The Digital Divide

Last modified on September 28th, 2009

Gillian Shaw had a great article today in the Vancouver Sun about what it means to unplug nowadays. I think as the penetration of computers, especially mobile internet, continues to spread, it’s going to be more and more relevant.

Without a doubt, I think people spend way too much time online these days. In fact, if anyone is guilty of that, it’s me. I was recently trying to think of memories from before the Twitter and Facebook eras, trying to remember what I used to spend most of my time doing. I remember having a lot of nice dinners with my ex, and also going for long walks from time to time. And while I try to power down the gadgets in the evening, I know without a doubt that disconnecting even further will ultimately make me a bit happier.

I’ve had many jobs where the expectation is that everyone is accessible 24/7. Not only do I think that’s extremely unhealthy, it’s obviously an unrealistic expectation for a company only paying you 40 hours a week. I remember back in the day I was fielding support calls from Yahoo! at around 11pm at night, knowing full well the entire Yahoo! team was still at work, trying to bring the next product to fruition. I used to check my email in the evenings and answer work emails late at night, something I try to do less and less with each passing month. The thing is, most problems aren’t so urgent that they can’t be answered in the morning. Successful guys like Tim Ferris even go as far to argue that you should only answer emails once a week. I’ve heard other people have great success with only checking email once a day. Ultimately I think the sweet spot for me is probably a few times a day.

Truthfully, in as much as the digital world makes some aspects easier, I find more and more that I look at it as a distraction. Many times I’ll be halfway down the rabbit hole in my head trying to solve a hard problem, only to be distracted by my phone ringing or my iMac beeping to let me know a new email has arrived. I suspect if these distractions were removed, I’d definitely have more productive days. And being more productive usually results in a better feeling at the end of the work day.

It’s often hard to determine if a technology is making things better, or making things worse. Sure, having Twitter active at an event helps people coordinate activities and keep up to date on things. But reading a Twitter stream from a conference I’m already attending isn’t very exciting, nor is hearing about everyone’s gripes on a daily basis. Also, receiving passive aggressive tweets from people who probably wouldn’t have the stones to say anything to you in the real world isn’t high on my list of fun either. In fact, having spent some of this weekend talking about finances, most social networks remind me of leveraged loans — sure, the good is sometimes amplified, but so is the bad.

I read an article years ago (and I really wish I had bookmarked it) saying that despite all these amazing advances in technology and communications, most people now feel lonelier and more removed from society than ever before. Bounce around Facebook on a Friday night, and you’ll often see the result of people sitting inside on a Friday night, glued to their monitors instead of out with friends. While we have online communities, the concept of a real community is slowly disappearing — how many people here actually know the names of their neighbors or the people down the street? I don’t.

Gillian made a tweet a while ago asking if us photographers sometimes left the cameras at home. It’s a good question, and I have a good answer. Years ago I flew down to Las Vegas to hang out with my friend Matt on his birthday. There were lots of people back home that would have loved to have been there, but couldn’t. So I spent most of that evening taking photos and uploading them to Flickr in real time. And when it was all over, I realized I didn’t really feel like a part of the event, since I basically viewed most of it through my camera lens. Nowadays, I often leave my camera at home when I go out to events, simply so I can enjoy it normally without the pressure or inconvenience of trying to snap a pile of photos. Don’t get me wrong, I like taking photos, but I’d rather do a leisurely stroll with my camera on the weekend than lug it all the way into Vancouver to try and take a few shots in a dimly lit bar.

So like most things, you have to take the good with the bad. Blogging has its ups and downs, and so does spending time on social networks. I can’t speak to others, but I know as I get older I’m purposefully trying to spend less and less time online. With this last iteration of my blog, I’ve attempted to make it easier to showcase photos and what-not, primarily so I can spend less time writing articles. Now that my personal life is returning back into sane territory, I fully expect that I’ll power the computers off most evenings and spend a bit more time with friends and family over the next few months, something I’m definitely looking forward to.

4 responses to “The Digital Divide”

  1. Verso says:

    I totally agree with you on unplugging. I try to unhook and stay unhooked from time to time.

    I turned off email notification years ago and that helps a LOT. If I’m waiting for something to come in, I am sitting there staring at my inbox and clicking “Check Mail” every three seconds anyway. Barring that, anything in there can wait until I have “email time”.

    I really don’t like the 24/7 availability you talked about. If I’m being paid for more time that is one thing, but it’s pretty common for people’s boundaries between work and home to blur these days. I understand times change, but what tragedy is REALLY going to happen if you don’t answer the phone from the It’s A Small World After All queue? Or don’t do that last “check email real quick before bed”? Try it and see what happens. Odds are good it will be nothing.

  2. Dale Mugford says:

    The irony of this entry is that it was written on a computer and requires people who read it to be connected to the internet.

    That said, I’ve seen your changes, and know you’re striving for a healthy balance in work and life that you will undoubtedly achieve, and if not, you’re fired : )

  3. Duane Storey says:

    Don’t really think it’s that ironic. I’m not saying people shouldn’t be on the Internet, just that people should strive for a proper balance.

  4. VancityAllie says:

    So true. I really relate to this, especially as a photographer.

    In the past few months I’ve been turning off the signal on my phone at 9 PM so I can have some “downtime”. I try not to check the computer or anything either at this time.

    I found it’s really helped with my sense of balance and happiness, and definitely helped my relationship.

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