The Internet is my morning coffee. Coffee is also my morning coffee. And I perform an intricate Web routine to consume as much information before 9 a.m. to brush the sleep from my eyes.
The routine is tightly choreographed: wake up, roll over, check phone for messages. Then, it’s time for Gmail. I have three accounts. Then, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. I used to check Pinterest, but no more — I’m tired of seeing misattributed inspirational quotes and rustic wedding favors before noon.
Next, I check the quit-smoking thread on Reddit. I used to check Klout, but I think it’s designed to lower your self-esteem if your last name isn’t Kardashian.
Then, it’s on to news. But I’ve already learn of any monumental event from social media. I hear about Bin Laden’s death and my grandma’s heart attack on Facebook. Sandy Hook breaks over Twitter. My high school classmates give a play-by-play of the Alabama-Notre Dame game via status updates and tweets.
If you think I’m overwhelmed at this point, I’m not. Next, the New York Times, Gawker, BBC and a slew of blogs get my attention. Then, I go to the fun sites: Buzzfeed, Videogum and Flavorwire. I listen to music on Songza or Spotify. Did I mention I work remotely?
All interaction with co-workers, bosses, interview subjects and anyone I talk to professionally occurs on the phone or computer. I’ve had one in-person interview in year. I’ve never met any of the people who hired me face-to-face. Emoticons are more essential to my life than I ever could have imagined.
So, when the CES keynote centered on the idea that young people are now “born mobile,” I realize they are aiming at my demographic, albeit in broad strokes.
“Mobile is breaking down barriers and bridging the digital divide,” Paul Jacobs, Qualcomm’s chief executive, says in a keynote, emphasizing the positive impact of the technology he sells. The tone was jubilant, calling the embrace of technology empowering. Or so, the Internet tells me. Of course, I’m not there in person — I’m watching it online.
Jacobs adds that the expansion of mobile empowers us. He doesn’t mention that the growth of his business, along with throngs of other mobile-focused endeavors, hinges on the continued embrace of mobile. But continuation of the mobile boom is seen as inevitable, an unstoppable paradigm shift where we increasingly consider gadgets as prerequisites for communication.
He’s not wrong, at least not about the way mobile is so wholeheartedly embraced. I see it in my teen siblings, who Snapchat and Voxer their ways to relationships and only spell out “you” in academic papers. I see it in myself. I can kiss the ground with gratitude for Skype, which keeps my relationship going despite the international distance.
Chase’s banking app lets me avoid dealing with the obnoxiously narrow parking spaces in front of my branch. And even though Facebook might be warping my brain, it’s the most important tool in my life, sustaining multiple friendships and helping me create a record of my life.
When Jacobs talks about expanding mobile reach to encompass an “Internet of Things,” I get a tingle of nervous energy. I’m a tech-lover and I get inappropriately rage-y at articles about how Facebook is creating massive social alienation or video games trigger violence. On the whole, I think our lives are better for having technology in them.
My beliefs are buoyed by reports of how tablets support learning, how smartphones are used as powerful emergency tools, how people connect with relatives using the Internet.
Technology can be mind-blowingly wonderful. I wouldn’t have my career without it. I wouldn’t know where half of my friends are. I wouldn’t have felt so comfortable three years ago packing up and moving from Chicago to Seoul if I knew my loved ones wouldn’t be a simple mouse click away.
But I’d be lying if I said it was all good. I’m basically the Fonz at writing e-mail and keeping in touch through texts and instant messages, but I get weirdly nervous when one of my friends wants to talk on the phone.
Over Christmas, my old roommate calls to catch up after a period of not talking. Though she and I have a deep bond, cemented by a summer gone full hippie and sleeping in a leaky tent, I admit how anxious it makes me to think of things to say on the spot, to be expected to banter, to hear her voice immediately instead of reading her words on a screen. She’s surprised.
“Aren’t you a writer?” she asks, perplexed how someone who pokes her nose into things for a living can feel bashful talking to someone she’d been to over four music festivals with.
I try to explain, but she’s a rare 25-year-old who avoids social media and genuinely has no idea what “Android” means. She’s also a successful and respected artist, and I wonder if these things don’t have anything to do with each other. Conducting professional work from home gives me freedom, but leaves me feeling awkward and extra-nervous when I do have to meet people face-to-face to network.
In college, I called alumni as part of a fundraising team, and barely batted an eye at the prospect of ringing up hundreds of people a day, even when they were rude. Now, it gives me itchy palms to dial an unfamiliar number. I still do it, but I get a pit of sharp anxiousness in my stomach when I hear a voice on the other end. I joke to friends about being a hermit, but it’s one of those that comes uncomfortably close to the truth — more sad than funny.
I may develop scurvy.
In some ways, technology is the best thing in my life. I am grateful to be part of the mobile generation, and I have no doubt these innovative companies will continue to expand their scope and develop paradigm-shifting new technology — still waiting for hovercrafts though, come on science. And I’m okay with that.
But sometimes, this lifestyle makes me sad and makes me wonder if I wouldn’t be better off taking a step back. Returning to work as a lifeguard at North Avenue Beach in Chicago, where I looked out on a glittering tumble of gentle morning waves on early June days.
Sand got in between my toes and I leaned up against a rowboat with chipping paint. People walking their dogs came up and chatted with me. That’s what I did as a teen, and I didn’t see the Internet all day. We weren’t allowed to have our Nokia nugget phones on duty, but even if we did, we wouldn’t have had much to look at besides SMS and that Snake game.
Life felt visceral and vivid.
There are still lifeguards, obviously, but I wonder how they do it, if it feels the same — to go through the day without gulping gigabytes of information with their eyes, without Instagramming pictures of the sunset from Beach 5. Maybe — probably — they’re sneaking their phones out there.
I feel like I can’t be a successful person and step offline. Like I was born mobile, but I can’t stop moving. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, and I think it’s kind of how things are going to be for me from here on out. But sometimes, I feel like I’m using technology to try to slice towards the center of life and I’m actually cultivating a thicker barrier between me and everything else. ♦