need to get back to the live event, the collective and collaborative shaping that people do together, that for me the tool is most designed for.