Unplug And Repent

cell phone cellphones
This Against the Grain commentary is written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.

I spent Memorial Day weekend on Lake Kishkutena in remote northwest Ontario with two nine year-old boys and another dad, a high powered white collar crime lawyer. I left the north woods with a belly full of smallmouth bass, two boys filled with memories and a new mantra: unplug and repent.

It took just about 48 hours for this over-stimulated group of males, including me, to devolve from the digital age to the hunter-gatherer age. And it was a blast.

Our Washington lives, the boys included, can be pretty ridiculous – like those of too many modern Americans.

Me first: I'm an online journalist, so I sit in front a computer all day with at least three browsers open, instant messages pinging, TV monitors behind me, a phone headset next to me and a beeper on my belt. And I'm a technophobe; my colleagues who like gadgets multi-task circles around me.

Daniel Meyer, rising fourth-grader, is cursed to have parents who let him watch just an hour of television a week, supplemented by a few sessions of high-powered bouts with James Bond and John Madden on computer games. By today's measures, he's an electronic anorexic.

But we haven't shielded him from another modern malady: over-scheduling. Each week, Daniel navigates a soccer game, a soccer practice, Tae Kwon Do, music lessons and religious school, twice. O yeah, and regular school – with homework! I didn't have a schedule like that until I had been at CBS for a decade.

Lanny the Lawyer makes me look like a piker. He travels more, he has more meetings and he has that tool of Satan -- a Blackberry, so his e-mail follows him wherever he goes. Ben's life is pretty much like Daniel's except he fights with an older brother instead of a sister.

I hope you get the picture that this is not a group primed for patience and the slow lane.

But after a few hours without television, computers and Game Boys, these two boys were spending four hours at a pop in a small boat not catching fish. After a couple days of lousy fishing, the rain came. And the boys spent the day – as in ten hours – reading books or making stuff up. Lanny and I did the same. And we all loved every second of the trip and were sad to leave.

Daniel and I go to Kish whenever we can and we get cranky when we can't. I've sought the virtues of nature, isolation and wily bass my whole life. But something about bringing newcomers there made me realize that technology now plays a huge roll in cluttering up our lives and heads. Yes, we're all too busy. Yes, road rage, terrorism and trans-fatty acids add stress to our days. But these information machines we are constantly plugging into or, lately, plugging into our bodies, are going to drive us loony.

The greatest testimonial to the hideous and dehumanizing vapidity of the information revolution that I routinely witness is the landing of the Washington-New York Delta Shuttle. At touchdown, you hear the instant chirps of cell phones turned on, PDA's opened, laptops fired up and pagers flicked open. Expert thumbs pound out messages on keyboards the size of Oreos. And then the suited warriors truly arm themselves for battle: the earpieces go in, the microphones clipped to lapels. Some are wireless, post-space age crescents protruding from investment banking ears. Some plug into personal digital assistants that are phones, laptops and spouses rolled into one. Never do I feel so alienated from my species.

Next comes the part when you get to listen to everyone's conversations. The cell phone-talker-with-earpiece has abandoned privacy. Indeed, talking on the phone with no visible phone is a new kind of passive-aggressive anti-social behavior. How many times have you been walking down the street when you sharply turn to the person next to you who is talking in a full voice into the ether, with no apparent phone? Of course, you think the person is talking to you, but no. Headset. And then it's you that is embarrassed, not the strange cell phone talker. (For a more systematic rant about technology versus manners, see Attack Of The Pig People.)

Are all these phone calls and e-mails necessary? Are we all that important? Do our messages have to follow us home from work? Onto the airplane, into the bathroom, the drugstore, the lunch counter and school play? Does any of this enhance our lives?

All these screens and bits and bauds and quick cuts alter the way our brains work. Attention spans atrophy and aggressions pile up. This is true for nine year-olds and 45 year-olds.

My complaints may seem odd or even totally hypocritical since I earn a living as a purveyor of electronic information. But the opportunity and promise of a news site like this and of new information technology in general is to have what you want available when you want it. The danger comes when you become a slave to the information or the technology, to being in touch with it, to being connected, to being available. It's addictive and corrosive in subtle ways. The convenience and freedoms of technology can so easily become a burden. But it can be controlled, by you.

If you don't believe me, go fishing and see what happens.

Dick Meyer, the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, has covered politics and government in Washington for 20 years and has won the Investigative Reporters and Editors, Alfred I. Dupont, and Society of Professional Journalists awards for investigative journalism.

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By Dick Meyer