Jonathan Groves, Ph.D., is assistant professor of communication and manages the media blog Changing Journalism.
You see them everywhere: Faces buried in electronic screens, whisking consciousness to someplace else. Our phones buzz with the latest txt messages and voicemails from someplace else. Our email and Twitter streams provide updates from someplace else. Our laptops allow us to glimpse pictures and videos from someplace else.
Don't get me wrong. As a media and technology scholar, I heartily embrace the power of this new era, which has leveled the information playing field and allows individuals to share their messages with the world. The "people formerly known as the audience" — as author and scholar Jay Rosen calls them — no longer are at the mercy of the mass media. Virtual communities can now form through social media to overthrow dictators and effect profound change.
But under less volatile conditions, this always-on, ever-connected state can disconnect us from the physical moment of here.
About a year ago, I listened to a podcast of KCRW's "To The Point" that featured a segment provocatively titled, "Hooked on Gadgets, Muddling Our Minds?" Andrew Blum, a writer for Wired magazine, talked about the desire for "the long thoughts," deep thinking spurred by unplugging from technology. Another panelist, author William Powers, talked about his family's Internet-free weekends to reconnect emotionally: Turn in the cell phones, shut down the computer modem, and concentrate energy here.
Technology-free zones are popping up elsewhere as well. Rogue 24, a fine dining establishment in Washington, D.C., now requires patrons to promise not to use cell phones or PDAs in the dining room. Executive Chef and Owner RJ Cooper told Fox Business News: "Even if you don't care about other patrons' experiences, think about your own dining companion, sitting there being ignored while you use your phone. It's just bad manners."
Still, my inner geek clings to the instantaneous virtual connections. I love to snap pictures as life happens and tweet the latest events from the everyday.
Recently, my family and I traveled to the Branson Zipline, which allows you to zip across a high wire through the treetops of Taney County. Though I wanted to bring my cell phone along to capture the moment, I didn't want to risk dropping it from the heights of the line.
After some orientation and safety lessons, we walked across rope bridges to approach the first wooden platform, perched some 50 feet above the ground. Several in our group — including me — were a bit daunted by the prospect of flying through the air with only a clip and harness supporting us. But one by one we went on faith, zipping down the first line. By the fourth and final zipline, we were buoyed by adrenaline and ready for more.
Though I didn't have my phone, our guides had taken some pictures of us during the trip, which were available for purchase at the end. As I pondered buying one, my son said semi-jokingly, "We don't need pictures. We'll remember it."
How right he was. We could rely on our memories, our biological ability to remember here from our own senses, from our deep connection to that thrilling moment when we stepped off the wooden ledge, into the void, silently praying we'd make it to the other side.