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Adam Smeltz: In an Instant-Communication Age, Embracing the Dead Zone

on March 05, 2012 8:13 AM

There's this place I go sometimes -- it has no cell-phone service.

No voice connections. No data. Just a big goose egg.

No easy Internet access otherwise, either. Dial-up would work -- if there were a dial-up modem around.

No, though: This place, a remote family outpost in the wilds of western Pennsylvania, is mostly cut off from the digital revolution. Instant communication is still limited to phone calls dialed on a landline -- no caller ID and no call waiting included. In fact, the last rotary device there wasn't disconnected until the past year or so.

As a somewhat-younger guy, I found the apparent isolation insufferable, suffocating, debilitating. There were text messages to be answered, e-mails to be read, real-time headlines to be scoured. I obsessed: What was I missing? Circumstances kept me from finding out. It was like watching a junkie go to rehab.

But with age comes perspective. And with perspective has come a new realization:

Losing Internet connectivity, if only for a couple days at a time, helps restore real-life, slower-speed ties and nuances that have suffered in our hyper-connected age.

Forgive me: I know -- I normally occupy this space with news-related perspectives. This isn't that. In light of Penn State's spring break this week, as State College slips into an annual slumber, this just seems a fitting moment to meditate on slowing down.

A recent study cited by CNN found its subjects checked their smartphones 34 times a day -- on average. At times, they looked at the devices at intervals of fewer than 10 minutes.

If I had to guess, I'd figure people in journalism are among the worst offenders, though we're certainly not the only ones. We allow our in-person interactions to be fragmented, our attention to be hopelessly divided, our emotions to be stunted because we're not ever really -- really -- fully in one place at one time.

We tell ourselves it's a necessary evil. It's what the new world -- new, super-wired society -- expects of us. And we're probably right. Failure to be accessible can mean big sacrifices -- in the news business, for instance, not being first on a big story, or missing a critical call back from a pivotal source.

But when my smartphone goes unapologetically dead in the western-Pennsylvania wilds, I rediscover realities that our digital obsession forgets.

It's the ability, on a Sunday morning, to daydream uninterrupted for hours, to brainstorm big ideas that take more than five minutes to cook up and think through.

It's the chance to reconnect with family and old friends, to give them undiluted attention and study the subtleties of their expressions, their thoughts. It's a chance for life-altering epiphanies.

It's an opportunity to read a new book -- or the Sunday Times -- from start to finish without an uninvited interruption. It's a moment to contemplate deeply, form full thoughts and take full command of our time.

The digitization and immediacy of our communication have stripped of us so much control -- control over our time, the ability to be left alone with our thoughts. The Internet follows us to bed, to our nightstands, to our first waking hours.

On this quiet and sluggish spring break, here's my wish for readers: Every once in a while, embrace the dead zone. If you're not near one, create your own: Silence or turn off the mobile devices for just a little while.

It's not that smartphones or the Information Age are all bad. It's just that there's a bigger world -- a bigger life -- waiting off the screen. Submerge yourself in it occasionally.

The rest of the world can wait.

And it will.

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