Together At A Distance

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So much is being written about social media addiction that I hesitate to add my two cents. But I can’t resist—thanks to the sight of two young Asian couples playing cards in an upscale Vieques restaurant while waiting for their appetizers the other night. 

I was with two of my neighbors when we spotted them a few tables away. Our immediate reactions:

  • Why are they playing with real cards instead of gaming via digital devices?
  • Will this new phenomenon become rampant in American society, just as ubiquitous smart phone usage first emerged in Asia?
  • Why aren't they holding conversation?

My theory is that many of us have become bored with one another because there’s not much left to talk about when we’re face-to-face. After all, social media gives us a steady stream of the minute-by-minute doings and droppings of our “friends.”

Our friends fail to entertain us, so we seek third-party stimulation. A couple sitting side by side and each buried in a smart phone. Or a quick game of cribbage to keep us occupied until the salad arrives.

We can’t say this is a generational disease that singles out Millennials and Gen-Xers. The two Boomers below, for example, were waiting for their plane at San Juan’s airport on Thursday . . . 

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A new book was reported in The New York Times last week, Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked. In it, Dr. Adam Alter of New York University says that many of us—youngsters, teenagers, adults—are addicted to modern digital products. Literally addicted.

“The definition I go with is that it has to be something you enjoy doing in the short term, that undermines your well-being in the long term—but that you do compulsively anyway,” Dr. Alter explains. 

Here’s the paradox I see. Not only are we bored with one another, we don’t much like being alone with our own self either. So we escape ourselves with social media and gaming. Dr. Alter:

I spoke with a young man who sat in front of his computer playing a video game for 45 consecutive days! The compulsive playing had destroyed the rest of his life. He ended up at a rehabilitation clinic.

I remember reading about Mother Teresa in New York for a television interview. The story reported that while other guests were having make-up applied as they waited their turn to go before the cameras, Mother Teresa sat quietly by herself praying the rosary. 

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Mother Teresa at Harvard’s 1982 commencement, rosary in hand, waiting to be awarded an honorary law doctorate

John Akers, when he was chairman of IBM, described a friend as someone with whom you could drive cross-country and, when you get to your destination, sit with the engine idling while you finish your conversation.

I once went to dinner with some Silicon Valley clients—all of them working mothers. One brought along her son, who was about ten at the time. As the rest of us chatted away, the boy never said much beyond “hello” and “good-bye.” He was glued to his Game Boy the entire time.

That was at least a dozen years ago. Dr. Alter’s update:

If games and social media were once confined to our home computers, portable devices permit us to engage with them everywhere . . . Gaming and internet addiction is a really serious problem throughout East Asia. In China, there are millions of youngsters with it, and they actually have camps where parents commit their children for months and where therapists treat them with a detox regime.

I wrote speeches for Terry Lautenbach when he ran IBM’s most successful sales organization. I often flew with him to speaking engagements, before there was commercial phone service or wi-fi at 40,000 feet. But we seldom spoke aboard. He liked to sit silently staring out the window. “I’m on the go all the time,” he once explained to me. “Flying is my time to think.” 

I myself schedule on my daily calendar a half-hour for “Creative Thinking/Planning.” It’s the first thirty minutes of my day, when I’m slugging coal-black coffee, bursting with mental energy, and eager to sprint out of the blocks.

By the way, after leaving the restaurant last week, my neighbors and I sat in the car outside my house to finish our conversation. We find our real-life company very entertaining.


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  • followed this page 2017-03-12 09:18:33 -0400
  • commented 2017-03-11 10:06:36 -0500
    This is why I do not have a smart phone. I have no idea what Snapchat or Pinterest, etc., etc. are or how they would improve my life. I have a FaceBook account but I never use it. I have friends. We talk.