For someone who spent his high school years tinkering with the Visual Basic programming language and the inner-workings of Linux, I have approached technology in recent years with a surprising amount of unease. I am not on Facebook, for example. While I own a smartphone, it took me a good long while before I really integrated it into my life — joining the engrossed masses who put themselves in danger daily of running into a light pole. My record on twitter has been spotty. One or two tweets a day is about the most I can muster, and I’ve been known to leave the conversation for weeks.
I’m not sure when I developed this reluctance to embrace the new era of digital connectedness. It started growing as a just a vague sense, I think, during my years in Wisconsin — not as a repulsive force, but rather out of my being drawn the opposite direction. I spent a lot of time riding my bike out in the fresh air, reading paper books and paper newspapers, and spending time in coffee shops with friends. It wasn’t until a couple years later that I was able to articulate this notion, or rather, found it so clearly articulated by someone else. The travel writer Pico Iyer, in a column, described his life in Japan as unfettered by mobile phone calls or high-speed Internet, and instead filled with rambling walks and afternoons spent writing letters longhand.
So — as post-1960s cliché decreed — I left my comfortable job and life to live for a year in a temple on the backstreets of Kyoto. My high-minded year lasted all of a week, by which time I’d noticed that the depthless contemplation of the moon and composition of haiku I’d imagined from afar was really more a matter of cleaning, sweeping and then cleaning some more. But today, more than 21 years later, I still live in the vicinity of Kyoto, in a two-room apartment that makes my old monastic cell look almost luxurious by comparison. I have no bicycle, no car, no television I can understand, no media — and the days seem to stretch into eternities, and I can’t think of a single thing I lack.
This resonated with me. At the time, I was spending six days a week locked in front of a computer screen editing copy for a newswire. Meanwhile, what I longed to do was to travel, and immerse myself in the journey such that my sense of place would not be fractured by an impulse to share each step with a global Internet community, or by allowing the noise in. I mulled the idea of quitting all social media to embrace a purer life with just a notebook and pen. (OK, and email, too.)
I didn’t, of course. Maybe it was just addiction, but I would like to think it was because I was tempering this impulse with a measure of reality — something I think is missing from Iyer’s essay. Severing ties draws us inward and makes us less “of the world,” to borrow a friend’s phrasing. There probably isn’t much value in tweeting every thought that flits into our heads, or in poking people and scribbling on their walls (or whatever it is people do on Facebook). But there is also certainly something valuable about being able to partake in the wider discussion, and connect with views and perspectives around the globe.
The counterpoint to this, and perhaps the other extreme that Iyer would warn against, was described in an article in this Sunday’s Times by William Deresiewiscz called “Generation Sell.” While I would disagree with a lot of the finer arguments he makes, I think the author is spot-on in saying that many in my generation use social media to brand themselves, and carefully craft their outward message. I’m guilty of this myself — I think anyone who has been a freelance writer is. But the pressure to feed our own personal PR machines carries a real danger. It not only fractures our experiences by taking up considerable time and attention, it impinges our ability to really observe.
The key then is to strike a balance in this new world, somewhere between reclusive asceticism and full-out salesmanship, that allows us to communicate in a meaningful way while still being present. It’s not easy, but it’s something to work toward.