The Power of Being Disconnected

| August 25, 2016

OfflineThe plane landed, as scheduled, at about 9 PM Pacific Time from the East coast. Along the way during the nearly five hour flight to a meeting to present an Update on Digital Pathology in Cytopathology I had solid Wi-Fi to complete some work while picking up some hours with the time zone differences along the way.

In the course of trip, without watching it for myself, I saw on Twitter and Facebook with what seemed like tens of thousands of posts, tweets, re-tweets, shares, likes and comments, Michael Phelps winning his 20th and 21st Olympic gold medals during the course of the evening while several hundred of us in that plane were somewhere over the “fly over” states. If I didn’t want to know, I shouldn’t have looked, but I am addicted to information and feeds and newsreels and updates and notifications.

In those tweets and Facebook posts was commentary and comments about the most decorated American Olympic athlete we have ever known. Even LinkedIn had a post about Phelps coming back following a setback after the last Olympics and an inspirational message about “It’s not how far you can go, it’s about how well you climb back up when you are down”, or something to that effect.

And for those brief moments the entire Internet and social media seemed to be focused on the success of American swimming, our Olympic team, our powerful athletes representing the best in our country, even after some personal problems and succeeding time and time again on sport’s biggest stage. Even if you are a casual fan of the sport, as I am, it was awesome to see the pictures captured of Phelps at the wall beaming at his success and telling the world who the best was, again.

And it also drowned out all of the pro- and anti- Trump and Clinton tweets, posts, rumors and “gotchas”. It was one of those moments when we seemed not to be Red and Blue, but Red and Blue and White, as in our flag, proud of being and American and taking pride in athletes, who admittedly, I may only watch only every 4 years for a few days. You appreciate the thousands of hours of training and diet control and coaching and more training, diet and coaching that goes into those minutes of competition and we take pride in our country. The for and against political commentary for both candidates did resume shortly thereafter.

I arrived at the hotel about an hour later to a largely desolate lobby with the exception of some older folks huddled under the television in the lobby bar, which otherwise appeared closed by now.

The swimming competition was being replayed and a gentlemen with a cane, a lady with a walker and another man with an artificial limb watched intently as the athletes made the final turn and headed to the finish. They reveled in the speed and the precision of the strokes and kicks and breathing as the difference between gold and silver and bronze narrowed from seconds to milliseconds. Despite their physical limitations, they appeared to jump and hit the ceiling as Michael Phelps touched the wall and looked back to see his time and victory among his competition. Quickly the television went to another swimming competition with Phelps winning that one again.

I almost ruined the moment for the three people in that television audience in the empty hotel bar. I was about to question how they didn’t know the news or see the hundreds of tweets, posts, likes and comments. But they didn’t see them. There wasn’t a mobile phone or tablet device out among the three of them. Perhaps they thought they were watching the competition live, or even if they recognized it as being tape delayed from Brazil, were watching it and seeing the results, for themselves, in real time for them. Twitter and Facebook didn’t tell them what happened, their own eyes were witnessing it without a spoiler.

The moment reminded me of the 1980 hockey game between the USA and USSR. Considered by many historians as the greatest sporting event in at least the last century and perhaps to today since people starting recording “greatest” and making lists. It was awesome is all I remember and I thought I too was watching it live, along with the rest of the world, including millions at home in America from our hotel room in Argentina that February day. But the game I saw was a tape delay, a replay, and the news didn’t make it to us across the equator about the result. Apparently my mother didn’t call my father and I to tell us. We watched it and witnessed it without a social media feed and its associated commentary.

In a recent Time article entitled “Tyranny of the Mob” which lays out “Why we are losing the Internet to the culture of hate”, the author writes “Once it was a geek with lofty ideals about the free flow of information. Now the web is a sociopath with Asperger’s. If you need help improving your upload speeds it’s eager to help with technical details, but if you tell it you’re struggling with depression it will try to goad you into killing yourself.” The article goes on about Internet trolls and what psychologists call “online disinhibition effect” and the like and “online freedom” from having anonymity and invisibility and not communicating in real time which is stripping the “mores society spent millennia building. And it’s seeping from our smartphones into every aspect of our lives.”

Perhaps it is time to consider not “online freedom” but freedom from being “online”.

While I appreciate booking airline tickets or checking my favorite pitcher’s ERA with my thumbs and in some ways, in a narcissistic fashion, sharing details of daily activities and thoughts, it would be nice to have “offline freedom” and be disconnected and watch significant events, even with a delay, before someone with a phone and 140 characters tells me what happened with their thumbs. And imagine I am seeing or witnessing something for the first time, even if I am not.

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Category: Current Affairs, Personal, Web/Tech

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