The Art of Unplugged Conversation: Detoxing My Brain from Ubiquitous Distractions

Last Friday, I had dinner and drinks with few friends from law school. We talked about everything and nothing, catching up on each other’s lives having not seen each other in quite some time. At one point, we were discussing about a movie or some TV show, and there arose a dispute about which actor played which character. And couple of us immediately broke out our smartphones and started searching on IMDB. I commented that in the olden days, these types of arguments were more interesting because it would lead to bets on who was right. Another friend replied, “this is better because we get to immediately settle the bets.” But with the instant gratification of being able to locate the answer, few of us ever engage in these friendly bets anymore.

I’m not here to lament the decline of wagering or gambling. I am reminiscing the days when we used to engage in deeper human relations rather than resorting to the Interwebs for instant answers. Before we became tethered to our smartphones, a friendly bet over who had the right answer would lead to everyone going home, remembering the conversations they shared with the friends, researching the answer, and inevitably lead up to the “I told you so” conversation. That’s how relationships build: over repeated encounters and having interesting stories by which to remember those moments. Googling, IMDBing, and Wikipediaing right then and there when a good material for a bet comes up… it takes away the human element. You wouldn’t watch a sitcom where all that the characters did was searching on their phones; you watch sitcoms for the intricacies and quirks of human interactions.

The phenomenon of over-dependence on–or dare I say, addiction to–technology isn’t limited to the friendly bet situations. Too often, we constantly look at our phones mid-conversation. Emails, texts, Facebook, Twitter… Distractions abound that interfere with deeply engaging with the person sitting in front of you. I’ve had some friends who read news or Facebook feeds while talking with me over dinner or drinks. I sometimes half-jokingly ask them, “am I that bad of a company?” I’m sure they don’t mean to be rude, but they are used to the constant media stimulus with which I cannot possible compete even if I were standup-comedian funny.

By no means am I free of this sin; I’m just a guilty as the next one. I think it got exponentially worse when I switched from a non-smartphone to an iPhone. I had gone from a Blackberry to a non-smartphone during second year of law school to (1) save money while on a student budget and (2) “unpluggin” from the constant stream of emails. (SMU Law alums could relate; it was the ALLLAW emails that drove me to become a Luddite with respect to smartphones.) Then I got a real law firm job where receiving and replying to emails around the clock was the expected norm; I had to give in to the iPhone epidemic. Not too long after the switch, I noticed that I would exchange long strings of text messages or emails despite complaining about my fat fingers and the atrocious auto-correct errors. Dialing a number and speaking to the other person would have been much faster and more accurate. I also noticed that I send emails at the office to my colleagues when I could just as easily walk 10 seconds down the hallway and have a face-to-face conversation. And I was constantly staring at my phone to check for push notifications when I was working on my computer. There a mesmerizing, addictive quality to those push notification badges.

Something had to change, I told myself one day. I didn’t want to become an attorney I know who stared at his Blackberry at least 80% of the time we had lunch together. So I resolved to call my friends rather than texting them. I started walking over to talk to my colleagues at work rather than shooting one-liner emails. I turned off most of the lock screen notifications on my iPhone except for work emails and text messages. I made an intentional effort to put away my phone when I’m talking with someone.

Old habits are hard to kick, though. I still do check email and Facebook constantly on my phone. And when I tried calling my friends, I kept getting voicemail rather than being able to speak to them directly. Some would text back asking “what’s up?” I realized then that my resolution to call rather than text was unrequited for the most part, so I eased up on that front over time.

Then I recently had refreshing occasions where I got to enjoy lengthy unplugged conversations with people–ones free of interruptions from technology and gadgets.

It was a couple of days after the aforementioned bet incident (or the lack thereof), I met up a different friend for dinner. I picked a Korean restaurant to meet at, and he needed some directions. So we talked on the phone and texted until he arrived at the appointed place. Then, without an overt agreement, we both put away our phones. He’s much less media-addicted than me, so it probably wasn’t a big deal to him. But I put mine away in my purse, and didn’t even bother to check in on Facebook or FourSquare. We talked for nearly two hours about life, job, school, health, family, faith, and even world economy and finances. He had an article he wanted to share with me, and he said he’ll send it to me later. I didn’t think much of it at the dinner, but afterwards I thought that I much preferred this way of communicating: Give the in-person conversation your undivided attention; you can follow up with details later rather than rudely breaking out your phone to send it to the person sitting in front of you while he stares at the top of your head in boredom.

Another case in point. On Tuesday, I had a lunch with an acquaintance. I needed directions on the meeting location, so we communicated via iPhone/iPad until we met up. Then we put away out iDevices (again unplanned) and talked. For a good 1.5 to 1.75 hours straight. After that long conversation, I feel like I know him much better and he knows more about me–to the point where I think there would be little hesitation from either of us to call each other “friend” the next time we meet.

Then I came upon this gem of a video last night:

Too much, too fast makes us too dumb to remember anything worth remembering. While I can’t even remember what my friends and I were debating over during the bet incident, I clearly remember other conversations we had over subjective preferences and differences of opinions–to which one cannot Google for an answer. Having 24/7 access to smartphones with at our fingertips doesn’t make us smarter, wiser, or more efficient. It certainly doesn’t make us more attentive or increase retention. Makes me wonder then: why are we in such a hurry? Why do we feel the need for around-the-clock access to emails, news, social media feeds, and other forms of media?

So the contrarian in me decided to go on a type of “media fast” for next few days–perhaps indefinitely. I’ll come back here to report my experimental observations, though. Stay tuned.