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Newsflash: Facebook isn't real life

(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY Instead of living our lives, we're watching our timelines on a two-dimensional display. Instead of doing, we're content to observe events and post milestones on Facebook (FB). We're becoming a society of watchers.

Sure, I know you're all intelligent adults who understand there's a world of difference between watching and doing. But that doesn't change the reality that the vast majority of you are doing way too much observing and a whole lot less doing than you used to.

What's the impact of our crazy obsession with gadgets and social media? It turns each of you a little more into a poor, lazy, lifeless drone every day.

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How do I know that? The alarming data on how much time we spend online. The sobering obesity stats. And the hottest Google (GOOG) search trends of the past few days -- the Facebook IPO and the solar eclipse.

One hedge fund manager called Facebook's public offering a "train wreck." A top analyst said, "The underwriters completely screwed this up." Why did the investment bankers -- guys who are paid big bucks to get this sort of thing right -- get the most anticipated IPO in history so completely wrong?

It was so overhyped that even the technology industry's top underwriter, Morgan Stanley (MS), overestimated investor demand. Two days before the IPO, it jacked up the offering price and the number of available shares. That spooked investors. Even Morgan Stanley's efforts to prop up the stock price failed; it plunged 11 percent on the second day of trading.

More to the point, why were so many people Googling "Facebook IPO," and why did 100 million shares trade in the first four minutes of its Nasdaq debut? Do you think that would have happened if a Qualcomm (QCOM) or GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) had gone public Friday instead of Facebook? Why not?

Could it be that Americans, who spent 53.5 billion minutes on Facebook in a single month, bought shares in an IPO they had no business getting involved in?

And why were so many people searching the Web for information and pictures of the rare annular solar eclipse the day after the big event? Viewing it while it's happening or being part of an eclipse watching event party I can certainly understand. But watching it the day after? Really?

Yes, there's a world of difference between watching and doing. But somehow that world is vanishing. Instead of living in the real world, we're all watching our timelines on a little display. Instead of interacting with each other, we're all clicking away on a virtual keyboard.

No, I'm not a technophobe. On the contrary, science and technology have given me a successful and fulfilling career and a happy life. But none of that would have happened had I been content to observe instead of being driven to act.

You see, when I was a kid I was fascinated with space. I imagined what it would be like to somehow observe a supernova up close or be an astronaut traveling to a distant star.

My parents took me to see "2001: A Space Odyssey" at Radio City Music Hall when I was 11. I had no clue what the beginning and the end meant, but the middle was pretty cool and it inspired me. Wanting to learn more, I read the book by Arthur C. Clarke. The Hal 9000, technology, sci-fi -- I couldn't get enough of that stuff.

So when I stumbled as a premed major in college, I decided to follow my first true love. I took some astronomy courses and ended up getting a degree in physics. That led to a master's in electrical engineering, which brought me to the fledgling technology industry and Silicon Valley. The rest, as they say, is history.

The point is this. Sure, I watched Star Trek every week, saw loads of sci-fi movies, and read books by Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov. I even wrote letters to observatories to get photos of nebulae and galaxies. It was all very inspiring, but not on its own. It was a means to an end. I actually wanted to do that stuff.

No, I didn't get to be an astronaut or Captain Kirk. But I did get to be a high-tech executive and embark on an amazing journey that, so far, has lasted for over 30 years. And none of that would have happened had I been content to live my life in the pages of a book or the images on a display, big or small.

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