More or less connected

    More or less connected

    The more connected you are, the less you are connecting.

     I am at a conference. I am so busy rephrasing what the speakers are saying into 144 characters that I am not really listening to what they say. If I’m not Tweeting, I’m checking my email because of course there is a wireless Internet connection. My mobile phone is in Silent mode but I can SMS. I’m really connected. In actual fact, I am not fully connected to the time and place and the people around me.

     I am on a trip. I am so preoccupied with taking pictures to upload to my Facebook page that I am missing the experience. When I’m not taking pictures, I’m composing captions for them. In actual fact, I am not fully connected to the time and place and the people around me.

     I am tending my Yammar account. I am so busy looking at reports and video clips people think I should find interesting and relevant that I don’t have time to read them let alone do my work. If I do, the digital articles are so littered with sidebars and links to other interesting things to read that I end up skipping through cyberspace like a flat rock on a smooth pond. Here is a small sample of what I found the last time I ‘connected’:

     A National Geographic article: Africans Must Adapt to Drought in Warming World: Report (2 pages, with a video)

    • A list of really interesting blogs and resources on research communication I should look at (17 posts, average word length 200 words, each with a ‘continue reading’ link)

    • A Human Development report on women (98 pages)

    • An article I should read on Documenting change: An introduction to process documentation (41 pages)

    • An article by The Global Horticulture Initiative about the use of video for knowledge sharing and training in the field (47 pages)

     Just this small selection gives me at least 200 pages of reading material. Yes, I know it’s my choice, but I respect my colleagues. If someone thinks something is interesting or relevant, I take their workd for it. It seems rude not to look at what they have sent. Reading two hundred pages and viewing videos is a good day’s work. Make that a day and a half because I have to spend time finding and posting things that I think my colleagues should find interesting and relevant and Tweet the world that I’m having a coffee break and post photos of the conference to my Facebook page. If I don’t, I will not be “participating”.

     I stop and reflect: Who am I actually connecting with and what is the nature of my ‘connection’?

     Does it matter who I am actually connecting with and the nature of our connection? Not really. Within the world of social media there is little discussion but lots of “reporting”. As long as I am receiving and offering comment I have a presence, I exist as a cyberperson. I create the image of that person. Substance is no currency here. The currency is ‘connecting’. The “medium is the message”.

    Some readers will recognize that phrase, a few will know it was coined by Marshall McLuhan, a few will know the book “Understanding Media” published in 1964. In McLuhan’s own words, “the message of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs…. The medium is the message because it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action.”

    Social media have expanded the scale of my work and accelerated the pace. I am now expected to be available at all times to all people. I am in no one place and time but in all places at all times. I effectively give my employer permission to exploit me by being always available. I think I am “multitasking” but in reality I am giving my life over to work and becoming increasingly inefficient in the process.

    I fear we are allowing under the spell of the more technological connotations of ‘connect’.  Connecting used to give me an intellectual buzz. Some years ago I attended a lecture by Paolo Friere and another by Edward de Bono. Both knew how to connect with an audience. Someone would ask Friere a question and he would say, “Let me come back to that point.” Fifteen minutes later he would turn and point to the person and say, “Now, that question you asked earlier….”. De Bono sat on a bar stool and doodled on an overhead projector the whole time he spoke and he was riveting. I was riveted because neither speaker was using PowerPoint and there was no wireless Internet or mobile phones and I didn’t have anything to distract me from what they were saying. I was fully connected to the time and place and the people around me.

    In his recent book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr refers to the Internet as “a technology of distraction”. The subtitle of the book is “How the Internet is changing the way we read, think and remember”. Carr looks at a large body of past and current research in neuroscience, cognition and social psychology and draws this conclusion:

     “…the net is literally rewiring our brains, inducing only superficial understanding. As a consequence, there are profound changes in the way we live and communicate, remember and socialize–even in our very conception of ourselves. By moving from the depths of thought to the shallows of distraction, the web, it seems, is actually fostering ignorance.”

    Yes, there is LOTS of interesting stuff out there. It’s great that other people are finding interesting things relevant to their work. But not everything is interesting to me or relevant to my work. Yes, I am interested in what some other people are reading and watching, but I am more interested in what they think about what it. The price of being constantly connected may well be not only ignorance but indifference and alienation.