People want to customize their lives. They want to go in and out of all the places they are because the thing that matters most to them, is control over where they put their attention.
This quote from Sherry Turkle has haunted me since I heard it in the fascinating NPR segment “Are We Plugged-In, Connected, But Alone?” that looks at how devices and online personas are redefining human connection. It haunts me because having control over my attention is exactly what I crave.
In the NPR piece Turkle tells a surprisingly emotional story of a routine experiment with a robot named Paro that looked like a baby seal. It was designed to comfort the elderly and it changed her outlook on how humans interact with technology:
This robot was with an older woman who’d lost a child. And there was a group of us standing around […] to watch the reaction of this older woman. And she was pouring out her heart about losing this child, and she was comforted by this robot. This robot made her feel understood. […] I looked around and saw that this was being appreciated as progress.
[…] And I felt profoundly depressed.
Wow, what a bummer story to listen to between proudly multi-task managing my personal relationships through the internet and being uber productive. F-yeah, controlling my own attention like a BOSS.
And then it suddenly hit me: am I a horrible person for thinking that controlling my own attention by maintaining relationships through tweeting, texting, and e-mailing is maintaining a real life personal relationship?
Holy crap. Maybe she is right.
I looked at my phone and felt a rush of guilt. Damn that cute little robot.
The day progressed and the feelings imposed by Turkle’s words slowly drifted to the back of my psyche. I wasn’t feeling bad enough to change my behavior immediately but I was curious, what if she is right? What if we are slowly drifting into a disconnected state of vulnerability and society is going to implode on itself, all at the hands of social media and the devices that deliver it to us.
I started experimenting with my own dependencies on feeling connected; thinking through my actions, monitoring my level of comfort and rating my interaction with the people I was connecting with. I began to take out my phone in social situations to check Twitter only after I saw another person do so first. I analyzed my friends and relationships; was the way I was connecting with them hindering or helping my life? This was not a scientific experiment but more of a personal check-in.
Sure, I might be a little biased, but for an NPR story to hit me so hard I felt like it was worth the extra effort to just make sure I was on a path that I felt good about.
I slowly became hyper-conscious of my connectivity and that was making me feel more anxious and negative than the “loneliness” that Turkle suggested. I checked in with myself and the positive feelings of being connected far outweighed the feelings I had when I was forced to not be. And sure, I could try harder to relate with the people around me, but the level of engagement that exposed me to was at the mercy of convenience. That still allowed for comfortable pauses in my life to connect with other people who also were in a similar state of life-pause.
After many months of milling this over I decided that I am plugged in, connected but definitely not alone. Social media has done very much the opposite, it has actually brought me closer to the things I love. As a passionate and possibly OCD designer, the social web has given me the remarkable opportunity to choose my relationships based on interest, not on coincidental factors like location and I can control my attention at a level never before possible. I can instantaneously transport myself to any intensely stimulating conversation on a topic I care about. As someone who has always struggled with controlling my attention, this has propelled me to a state of uber productivity.
But this is just me and maybe you see things differently. I would love to hear from you. Listen to Turkle’s NPR piece and tell me, do you feel that the connected world we live in is leading you down a path to vulnerable distraction?