As I was sitting in an outdoor cafe seaside in the town of Orebic, Croatia, I became increasingly aware of a strange phenomenon: People were chatting with each other rather than staring at their phone or tablet. Not a single soul was texting. My fellow patrons, including many 20 to 30-year-olds, were simply hanging out with one another, enjoying their drink or meal without electronic distraction. They seemed to have what James Taylor many years ago identified as the secret of life: enjoying the passage of time. I thought about some of the core elements of Affluence Intelligence—to be so engaged with one's activity that you lose track of time, and to be engaged with meaning, pleasure, and purpose. This could mean being fully engaged in work, gardening, watching the waves on the beach, or daydreaming while having your morning coffee.
I'm old enough to remember life before portable electronics, when sitting in a café provided the perfect milieu for people watching, or self reflection, or enjoying a conversation. Some of my closest conversations with friends happened in coffee houses, where the public space provided a sanctuary for special private conversation. But now there's a "new normal" in our society, particularly when the crowd is under 40: to expect many of a cafe's patrons to be as engaged (if not more engaged) with their electronic device than the people around them. To expect that time with oneself, or another person, to be continuously disrupted by texts, emails, phone calls, or "browsing addiction" in which you just have to look up that one thing "right now". We have allowed the cell phone/tablet to become a "third" party in many of our relationships, an intruder who can, any time or any place, distract from or completely disrupt the experience of effective, truly engaged face to face human communication. I'm sure you've seen what I'm talking about: It is not uncommon to walk into an eating or drinking establishment and see everyone staring at their phone, laptop, or tablet rather than looking at or talking with another person. Or even more extreme, where the electronic device is used as the centerpiece of conversation for two or more people. A decade ago we used to joke about an imaginary New Yorker Magazine cover in which a group of people were all on the cells phones….talking to each other. Now it is no joke. The level of distraction and dissociation can be unnerving, making any face to face conversation an exercise in management of Attention Deficit.
Think about this: According to an infographic finding on cellphones.org, 15% of Americans have interrupted sex to answer a cell phone call! While 15% of Americans admit to putting hook ups on hold, another study, by Retrevo, reports that 36% of people under 35 admitted to checking Facebook, texting, or Tweeting directly after having sex. Do we take charge of this obsession, or have to deal with newly emerging syndromes such as Cellular Coitus Interruptus, or Post-Coitus Twitter Trieste.
From a psychological perspective, these electronic relationships, whether it is in the form of user directed activity (phone calls/browsing) or social media, seem to result in two silos of human relations:
Bottom line: Your experience of time becomes like the experience of a medical resident: You are "on call", dealing with unpredictable and interminable distraction from having a three dimensional conversation with the person right in front of you; the friend, lover, or colleague who is trying to engage in a conversation with you, rather than having to deal with the ménage aux trois of people who happen to pop up on the screen.
In case you're wondering, I'm not an "anti-tech" person. Indeed: I started my college education in engineering, and love playing with these devices. I have up to date equipment, and I'm very comfortable with the user-device interface. I have to confess that I gaze into the eyes and touch the skin of my pocket-sized lover more than I need to; that pretty little smart phone is a great seductress who never turns me away or criticizes my actions. But I have drawn a line: I refuse to be dominated by a technology that was designed to be our servant, not our master. These devices are tools, not drivers of life choices, or human relations organizers.
My holiday on the South Dalmatian Coast was like a time machine journey back twenty years. I could not find a single eating or drinking establishment that was electronically dominated. Of course, people there have cell phones, but they did not appear to be controlled by them. Having a cup of coffee, taking in the human activity, the sounds of the streets, watching light change across the seas were not being contaminated by an affair with a high maintenance pocket-sized lover who is unpredictably intrusive, and a source of disrespect and disregard for anybody but itself.
So ask yourselves: When you think about having affluence, about being really rich, don't you imagine a life where time is less a pressure and more a pleasure? Do you really want a human environment that can be intruded upon at any time by a phone or text? How can we best maximize the benefits, the opportunities of portable electronics while being "eyes wide open" to their liabilities, to being aware of how an obsession with these devices can undermine our personal and relational well-being? So check yourself: has your love affair with that device in your purse or pocket gotten out of control, dominating rather than serving your life? Let’s rethink our relationship to these devices, or we risk creating a culture that is effectively "on call" as if we're all policemen or medical school students.