Ruth Marcus: Freedom from our own devices

BY RUTH MARCUS Published: May 23, 2012
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Google executive Eric Schmidt offered some seemingly simple advice in his commencement address at Boston University last weekend: “Take one hour a day and turn that thing off.”

This is odd coming from a man whose career has been based, with enormous success, on making it ever harder to turn that thing off.

And Schmidt means things, plural: iPhone, iPad, laptop, desktop, BlackBerry, Kindle. We are multiply wired, ensnared — for better and for worse — in a world of ubiquitous technology.

“What's the first thing that you guys do when you wake up? Right? Check your phone, your laptop. Read some emails. Comb through your social networks. I'm awake, here I am! Right? If you're awake, you're online, you're connected,” Schmidt said. “Some of you are probably texting right now, or tweeting the speech, changing your status.”

In the official video, as Schmidt speaks, the camera focuses on graduates in mortarboards, tapping away.

Schmidt's message, naturally, was not anti-technology — it was anti-being-ruled-by technology. “People bemoan this generation that is growing up living life in front of screens, always connected to something or someone,” he said. “These people are wrong. … The fact that we're all connected now is a blessing, not a curse.”

Mostly, which is where Schmidt's piece of takeaway advice came in. “I know it's going to be hard,” he said. “Shut it down. Learn where the off button is.”

Here, Schmidt could not resist a series of digs at an unnamed Other Company. “Don't push a button saying I like something — actually tell them,” he said. “Life is not lived in the glow of a monitor. Life is not a series of status updates.”

As commencement speaker advice goes, this is pretty good. There's a chance that, unlike most platitudes of the not-an-end-but-a-beginning genre, it will stick.

But what struck me about Schmidt's challenge is how difficult so many of us would find it to implement — and how pathetically modest the goal of unplugging for a mere hour a day actually is.

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