Digital dependence: it happens even to me

March 13, 2008 at 2:00 am Leave a comment

Kim photoLast week, I conducted the second of two Leadership workshops. We choofed off to a wonderful resort in the Hunter Valley. Surrounded by pastel landscapes, ponds swarming with koi and ducks, birds chiming, kangaroos grazing and the resort’s cat lazing around the Reception area, we were all looking forward to two days together.

I arrived Wednesday around lunchtime to check the conference facilities, with the participants arriving around 5.00pm. Natural lighting in conference room – check. Vegetarian options for dinner – check. Break-out areas for group activities – check. Cute looking animals outside conference room – check. Mobile phone and internet access – oops!

A sinking feeling hit me. No mobile phone signal because we are in a valley. No internet access, nada, zippo, zilch. Okay, I wasn’t really worried about the lack of mobile phone signal – who wants to get annoying work calls in a pristine conference setting like this?! But I knew that the participants – all high achievers at my workplace – would be anxious about lack of mobile phone access.

But no internet access? Gulp. How will I check what latest abusive email I’ve received from Americans upset at me for a recent post? (Come on guys: be brave and leave a comment instead of emailing me). How will I know if my latest photo has reached the dizzying heights of Explore on Flickr? How will I participate in the various social networks I frequent?

I began to feel disconnected. I wondered what we’d all do after the workshop each day. God forbid we should all engage in rich conversation or simply sit together contemplating the setting sun casting its final glow over the valley landscape! I hadn’t taken a book along with me either, so I couldn’t escape from the participants and lock myself up in my country-cottage decorated room.

5.00pm the participants arrived on the bus. How to tell them that they are so completely, well, isolated? How to deal with the pale faces and looks of fear when they realise that they would be disengaged from the workplace and unable to respond to their boss? How the heck do I contact my boss who is arriving 2 days from now and will want to know how it’s all going? What the hell did we do in this situation before mobile phones and the internet?

Questions rushed through my slightly panicked mind: How to deal with anxious, powerless people who were more worried about isolation than leadership issues? How to cope with the silence surrounding us? What do we do without cafes? How fast can I get to the phone in Reception before everyone realises that this is THE land-line to the outside world and it gets completely congested by frantic calls?

Okay calm down. My parents and grandparents spent countless evenings simply…gulp…talking to each other or singing together or being comfortable in silence, staring at a log fire. I rushed to the restaurant. There was a piano. We could do some karaoke! Nope, really bad idea. Hopefully, everyone would just get drunk over dinner the first night and no-one would remember that we’re pretty isolated!

That first night, I reflected on how dependent we’ve become on technology. Yep, I know this is not an original thought, but what had me surprised was that digital dependence had happened to me of all people. Why do I say that? Regular ThinkingShift readers would know of my general distaste for mobile phones. I refuse to be available 24/7. If I could zap the world’s mobile phone population, I would. What a Luddite! I am suspicious of technologies like Google and the enormous amount of information they can collect about you and me. Surveillance cameras get me into a real lather. Yet, here I was feeling freaked out over my own lack of access to the digital world. I felt that I’d be missing out on so much: would Hillary thrash Obama in Texas? What was the Reserve Bank doing about interest rates?

By the end of our time together, I think I’d be safe in saying we had all rediscovered to varying extents an inner calm. We relaxed over the lack of internet access and muttered c’est la vie. We sat around on the balcony at dusk, sipping drinks and….gasp…talked as a group. We talked about leadership, we talked about society, we talked about politics. We built up familiarity with each other. I discovered that some people I thought had attitude actually didn’t. I found that a dude I thought was cynical about leadership wasn’t. We discovered a lot about each other.

A number of participants rose early to go for a walk, watch the sun rise or (in my case) wait for that photo opportunity as the animals stirred in the bush. Many who said they would take the opportunity to sleep in and rush down at the last minute for breakfast instead woke early and deliberately sat at a table so they could meet and talk with someone they didn’t know. A few expressed their relief at actually being out of the reach of mobile phones, work and the wider world.

And as we all lay in our beds at night, surrounded by the bush and its sounds, I’m sure we all, to varying degrees, wished we could return to a time sans internet and those annoying BlackBerries aka slave berries.

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Entry filed under: Reflections.

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