Last month I traveled to Sardinia, Italy, a beautiful island in the midst of the Mediterranean, with a small group of magazine editors: we set to do a story on the region's gastronomic wonders. I remember everyone I've been with during this trip except for one girl in our group. I can't recall this editor's face at all and you know why? She was permanently looking down, her eyes glued to one of her gadgets: either her iPhone or iPad, and her hands busily typing something. This girl gazed at her beloved devices at breakfasts, lunches and dinners, on excursions and during the SPA visits. She constantly checked something and fussed as if the world were going to end when the wi-fi connection would go off. She did take part in the conversations once in a while but most of the time I felt this person wasn't really there with us. I am not sure she actually experienced any of Sardinia either.
Sadly, this digital addict is by far not alone. More and more of us need to have our gadgets at fingertips all the time and some simply can't do without checking in with them every few minutes or so. In a Moscow subway which once upon a time reputed the world's largest amounts of people reading, most passengers today have their eyes and ears attached to devices of sorts. The gadgets have invaded not just our offices, but all possible domains of our private lives as well: our kitchens, bedrooms, vacations and so on.
"The problem isn't our iPhones and BlackBerrys, it's how we are using them. We've simply gone overboard, surrendered too much of our lives to our little screens," says William Powers, author of a recently published book, Hamlet's BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age. Granted, there are obvious rewards the digital presence provides us. We get adrenaline rushes as we scan for the next exciting bits of information. We feel important when we get messages 24/7 even if it's meaningless chat invitations or the social networks' profiles updates. We feel efficient when we think we get more things done while multitasking. We welcome more and more gadgets into our lives, ignoring the costs: the blurred vision from overworking the eye muscles, sloppier performance (scientists have long proved that multitasking is an illusion – the human brain is simply unable to focus on several things at a time), poorer sleep (studies show that the devices' mere presence in our bedrooms affect the quality of sleep – the brain gets the message that it should be permanently on alert) and problems in relationships.
"He just wouldn't get off Facebook in the mornings," a girlfriend recently complained of her live-in partner. She sounded really furious as if she caught her boyfriend cheating. But in a way I think he was, fixated on the laptop screen during breakfast, sabotaging normal communication.
Many of us can't stay away from the digital devices while on vacation either. A recent American Express survey of more than 2,000 people revealed that 79% of travelers remain connected on trips, 72% read personal email, 68% do so for work and 27% check their social networks profiles on a frequent basis. A curious tourism trend is emerging in the United States and Europe to help the gadget junkies get a breath of some hi-tech-free air: Digital Detox vacations. The guests are to surrender their little electronic buddies at check-in to proceed into "digital-free" rooms which intentionally lack TVs, phones and wi-fi. In turn, such hotels and resorts offer a range of "mind-detoxifying" activities from old-fashioned diversions like board games to all sorts of outdoor activities, like hiking, playing sports, etc.
I don't think I need to digitally detox yet, but I, too, must confess of some connection addiction. When I happen to have breakfast alone, Facebook and email are my usual companions. At work, I check my messages and social network profiles every ten minutes at the very least. While traveling, my laptop resides in my handbag, and I do keep my cell on the bedside table. And if I forget my phone at home, or its battery goes down, or I intentionally leave it in a hotel on trips, I tend to feel powerless and lost as if life were slipping out of control. Curiously, these withdrawal symptoms normally dissipate after a couple of hours, followed by a remarkable feeling of freedom and awakening of the five senses.
According to another U.S. study, 33% of vacationers admit to hiding from their traveling companions to go online. But at least they do hide! That's a sign of respect. In fact, I believe we should urgently implement certain ethical guidelines of how to use our gadgets without offending or harming others. It's especially essential in a country like Russia, where owning fancy expensive devices is still more a sign of status, a way to show off than a need to be digitally-savvy. So before the digital detox trend reaches our country, I would restrict (on the national level) the use of cell phones not only while driving, but in many public places. I would also get the employers to require the staff to put the devices on the mute mode in the office and out of sight at meetings unless they are needed for presentations. And of course I would (if this were only possible!) strongly discourage the gadgets' use on dates although sometimes a timely call or a message could rescue you from a bad one.
We can't — and shouldn't! – stop the growth of technology, but learning to moderate its use will only do us good.
The views expressed in this column are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
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Svetlana Kolchik, 33, is deputy editor-in-chief of the Russian edition of Marie Claire magazine. She holds degrees from the Moscow State University Journalism Department and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She has worked for Argumenty i Fakty weekly in Moscow and USA Today in Washington, D.C., and contributed to RussiaProfile.org, Russian editions of Vogue, Forbes and other publications.