Beginning well before I was born, my family spent a week’s vacation each summer at a rented cottage on Keuka Lake. It formed my definition of idyllic: endless cannonballs off the sun-faded wooden dock, skipping stones across glass-smooth water at twilight. Sparkling, sun-bathed mornings spent dangling night crawlers for perch. Afternoons curled, reading, in oversized chairs. Nights of whispers and flashlight duels between twin beds in the room my little brother and I shared.
The last year I can remember taking that trip was 1997. There was no broadband. No smartphones, no tablets, no social networks, no blogosphere. We had a cell phone; it didn’t work there. We had a laptop; there was no reason to bring it along.
Fast-forward nearly two decades: we finally returned to Keuka this July. My brother and I are each married now. My wife and I have a son. Life – and the world – have progressed, but the lake remains. Nine family members spent the week at Keuka; we arrived with 10 smartphones, 3 tablets, 2 laptops and 2 Kindles between us. Broadband and WiFi are table stakes for cottage rentals, and the lake is blanketed in coverage from 4 different mobile networks. Our history in this place created a stark contrast, and something felt profoundly different.
Over the last few weeks and months, I’ve noticed what I hope is a shift — perhaps the beginning of a collective realization that our relationship with the tech that surrounds us and connects us is less-than-healthy and in need of some therapy. I’m far from an early adopter, but I want to be at the tip of this spear.
Myke Hurley and Casey Liss talked about evolving social norms around devices and networks, and the need to – at times – silence the rest of the world in favor of the world that’s in front of us. Clay Shirkey decided it was time to ban devices in his university classroom. Ed Batista at HBR called our daily firehose of information a “marshmallow test for grownups“, and aptly noted that the devices and services we use are expertly designed to capture as much of our attention as possible. Meanwhile, I love being part of the groundswell of enthusiasm for analog tools and genuine paper notes.
Don’t get me wrong: I adore my smartphone, my tablet and my Kindle. They all add value to my life. I think they help me add to others’ lives, too. But there is a balance to be found, and right now – as a society – we’re not there.
I hope we’re headed toward a time when putting our phones away – not just down – during a face-to-face conversation is considered common courtesy. I hope we can learn to separate the beeps and buzzes that enhance our lives from the ones that don’t – and that we’re sufficiently-mindful to disable the latter. I hope we can teach our tools to respect us — maybe even to use some of their smarts to recognize when it’s important to leave us, their masters, undisturbed. I hope I can learn to set aside compulsion and systemized distraction, and I hope I can model that to my son.
And I hope that with each future visit to the lake my family makes, we find ourselves better-balanced with the technical world, better-connected to each other, and better-able to take in the blessings of the very special place that surrounds us.