Time Out

I spent most of this year away from social media, and as far as possible away from the internet too. I have nothing against the net, but I wanted to give myself chance to answer a question which came to me one Sunday morning this spring as I was walking: what does “connection” mean?

I hear a lot about “staying connected” – the phrase is used repeatedly to emphasise an apparent need to plug in, post, share stories, provide some personal news, or at least let people know that we are still available, online, reachable. We are being told, over and over, that we need to be – should be, must be – networked.

The word “connected” is also used to express more traditional meanings: keep in the habit of face-to-face contact, call your friends, send birthday cards, go meet new people. Do these meanings contradict the hyper-modern networked connections defined in the press, in the media, in the marketing messages of so many social networking services? Do we even know how to tell the difference?

Earlier this year, in spring, I was walking, early one morning, in the countryside near my home. At the start of these walks I turn off my iPhone: I like to be alone for the hour or so the walk lasts, to give me time to think.

This particular walk, though, was interrupted half-way through: I realised I’d forgotten to turn off my phone, and although there had been no calls, no messages, no notifications, no alarms, I found myself feeling distracted – intruded upon, almost. Not by the people who might have called me, but by the phone itself. The fact that my iPhone was connected to its normally ever-present network of websites, social networking services, cell towers, and so on made all the difference. I turned the phone off.

It took me an hour to realise the most important point: the “connections” the phone had been providing me, 24/7, in the lead up to that walk had distracted me from my simple habit of turning the phone off. How is that a good thing? I love being able to keep in touch with my family and friends by phone, or my message, and I love being able to take photos and send them to others at the end of my walk, but if all this results in me feeling intruded upon by a small lump of metal and plastic that sits in my back pocket, then how can I regard this “connection” as anything other than bad?

I try to be nuanced in my judgement here: although my phone hadn’t been particularly busy that day, I was perhaps falling prey to what some have called “bath water syndrome”. I resented the phone because of one of the effects it was having me, and I resented being “networked” as I realised that, perhaps, that word meant things I did not want it to mean.

So I took some time out. I realised: how can I feel genuinely connected when that word is being used to communicates many different meanings as far ranging as “stay online”, “use social networks”, “make new friends”, or “go visit your parents”?

I’ve taken time to think about this and I have two conclusions:

  1. We use “connected” to mean too many different things. Marketing messages, particularly for social media, are a key problem here.

When I was younger, there were very few ways to stay “connected” via networks or devices (aside from telephones): most connections were made face-to-gave. That is no longer true. We may have more opportunities nowadays to form meaningful relationships with the world around us, but we are also prey to more distractions, more confusion, more choice.

With this modern freedom, we are required to chose for ourselves what we mean, how we think, what “self” and “other” are, how we inter-relate, and most importantly how we engage with a world so different in reality to the transient “post now, gone next” virtual world our lumps of metal and plastic connect us to.

Use your devices, your networks, your connections wisely. You are defining yourself; you are defining your world. As we define ourselves, and others, we define our experiences too: unless we pay attention to this key interaction between our decisions and our experiences, we are likely to become, in every sense of the word, lost.

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