I’ve been thinking a lot about the word connectivity.
In tech, we use the word ‘connectivity’ to talk about our devices – how our devices connect to the internet and to each other. As one who travels a lot, connectivity is my tether to work and home. I can survive without my cell connection, but sever my data connection and much is lost. I can’t check my email, I can’t work, I can’t see if that company’s round is closing or what startups we decided to invest in or sign that board agreement. I can’t FaceTime or text with my kids, can’t see the news, can’t check in on Twitter or Facebook. I have no idea what’s happening in the world around me. Being connected to the internet helps me support not just a few investments and Techstars programs – but hundreds. Being connected to the internet broadens my reach from what’s immediately around my physical person – to the global reach that Techstars has across 5 continents, 500+ cities, and 100+ countries. Connectivity helps me scale my productivity.
But as I ponder connectivity, I wonder when the cultural meaning of the word shifted from the connection between individuals to the connection to the internet. And more importantly, I wonder if internet connectivity has inadvertently developed into the antithesis of human connectivity.
Now, I realize that connecting to the internet does connect us to people. After all, the internet lets me FaceTime with my kids, slack my colleagues, email our CEOs, and Facebook with my college friends. But in all these cases, the software has become the intermediary of my relationship with them. And since software has let me go wide in my relationships, let me scale the number of relationships beyond what I could otherwise handle without software, I’m beginning to believe it’s sacrificed the depth of relationships I could have. After all, in an hour on my laptop, I could easily ‘connect’ with 100+ people. But an hour-deep conversation with someone face-to-face or over the phone? That’s only one person. And I’ve probably connected more deeply with that one person than I have with the sum of all the connections with the 100+ people. The art of the intimate conversation has been replaced with 140 character blurb.
This was punctuated recently in a conversation with my mom who told me “we never talk anymore”. And she’s right, we don’t. We don’t ‘talk’ a lot. Rather, we text a lot. Short texts often involve emojis to gain even more efficiency from our already short texts. I remember spending hours on the phone with my mom, telling her details about my day, my life, and my plans. Mostly small talk, always bookended by the occasional big talk. But it’s been a long time since we’ve done that. Do I spend less time talking to my mom because I’m busy? Maybe. Maybe the 100+ conversations with others have replaced the 1 deep conversation I could have with her. Or do I spend less time talking to my mom because our text messages sum up all the details with a couple of emojis? I don’t know. The small talk is largely gone, but with it, the big talk has gone too.
I was reminded of it when I went to a birthday party for one of my daughter’s friends. Many of the parents knew each other, but since I’m the working parent in our marriage and don’t usually take my kids to these events, I didn’t know that many people. I sat in the corner and awkwardly checked my email, rather than putting myself out there to connect with the other humans in the room. My email was safer and more comfortable. Plus I’m being productive on a Saturday! Bonus!
I’m reminded of it in public places, like airplanes. I HATE it when the person sitting next to me strikes up a conversation. But before my device was connected, it didn’t use to bother me. In fact, I loved conversations with strangers, they were always so interesting, if not awkward. It was a way to get exposure to people outside of my normal operating bubble. Now – leave me alone, I’ve got a board deck to review.
I am reminded of human connectivity every time I’m with a bunch of friends or colleagues and no one is talking because everyone is on their devices. Sometimes I’m right there with them, on my device, not talking to anyone. Then I look up and chuckle thinking “good thing we’re spending quality time together”. Other times, when I present enough to think about it, and I’m eagerly waiting for my peers to finish making out with their devices, I think “hey man, I’m right here, right now. Look at me. Talk with me. Life is right here, not out there. Email #324 or Facebook friend #718 can wait.”
And I wonder – is all of this me? I admit I’m a busy person. I travel a ton, have a pretty hectic work life with a ton of relationships, and 2 small kids and a husband at home. So maybe my busyness has created this situation, where I’m trying to cram productivity into every moment. But hasn’t the connectivity of my device enabled this situation? Or am I just using busyness as an excuse when really it’s just that relationships are hard and take work? It’s a lot easier to check on how my high school friend is doing on Facebook than to call her up. Have I traded authentic depth and closeness and intensity for brevity and volume and convenience? As David Gilmore so eloquently says:
…did you exchange…A walk-on part in the war…For a lead role in a cage?David Gilmore, Pink Floyd’s The Wall
As I look around, everyone seems to be retreating to the sanctity of their devices. I don’t know if it’s because we’re busy, or it’s because it’s easier. My guess is we use busyness as an excuse, but the truth is that hiding behind our devices is easier.
I think the repercussions of this exchange of internet connectivity with human connectivity are gigantic. People have forgotten how to ask for help. Worse, people have failed to even notice when someone looks like they need help. We used to pay attention to each other, our social cues and facial expressions; the flash of doubt or fear or cynicism or sadness that would cross someone’s face in a conversation – that would drive us to dig in a little further on what was going on. But now we aren’t engaged in face-to-face conversation long enough to see those cues. I had a founder in my office recently who was telling me how great everything was going, sales are up, the board is happy, and investors are happy, but his smile was so… so… fake. I took a leap and told him I thought he was lying, and he laughed at me. Laughed right in my face, meanly. Then his laugh devolved into tears and told me that he hated his life and wanted out. He confessed he hadn’t told this to anyone, hadn’t even admitted it to himself yet, and was confused as to why it was coming out now. I don’t think I could have gotten that from him if we had just been exchanging emails or texts, or even a 10 min watercolor conversation.
I’m old enough to remember what life was like prior to my iPhone. I loved my Motorola Razor. It was small, folded nicely to fit in my pocket, and it had tactile buttons that actually pushed, took pictures, and let me text message. If it had Google maps, it would have been the perfect device. So I remember how often I used to connect with others back then. It was definitely fewer people as compared to today – but those connections were more meaningful. I bet if someone plotted cell phone minutes over time, starting in 1995 through today, we’d see a precipitous drop-off in the number of minutes “connecting” to one another right around the time smartphones came online.
The thing that scares me is the younger generations don’t know that time period. While my generation knows but we have just developed bad habits, the younger generation has a new normal. These are kids that when life gets uncomfortable, or worse, it gets downright hard, many don’t turn to someone for help, guidance, and connectivity. They turn to their device for situation avoidance – and they don’t even realize they’re avoiding the situation. We have all been guilty of handing our kid a device when the situation gets rough. Shit, it’s easier than listening to them complain of boredom or yell and scream. But this is disconnecting the kid from their emotion, not teaching them to deal with hard situations or people. Not only are they not learning the art of connecting to someone else, but they also are not learning the art of connecting with themselves. And together we are losing the art of navigating emotionally charged situations.
Mental health issues are running rampant. Bullying is running rampant. Lack of empathy is rampant, bigotry and racism are rampant, hate is rampant, and the art of the intimate conversation is dwindling. Are these things related? Is our reliance on the easy/quick fix of our devices a shortcut to connecting with who we are, how we feel, and how others around us are doing? Is our internet connectivity inadvertently eroding our human connectivity?
Last year I went to a conference and heard Dr. Dean Ornish speak. He deals with heart disease patients that are given less than 3 months to live and has found a miraculous way of saving their lives by actually reversing heart disease, without the use of drugs, IN 30 DAYS! His technique uses 4 key themes – 3 of which are not surprising. Diet (yep), exercise (yep), stress management (obviously). But the fourth I found fascinating – and it was intimacy. Not sexual intimacy, or at least not that alone. But emotional intimacy. Making sure the patient has people emotionally close to him or her. The Ornish technique has been shown in scientific studies to reverse heart disease, and some indications that it works on prostrate cancer too. Whoa. Depth of relationships matter so much, your life could depend on it.
I was recently at a three-day Techstars Ventures retreat in the middle of the Colorado Rockies with 21 CEOs and the partners at TSV. We all stayed in this one dark, musty, old hunting lodge featuring buck heads hanging off the walls and a huge stone hearth. It had internet, but our guess is that it was a satellite connection that shared its limited bandwidth with the few neighboring buildings. Try putting 21 tech CEOs on a single crappy internet connection that crawls like a slug for three days and it’s a recipe for sheer panic. At first, everyone was panicking. In fact, one of us (who shall remain nameless but you know who you are!) actually took the locked door off its hinges to access the closet housing the wifi router. One of the founders was literally trying to close his round that day and could barely get enough bandwidth to download the docs to sign. The gnashing of teeth was audible. The lack of internet connectivity was a bug in our retreat. But by the end, it was a feature. 21 CEOs, most of whom didn’t know each other, became pretty close by the end of it. We talked about some hard, personal, deep shit there. I don’t think the impact would have been nearly as great if everyone could have been on their devices.
I don’t believe our devices and their internet connectivity of them are inherently evil. Like any tool, it can be a weapon if not used properly. And my connected devices let me get more done, faster. So I don’t blame the internet for our social issues. But I have spent time trying to understand the balance – how to scale my productivity while maintaining the intimacy of existing relationships and connectivity with those around me. How do I use my resources responsibly? How about this for a radical social rule – anytime a device is within 5 feet of another device, don’t use the device. Human near human? Engage with humans. Human alone? Engage with the device. Yes, even in public settings where you don’t know anyone. I know it would never work, but a human citizen can dream.
There isn’t an answer here, nor is it really a complaint. It’s simply a reflection and an attempt to be conscious about when and how I use my connected devices. It’s a reflection on when the word “unplug” came to be something you did only on vacation. It’s a realization that device connectivity is both a feature and a bug. It’s a curiosity around whether our connected devices are causing interference in our emotional processing. And it’s a little bit of a plea – if I’m not present with you, please, have a difficult conversation with me about being present when together. I want to know the real answer to “How are you?”. My email can wait.