Yes, it's true that when I spent time with my family over the holidays in 2009 it dawned on me that I had minimal insight into their actual lives beyond the limited glimpses online. (By the way I don't only blame social networks-- I was also extremely busy, traveling, etc.) But as I've had time to consider other factors that influenced my decision I've come up with three events that took place that year and also served as triggers-- swimming with sharks (cage free), traveling through rural Ethiopia, and visiting the gloriously aging people of Okinawa, Japan.
Maybe it wasn't so much revelatory as revealing. But each of these journeys forced me, the wired (and science) correspondent, to better appreciate my immediate surroundings. And nothing inspires that more than staring at a 12-foot tiger shark circling over your head.
In the fall of 2008 I decided to finally learn how to SCUBA dive. I carved out a few days and completed the pool and course requirements at a local fitness center. I was excited about the possibility of doing my open-water dives, which are required to complete your initial certification. But despite being surrounded by the, um, exotic waters of the East and Hudson Rivers I didn't have an opportunity to take the plunge. Then in July of 2009 I was asked if I wanted to accompany experts and researchers as they study the behavior of the tiger, lemon and Caribbean reef sharks.
I couldn't say "YES ABSOLUTELY" fast enough.
Of course I was a tad apprehensive but mainly excited. Although it did mean that I'd finalize my diver training with my finned friends in the vicinity.
To get to the Bahamas in time to join the CBS team I had to take a lengthy trip from the spot where my wife and I were on vacation in France, through New York, on to Ft. Lauderdale, and then in to Nassau. After a snag with immigration involving our gear I was eventually on a small speedboat en route to a spot known as "Tiger Beach" about 20 miles off the coast of West End, Grand Bahama. (I think the jet lag probably helped since I wasn't capable of processing what was about to happen next.)
Within an hour of getting to the main boat (a 40-footer), a crew member shouted "Tiger! Tiger!" We all went to look over the side. Sure enough, the distinctive striped markings of a tiger shark could be seen through the shallow waters. And it wasn't just one shark—there were also about a dozen lemon sharks, too, which are only slightly smaller (and less aggressive). Gulp.
But it was time to man up and suit up. My diving "buddy" was experienced shark diver Stuart Cove whose best advice was: a) don't wave your hands too much around since they'll look like lunch, b) stay right next to me, and c) BREATHE. (The worst thing any amateur diver can do is hold your breath since it can cause serious lung damage or worse.)
While having a tiger shark swim past you during your first open-water dive seems a long way from disconnecting social networks, I'm here to tell you there's a direct link. I had to focus on my breathing, my vision, and my movement. It's a rare occasion in today's always-on world that we aren't allowed any chance to let our minds wander or communicate with someone.
We do it in our cars, while walking, even on planes. And with social networks, I would routinely plan my next status update and wonder how my contributions would be perceived by the Internet community. (Listen, I know it sounds vain and I'll admit to getting way too caught up in that aspect. But I think many of us are guilty on some level.)
At times, I was more concerned about my avatar's place in the virtual world than my own place in the real one. In short, I sometimes stopped appreciating what it meant to live in the now. But the tiger shark broke through all that. (Although I didn't recognize it at the time.) When I got back on the boat I wasn't able to use the Internet so I was alone with my thoughts of adventure and excitement and mind-boggling "did I just do that??" sentiments. That shark—that perfectly evolved, majestic tiger shark—was a call to action. I'm just glad I didn't swim away.
Later in the year I got the chance to travel to Ethiopia to cover the founder of the popular online site and company TOMS Shoes, Blake Mycoskie, and the man who discovered the early fossil remains called "Lucy," paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson. To travel to both stories we had to bisect most of Ethiopia by jeep. Let me tell you, the roads in Ethiopia are like nowhere else (it's said that more people die in Ethiopia because of traffic accidents than anything else). Between camels, goats, horses, cattle, dogs, donkeys, bajaj (a three-wheeled Indian taxi), cars, bikes and all manner of people the roads are congested, narrow and treacherous. For more than a week we drove about 1,100 miles through places stunningly scenic and stunningly impoverished and at times both. And we had virtually no access to the Internet along the way.
I've been to plenty of locales where Internet access is spotty (Dominican Republic, Arctic Circle) but I'd never met people so genuinely happy without any of the daily stream of information to which we've all become accustomed. Most notably, while we drove through the northern Tigray region near the border of Eritrea the children would come out to see us and stare into our camera. They rarely asked for money and instead wanted to try their English or touch our hands. Few foreigners drive these roads and we were each a curiosity to the other. For me, this was a rare opportunity to again immerse myself in my immediate environment and to allow its impact to wash over me. How often do we really get a chance to do that without distractions? And I wasn't seeking the approval or the attention or the reaction of others. That stream of regular data was cut off and it gave me another chance to see the value of introspection and inner strength.
Finally, in December of 2009 I traveled to Okinawa, Japan, where it's believed the highest number of centenarians make their home. It's a remote part of the world off the southern coast of the main Japanese islands. And nestled in a small corner of Okinawa is a village called Ogimi, where folks over the age of 80 and 90 years routinely gather to tend their gardens, ride bikes, and play a game called gateball (similar to croquet). I spent a few days with these vibrant senior citizens and learned that a healthy diet coupled with familial connections and an active lifestyle allowed them to not just live but to live well.
Their direct connection to family members and friends made me wistful for the days when I lived closer to mine. But I don't mean the Okinawans did group hugs every day. One 91-year-old woman simply picked up a phone (that was probably new in 1970) and called one of her 16 children. It brought such a radiant smile to her face. And it got me thinking about what a Facebook or Twitter account is providing me in terms of those long-life secrets of happiness. Maybe it's a minor distinction, but those status updates just didn't seem the same as something more one-on-one like video chat or e-mail or a phone call. (Granted in some countries social networks can provide a lifeline for loved ones in times of crisis like we've seen in Haiti this week. But again the process for me is about finding a balance within the norm—a digital diet, if you will.)
In any case, those are the three events that swirled around my brain during my trip home for the holidays and the backdrop for my recent decision. Lots more to come including how privacy fits into all this (or not). Until next time, stay connected.