Off The Grid

The average human brain has one hundred billion nerve cells wired together with a million billion connections, a truly incredible statistic I read in a magazine during a recent holiday.  The key part of the previous sentence is the ‘read in a magazine’ bit.  That’s because of late, I haven’t been reading much of anything that wasn’t displayed on a screen, be that desktop computer, laptop, iPad and iPhone.  My phone spends more time with me than my girlfriend: what Steve Jobs has joined together, let no man put asunder.

It was her idea for me to forgo the gadgets for the duration of our holiday. Actually, it was more like a challenge, a request that I realized lay somewhere between giving me an option or an ultimatum.  I don’t think we were in “Either the phone goes or I do” territory, but I could tell she meant it.

We joked about my going off the grid as if I were Jason Bourne.  But the always on, always receiving lifestyle empowered by mobile internet and social networking services had become so natural, so much a part of me, that I would reach to check my iPhone like a smoker desperate for a drag.  And in terms of gadget use, I’m a sixty a day man, no filters, heavy tar.

Would I survive a week without the digital equivalent of my grandfather’s Capstan Full Strength or was there a risk that I would fall victim to electronic cold turkey, waking up the middle of the night in a cold sweat with an overwhelming need for FaceBook?  How would I cope without email, news feeds, alerts, likes, check-ins and all the other fixes of smart phone addiction?

In a nutshell, would I be set free or would I simply short circuit?    Only time would tell.

Behind my flippancy, however, I’m willing to admit that I entered into this experiment more as a willing volunteer than as Renton in ‘Trainspotting’ being boarded up in his bedroom.  My professional life is to manage data: mine, yours, everybody’s.  I work for a global IT company that provides the data protection solutions underpinning our digital universe.  That means in a small way, it’s kind of my fault.

Even without the nudging, I had already begun to feel that things were getting a little out of hand.  Ever since the Crackberry we’ve been making jokes about people being addicted to their gadgets.  But I always thought of these people as upgrades to the ostentatious, showy types who in a more innocent age would bellow “I’m in the bank” into their brick-like cell phones.  Back then, my own mobile was one of those old fashioned devices that functioned as, well, you know, a phone.  The idea of doing anything more esoteric with a handset was something I was happy to leave to the loud voices and large suits.  Nowadays, however, data plan permitting, we’re all doing it.  And I was doing it more than anyone I know.  First thing in the morning, last thing at night and most points in between.

Which brings me back to the magazine article I read.  The human brain is an incredible supercomputer: more powerful, more capable, more bewildering than anything we can dream of building today.  And yet it has its weaknesses.  Whilst the brain’s capacity as a storage medium is almost limitless, it doesn’t have great bandwidth.  Given time and training most of us could memorise the entire text of ‘Hamlet’ just don’t ask us to do it all at once.  Increasingly, we may live in ‘The Matrix’ but unlike Keanu Reeves, we can’t fly a chopper or master a martial art in less time than it takes to blink an eye.  Want to know Kung Fu?  Learn.

And this, for me, is the problem with the any time, any place, anywhere vision of a connected world that digital movers and shakers want us to believe in right now.  If our transmitter is always switched to the ‘on’ position, our bandwidth is saturated.  When 20% of drivers are using mobile devices to access the Internet whilst driving, something is clearly going wrong with the positioning of their antennae.

In his influential best seller, “A Whole New Mind: Why Right-brainers Will Rule The Future”, the author and commentator, Daniel Pink, argued that creativity is the key competitive feature that will help businesses and individual distinguish themselves from the commoditisation of the world around them.  Pink identified six essential senses driving this movement: design, story, sympathy, empathy, play and meaning.

Increasingly, we may live in ‘The Matrix’ but unlike Keanu Reeves, we can’t fly a chopper or master a martial art in less time than it takes to blink an eye. Want to know Kung Fu? Learn.

Whilst I find his thesis persuasive, it’s also somewhat ironic; these attributes are as close as you can get to a definition of Apple but it’s Apple that is doing more than anyone to change our relationship with creative potential.  What if all these wonderful digital tools are having the opposite effect.  What if we are so busy absorbing we have no time and space in which to create ourselves?  Heavy users of smartphones and tablets may feel they are becoming smarter but increasingly, the evidence points the other way: our critical faculty suffers when we can’t see the wood for the trees.  As the author, Margaret Heffernan, wrote in a recent article, ‘How to be Productive: Stop Working’, what society needs “isn’t distracted Blackberry addicts, but human beings who haven’t forgotten the gifts of focus, concentration and mindfulness”

Before our vacation, I think this was the truth of my situation, which is why it was time to re-subscribe to the world around me rather than the world in my pocket.  With blogging and tweeting, RSS and Facebook, email and text messages, web pages and apps, I was just passing the bucket along the line rather than than wondering what was actually in the bucket and whether I could do something better myself.

After a lovely, non-stressful week, during which time I maintained complete digital silence, I believe the experiment was a great success.   My girlfriend said she much preferred the partner who was more interested in checking her feelings than checking in on Foursquare.  She liked not sharing me in a small ‘L’, no button kind of way.  And did the world stop functioning because there was one less node on the grid?  Let’s just say there were no ripples in the force, just in the hotel pool.

Freed from the pressure of relentlessly trying to keep up with the internet, I enjoyed being able to do other things, such as noticing how just about everybody else had their nose buried in a small, glowing screen except me.  I remember when having the first iPhone felt like I was part of an exclusive club.  Now I was in the special group for not having one.

It felt like a forgotten pleasure to find a chair by the pool in late afternoon and curl up with a glass of wine and a good book to read.  A proper book, with pages and that lovely, crisp, printerly smell of ink and glue.  I read or re-read several novels that week but the one that gave me most pleasure was a story I first encountered as a seventeen year old when computers were for geeks and I was studying to read English at university, which in those days felt like a rejection of all things tech.

But whilst I can’t quite believe how different my interests are these days, I still liked the novel.

Far from the madding crowd.  You’ll like it.

And the book isn’t bad either.