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Mitch Joel Headshot

Freedom From the Web? There's an App for That!

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Is your head buried in your lap?

After attending the TED 2012 conference in Long Beach, California last week, I could not help but think about how pervasive technology and media is in our lives. Surprisingly, I have not been thinking about it in the best possible light. If you could be in a room with over one thousand of the world's most interesting business leaders, thinkers, scientists and artists, would you spend every free moment sitting in the corner alone thumbing your smartphone or would you immerse yourself in the live experience and do your best to "press the flesh," as the saying goes?

There's something about the here and now.

Prior to the many sessions at TED 2012, the hosts would remind people to turn off their mobiles. It's become a ceremony at almost each and every conference, but in this instance, they took it further by pleading for everyone's attention. The hosts didn't just ask us to set our phasers to vibrate, they demanded that we put them away and forget about them to truly benefit from the event. Our kids are texting, our heads are buried in our laps, and we can hardly hold a conversation for more than five minutes without a ringing, vibration or desire to look at our smartphones to see if someone has emailed, tweeted, texted, or pinged us.

Is this what connections are really about?

Multiple speakers at TED questioned our connection to technology. Sherry Turkle (author of Alone Together -- Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other) questioned whether we're living in the now or living to create an impression to others of how we would like to perceived, while Thomas P. Campell (director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art) questioned how digital media can be compared with spending real time in a museum. It didn't stop there. A theme of anti-Web sentiment (or a digital connectedness unplugging) was pervasive. Even Chip Kidd (famed book cover designer) pleaded for a return to the admiration of books in their dead tree format. While we embrace technology and race forward with it, it seems like the past two decades have now culminated in what can only be described as a backlash to our connectivity.

It's not a zero sum game.

I fell in love with Turkle's message. I made a personal promise to spend more time in museums after Campbell's plea. I do love and appreciate the beauty of a great book cover (but I'm just more in love with the portability of my digital book collection to go back to paper, sorry Chip). And yes, it's true that we probably do spend too much time with technology and not enough time having a meaningful conversation with others while looking at them, directly in the eyes. That being said, it's not an all or nothing proposition, either. I've heard many stories of troubled teens using platforms like Facebook to ask someone out or even ask for help because it allows them to feel more confident. I've heard stories of kids with disabilities leveraging social media to connect and then finding their school experience that much better because those they had connected with online felt some kind of closer connection. Personally, some of my best friends are people who I first met in the digital sense and because of shared values, we created much more powerful connections after either meeting in person or staying connected in a more personal way online.

It's you... it's not technology.

It's easy to win in the battle against technology. You have to control your technology and you have to be very aware if you're letting it control you. How can you get started? Turn off your notifications. All of them. You decide when you're going to look at your smartphone and not have your smartphone ping, beep or blink to lure you in. Next, if you find yourself reaching for your smartphone while you're spending time with family and friends, stop yourself and don't do it. Acknowledge the moment, and tell yourself that you will check your messages when no loved ones are in the near vicinity (this doesn't mean you should sneak off and check in the bathroom. It means wait until your personal time is over).

Download the application called Freedom. Freedom locks you out of the Internet, so you can actually get some work done instead of checking emails, playing with Twitter or watching videos on YouTube. Imagine that, modern technology to block you out from using modern technology.

Don't kid yourself.

Technology is very seductive. We love our iPhones (I love my iPhone). For many people, it's the last thing we stroke before we go to bed and the first thing we touch when we wake up in the morning. You may not like it, but this is who we have become. Next time you're in a public space, study the people around you. Notice how they flirt and caress their smartphones. It's bordering on sexual, isn't it? This isn't about getting rid of technology. This is about being conscience of our experiences. Rich experiences don't happen via text messaging. Rich experiences happen when we're face to face, listening, sharing and truly growing. Text messaging can be a great bridge between these very human experiences, but let's not kid ourselves into thinking that anything on your smartphone screen is as important as what's in front of your face.

You don't have to unplug to become more human, you just have to make a choice.

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