Even Silicon Valley thinks you should disconnect

Flickr user manwithface
(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY Everyone knows that too much of a good thing -- tasty food, good wine, fast cars, even sex -- can be bad for you. A lot of good it does. We all just seem to keep on overdoing it, living in denial, and when the damage is done, looking around for someone to blame.

These days, everyone's up in arms over our growing addiction to smartphones, the Internet, gaming, and of course social media.

According to a recent article in The New York Times, Silicon Valley's high-tech elite are concerned about the monster they created. They even have an annual conference called Wisdom 2.0 to debate whether they should do something about it or just keep right on feeding the monster.

Good for them. 

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Don't you just love it when beer and booze commercials say, "Drink responsibly" or when the GPS device in your car warns you that taking your eye off the road to watch the huge colorful display may result in injury or death? Thank you Captain Obvious.

I mean, does it help for McDonald's (MCD) to list what's really in its burgers and fries or for Big Tobacco to run all those anti-smoking ad campaigns? Honestly, I have no idea. What I do know is that asking public companies to actively market against their own products is as unnatural an act as asking a phone or cable company to lower their rates.

It always reminds me of that line from "Casablanca" where Captain Renault says, "I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!" and then collects his winnings.

Still, I grew up in the technology industry, so it should come as no surprise that I harbor a fair amount of guilt over the loss of our collective souls to the evils of high-tech gadgets, social media, and the like.

That's probably why I've been on something of a personal crusade to remind all of you that Facebook isn't real life, why you shouldn't take your smartphone to the bathroom, and the benefits of occasionally disconnecting so you can think and feel, whether you need to or not.

Since I know you're all just dying to hear more of my whimsical musings and sage advice on the subject, here's my take on what some of the good folks in Silicon Valley had to say in that article (which you can read in its entirety here). Just a second, I've got to check my Twitter feed, send this quick email and.... OK, ready.

Stuart Crabb, head of learning and development at Facebook (FB), said, "If you put a frog in cold water and slowly turn up the heat, it'll boil to death -- it's a nice analogy." He also suggested that people should "notice the effect that time online has on your performance and relationships," although he did acknowledge that his concerns were inconsistent with Facebook's business model of getting people to spend more time online.

He's essentially calling users frogs in various stages of being cooked alive and telling them they should have the good sense to get out of the water before it boils. I'm sure the guy's very popular at Facebook.

Meanwhile, Soren Gordhamer, who's in charge of the Wisdom 2.0 conference, said, "We're done with this honeymoon phase and now we're in this phase that says, 'Wow, what have we done?' It doesn't mean what we've done is bad. There's no blame. But there is a turning of the page."

Just so you know, this is a Dalai Lama-type guy who's into teaching mindfulness and running conferences and all that. His use of the term "we" isn't entirely accurate, especially considering that nobody who actually runs a technology business that depends on customers being online 24x7 would actually say something like that. Well, they might say it, but they sure don't mean it. 

On the other hand, Zynga (ZNGA) co-founder Eric Schiermeyer puts the onus squarely on users. While he admits to having "helped addict millions of people to dopamine, a neurochemical that has been shown to be released by pleasurable activities, including video game playing," he believes that "people already craved dopamine and that Silicon Valley was no more responsible for creating irresistible technologies than, say, fast-food restaurants were responsible for making food with such wide appeal."

I don't know if he's got the whole neurotransmitter thing completely right, but I've got to admit it makes sense to me. Besides, if you're actually addicted to FarmVille, you're sort of asking for trouble, don't you think?

Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal may have hit the nail on the head, saying, "The people who are running these companies deeply want their technology and devices to enhance lives. But they're becoming aware of people's inability to disengage."

"It's this basic cultural recognition that people have a pathological relationship with their devices," she said. "People feel not just addicted, but trapped."

Terms like "cultural recognition" and "pathological relationship" might be a little out of my domain of expertise, but I think the main point is that there is a real problem here and high-tech executives aren't clear on what, if anything, they should be doing about it when their jobs are to push the product.

Personally, I tend to be more of a free-market capitalism kind of guy who thinks companies should create great products that people want to buy and, as long as they stay on the right side of the law, they're more or less in good shape. It's really a matter of personal responsibility for each and every one of you to decide how to live your life.

On that subject, let me give you one piece of advice. I find it entirely impossible to come up with a single innovative idea when I'm staring at a computer screen or otherwise distracted by anything electronic. My mind just doesn't work that way. There are a lot of things that inspire me, but being online definitely isn't one of them. That's all there is to it.

Image courtesy of Flickr user manwithface