I have lived the digital life


Illustration by Rick Holland

Right now someone is thinking about you and checking your Facebook wall. The notification pings on your smartphone, which vibrates in your pocket. You’ll set down this article to check your phone.

Your friend Beth has posted a picture of you with a group of friends. Except there was one person that day you didn’t know. You see now that his name is Kevin. By searching Kevin’s profile, you figure out he’s really into a band called Iron & Wine.

You don’t know much about Iron & Wine, so you switch from your phone to a laptop, which is easier to type on, after all. Wikipedia tells you the band is a one-man show featuring Samuel Beam. You learn that he’s struggled alone against adversity and a small-minded recording industry. You can relate, and also Beam has a nice beard. Opening iTunes, you find Iron & Wine’s top-rated song, “Flightless Bird, American Mouth.”

The preview of the song mingles with the noise coming from the TV. You have left that streaming episode of “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations” running on Netflix. Muting the TV, you listen to Beam. You like what you hear. You decide to buy a song.

But at that moment another notification distracts you. You check your ever-running phone to find that Beth has posted a clever quip on Twitter. And the cycle continues.

Sound familiar? This scenario describes a few moments in a life surrounded by digital distractions — a world constantly connected to the web. Finding themselves surrounded by tablets, smart phones, laptops, social networking sites, video game consoles and web-enabled TVs, some people have started taking retreats from the Internet.

Maybe people have had a bit too much to drink from the “Digital Fountain of All Knowledge and Entertainment.” Earlier this month, Slate magazine posted an article called “Welcome to the Hybrid Age.” Writers Ayesha Khanna and Parag Khanna detail a new landscape where the distinctions between “digital” and “real-world” have become almost irreparably blurred.

“The more time we spend in virtual environments, the more the distinction between real and digital blends away. Of the eight hours a day children today spend online, one and a half of those are using avatars,” they write.

An avatar is a digital character representing a real-life person. Avatars can be anything from that Mii you made of yourself on Nintendo Wii, to a character made in a massively multiplayer online role-playing game like “World of Warcraft.”

Over at The New York Times, you might have read an article earlier this year called “Finding Your Book Interrupted…By the Tablet You Read It On.” The article said that the promise of e-readers — the promise of having a lightweight, massive portable library within reach — is being held hostage by the other activities available on those devices.

“E-mail lurks tantalizingly within reach,” the article said. “Looking up a tricky word or unknown fact in the book is easily accomplished through a quick Google search. And if a book starts to drag, giving up on it to stream a movie over Netflix or scroll through your Twitter feed is only a few taps away.”

In 2010, PBS’s Frontline aired the documentary “Digital Nation: Life on the Virtual Frontier.” That show — to which this article is indebted — followed producer Rachel Dretzin and technology writer Douglas Rushkoff as they traveled around the world to examine how technology might be changing us for the worse.

They check in on IBM employees who have started to stage meetings through the virtual world “Second Life.” They talk to college students who feel like they can multitask successfully — hint, a Stanford University study said they can’t. They visit the notorious South Korean video gaming cafes, known as “PC Bangs,” which have captured the attention and lives of teens and even adults there.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *