January 2012 Articles

Most people I know don’t have such heavy objections to technology. They are pragmatists. Most of the time they find their phones and connectivity useful, but sometimes they don’t. Sometimes all the texts and Twitter messages seem to strengthen bonds, but other times they weaken them. They understand that the technology isn’t forcing them to do anything, even if they suspect that it guides their actions in ways that they need to be aware of.

And for the past couple of days, a great example of this kind of thinking has been making its way around the Tumblr ecosystem. A San Francisco dancer named Brian ‘Lil B’ Perez and his friends came up with a game to constrain their cellphone use when they’re out having dinner. Here are the simple rules…

I hadn’t been offline for more than a few hours in two and a half years – and only then because I was on safari in Botswana and had no choice.

Typically, the first thing I would do when I got up in the morning was to get on my laptop to check a series of sites, including Twitter, Facebook, Google Analytics, and HBR.org, to see what comments my blogs had accumulated overnight.

All day long, between doing my main work, I found myself checking one site or another, or reading and responding to email. Far too often, I got right back online after dinner. The lure of email and the Internet had come to feel compulsive, irresistible, and increasingly uncomfortable.

On the evening of December 24th, I decided to see if I could shut it all down for nine days, cold turkey. To my surprise, it wasn’t that hard. What follows are the three key insights I distilled from the experience.

One afternoon in our high school library, I noticed my friend studying a glossy, colorful postcard of sorts, folded into a few sections. She opened it horizontally to reveal a triptych of thick paper. A jumble of text was plastered all over, on the front and back.

She handed it to me. There were lists of people’s names in scattered boxes; each column was labeled. The left column was titled Feel It: Where old school heritage meets the new school vibe. The typography reminded me of the Sega Genesis games I played when I was little.

I scanned the backside. All are welcome. Doors open at 9:00 pm. Fully permitted, friendly, and safe centralized Bay Area location. Addresses and phone numbers of record stores and other shops were listed beneath–Wicked, the skate store in Redwood City, and Magic Theatre, the smoke shop in San Mateo. Three phone numbers were listed at the bottom: 415-263-0483. 510-888-2368. 408-881-0785. San Francisco, East Bay, and San Jose numbers, respectively.

It looked like a festival, but I wasn’t sure. It was tomorrow night. I wanted to go.

“So, where is it?” I asked.

“You have to call one of those numbers,” she said.

In 1997, it went like that.

Several years ago, a friend decided she wanted to follow her passion. She loved the liberal arts and academe. She was a talented graphic designer, a great writer, and was the president of a student club. But the prospect of working a nine-to-five job was never interesting. I can’t blame her. After all, ours is a millennial generation proselytized to pursue our dreams. So she spent seven years getting a PhD, writing an award-winning dissertation in the process. It was a wonderful ride while it lasted, and she was among the happiest people I knew.

Then the recession hit. The value of university endowments crashed. Teaching and research positions were cut. She moved back in with her family, stopped paying off her student loans, and waited two years before getting a minor teaching role in a small research center. Throughout this time, she suffered the anguish of an uncertain future, became socially withdrawn, and felt a sense of betrayal.

It’s a poster tale for our times. Was following her passion worth it?

Solitude is out of fashion. Our companies, our schools and our culture are in thrall to an idea I call the New Groupthink, which holds that creativity and achievement come from an oddly gregarious place. Most of us now work in teams, in offices without walls, for managers who prize people skills above all. Lone geniuses are out. Collaboration is in.

But there’s a problem with this view. Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption. And the most spectacularly creative people in many fields are often introverted, according to studies by the psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gregory Feist. They’re extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas, but see themselves as independent and individualistic. They’re not joiners by nature.

While I tend to muse on fleetingness and elusive memory, and find an odd satisfaction in not knowing, recording, or understanding, I do believe in Post-its: a thought frozen in time, emerging from somewhere I sometimes don’t recall…

But the strange comfort a Post-it brings: it’s nice to come upon a note I’ve written for myself that I knew I would need again. As if I continue to evolve as a writer, yet face the same challenges over and over.

I am reminded that the writing process is not something to conquer.

When Barack Obama joined Silicon Valley’s top luminaries for dinner in California last February, each guest was asked to come with a question for the president.

But as Steven P. Jobs of Apple spoke, President Obama interrupted with an inquiry of his own: what would it take to make iPhones in the United States?

Not long ago, Apple boasted that its products were made in America. Today, few are. Almost all of the 70 million iPhones, 30 million iPads and 59 million other products Apple sold last year were manufactured overseas.

Why can’t that work come home? Mr. Obama asked.

Let’s get one thing straight: Microsoft wasn’t actually stupid enough to call their new GPS feature the “avoid ghetto” app when they applied for a patent…But it immediately became the name of choice for a smartphone function that mines violent crime stats to help users avoid an “unsafe neighborhood.”

…But here’s what bothers me even more: I worry that this app (along with many others) heralds the death of street smarts.

Whatever happened to being able to look around you and use your eyes and ears (not to mention your nose) to determine whether you were somewhere safe or not?

Whatever happened to looking at the people on the sidewalk around you, and the businesses on a given street, and deciding whether this was a place you wanted to be or not?

I love my iPhone, too, but I don’t need it to tell me which way the wind blows.

In the last decade, Apple has become one of the mightiest, richest and most successful companies in the world, in part by mastering global manufacturing. Apple and its high-technology peers – as well as dozens of other American industries – have achieved a pace of innovation nearly unmatched in modern history.

However, the workers assembling iPhones, iPads and other devices often labor in harsh conditions, according to employees inside those plants, worker advocates and documents published by companies themselves. Problems are as varied as onerous work environments and serious – sometimes deadly – safety problems.

Google has been self-destructive recently. Last weekend, Google was exposed by engineers from Twitter, Facebook, and mySpace for interfering with their search results. Instead of apologizing and vowing to protect the sanctity of search, this week Larry Page announced that Google will soon integrate its products even further. On March 1st, Google will change its privacy agreement to allow the company to collect and unify user data across all its web properties. There is no opting out. Whether you want it or not, Google will be consolidating the data about what you search for, what you read in your email, and what you write in the cloud into a single profile that is you. Google wants to know everything about you with the intention of “improving” your Internet experience. Unfortunately, even with the best intentions, there’s something that Larry Page doesn’t seem to understand: delivering what he calls “Search Plus Your World” is going to create some problems.

“…here are three questions to ask about yourself about what you’re spending your life doing:”

  1. Does it stand the test of time?
  2. Does it stand the test of excellence?
  3. Does it stand the test of you?