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Digital Zombie Series: Invisible Cell Phone Shields

In the movie Harry Potter, one of the most fantastical moments happens when Harry receives his invisibility cloak, passed down from his father. It was a powerful moment in those movies and a tool that Harry would utilize many times over in the following films to help get him in and out of trouble.

SJ when he first thought of Smartphones...

SJ when he first thought of Smartphones…

While this magic may seem like fiction, I have news for you. Most of us now harness the power of invisibility in the palm of our hands.  My wife and I began to refer to the magic of what we called the “Invisible Cell Phone Shield”, or ICPS, back before smartphones were even a twinkle in Steve Jobs’ eye.  I remember my first encounter with this phenomenon back in 2004.

I had recently purchased what I then described to my wife as “the last cell phone I’ll ever own” —the Motorola RAZR.  It was so cool and slick and shiny and even looked like it could be some sort of weapon.   At any rate, we were waiting for a friend outside of a University of Texas basketball game who was supposed to bring us some tickets.  Texting wasn’t really wide-spread at the time so I was stuck with this RAZR attached to my head trying to get a hold of him.  We wandered around outside the arena for about 20 minutes, my wife’s foot tapping impatiently with every passing minute.

At that moment, I captured my first glimpse of the power of invisibility.  As I wandered over by the “Player Will Call” door, phone still firmly planted on my ear and a furrowed brow across my face, the door magically opened.  An usher, seeing my stress and now doubt high-status phone had surmised that we must be trying to get in.  However, rather than bother me with a question like “can I see your tickets?” he instead let us wander right in through the back door and practically onto the court.

When we got inside my wife looked at me in dismay and said, “what just happened?”  I didn’t have an answer for her, but somehow we were now sitting court-side at a basketball game in seats we had no business being in.  We both began to get nervous.  I called my friend again. No response.  The game was about to start.  An usher, looked in our direction and started walking toward us.  Carefully and purposefully, I picked up my phone and placed it on my ear.  This time, I acted like I was in a deep conversation.  The usher approached, paused for a moment, then moved on with a sort of dumb-founded look on his face.  It worked again!!

One place ICPS didn't work...

One place ICPS didn’t work…

After tip-off we were able to finally locate our friend and go to our actual seats, but that moment stuck in both of our heads.  What was this witchcraft that made us invisible?  Could it work anywhere else?  (short answer- no, something I would find out the following year when I tried to use it to sneak into the 2005 National Championship game)

We had discovered a secret power this mobile technology held.  It made us not only somewhat invisible, but also protected us from harm or questioning.  It was the Invisible Cell Phone Shield and it was a great thing to behold.

That was 10 years ago. Today, you see this ICPS as common place throughout modern society.  People walking down the street, holding the phone up to their ear to avoid real conversation.  Hanging out near a grocery store exit around Girl Scout cookie time is a great time to watch this phenomenon in action.  Even the Girl Scouts can’t seem to penetrate its defenses.  Common waiting areas like bus stops, elevators, doctor’s offices, etc seem to also have a case of widespread ICPS.   I even witnessed our beloved former UT football coach Mack Brown using the Invisible Cell Phone Shield recently when I saw him walking through the airport.

What started out as a magical tool, a cloak that could help me get in and out of trouble, has now become a means of social isolation.  It has become a necessity when going out into the world and mixing in public places with strangers.  And now that these are all smartphones (update: the RAZR was not the last phone I ever bought) it seems as if we don’t even have to press the device to our ear to gain the power of invisibility.

This video called “Look up” was released recently and has gone viral on social media (ironic considering the content).

In the video the author demonstrates a situation where he chose to make himself invisible and in doing so, misses the opportunity to interact with the future love of his life. While I think this is an extreme example of how too connected/not connected we are as a society, it demonstrates perfectly what’s happened to this once magical power.  It’s almost like Harry got the cloak, put it on, and never took it off again, especially when it came to being a crowd of strangers.

So my new challenge for all of the world is not to just go out and be ‘visible’ by detaching yourself from your phone.  Instead, I challenge you to break someone’s Invisible Cell Phone Shield and actually interact with them.   It will seem uncomfortable and almost like an invasion of privacy. But it isn’t.  You’ll probably get a perplexed look that says “can’t you see I’m on the phone?” or “seriously, I’m texting someone now, why are you bothering me?”  but I encourage you to fight against this disease that I once considered magic.

After all, you never know who you might meet….

My #selfie w/Mack after I broke his ICPS

My #selfie w/Mack after I broke his ICPS

 

 Note: This post is the fourth installment of a 5-part series on digital zombies, re-animated, if you will, from my SXSW presentation on Surviving the Digital Zombie Apocalypse.

Digital Zombie Series: “Notifistraction” Disease

Original Image here: http://goo.gl/XNgMhR

Original Image here: http://goo.gl/XNgMhR

Since the beginning of time, man has always had an innate sense of alertness.  In our primitive self, that alertness was used to make us aware of dangers around us.  Imagine it – you are hunting and gathering food when all the sudden, you happen upon a pond with fresh water.  You bend over to quench your thirst or possibly fill a jug with water for your family, when all of the sudden you hear a twig…

SNAP!!

You turn and look for what blood-crazed beast might be approaching you.  It turns out to be a smaller creature…like a squirrel (Look! Squirrel!).  Following  your expience with the varmint, you travel cautiously back to your cave having survived certain death.  When you arrive home to your wife and kids you discover that you left your jug full of water behind.  “What were you thinking?” she might ask (although back then it might be more like a series of grunts).  Your response would be simply “Ah dunno” (which in modern times still sounds like a series of grunts).

The truth is, you were distracted.  Your brain refocused attention and energy toward survival and alertness.  In that moment, you forgot the water jug and simply returned home.  To set this more in modern times, have you ever gone into a room to look for something and then something else caught your eye or someone asked you a question at which point you forget why you are in the room? You might even travel back into the original room to sort of mentally “retrace” your steps and try and figure out why you were going into a certain room.

I know I’ve probably paid hundreds of dollars in wasted electricity staring into the refrigerator pondering why I went there in the first place.  By our very nature, we are victims of distraction.  Distraction causes our brain to alter their original course of action whenever a new stimulus is produced.  Some of us have become quite acute at managing this and claim to be multitaskers (a theory that is seemingly debunked weekly).  Others have figured out ways to block out distraction when working on a task.

Enter the era of smartphones and notification alerts.  All the sudden, something as small and innocent as a beep or tweet causes us to lose focus on our task at hand.  I’m calling this “Notifistraction” (No-tis-fah-strac-shun) Disease, or the mash up of notifications and the distraction they cause.  Despite our best efforts to focus our brains still revert back to the stone age twig-snapping event whenever our devices alert us about something.

And that’s only part of it.  A local cyber-psychologist  here in Austin, Dr. Mike Brooks, says that we are becoming addicted to our alert notifications.  He states that we get small endorphin rushes to our brain whenever we get an alert notifying us that someone has connected with us.  This can be either mentioning us in a tweet, tagging us in a photo, or commenting on our YouTube video for example.  That connection creates endorphins which is subconsciously associated to the sound or sight of a notification alert.

Think of this rat in B.F. Skinner’s famous rat experiment on Operant Conditioning as a simple example of this conditioning.

A more modern example might be the feeling one gets when walking through a casino and listening to the slot machine make all sorts of bells and whistles to claim we have won something.  That same primitive level of satisfaction combined with our inability to control perfect focus when distracted make Notifistraction Disease another sign that the Digital Zombie Apocalypse is upon us.

Like everything else I’ve written in this series, I have had some level of personal challenges to overcome when it comes to notifistractions.  Recently, I was honored to receive a new Pebble watch as a going away present from my TEC-SIG presidency. Just like any new gizmo, I love the watch.  I can see my running times on it, can bring up the weather, and can even be notified when my washing machine is done with my clothes.  It uses the smartphone as sort of a “main frame” and just relays alerts to the watch.  Now I have notifistractions literally tethered to my body!

Now, as with Digital Yawns, the good news is there are some homeopathic cures out there for those of us suffering from Notifistraction Disease.  Here are some tools I’ve deployed personally to help me get through a project or just simply enjoy time with my kids and family without my attention being drawn else where. It’s already come in handy when we went on a recent family trip and I noticed that the airport had mis-tagged our car seats which would have sent them to a totally different city.  If my nose had been buried in my phone, I wouldn’t have caught that slip-up.

1. Turn Off Notification Alerts –

I have turned off all audio alerts except for text messages and phone calls.  While this might not seem like much of a sacrifice, at one point I was getting Foursquare alerts about how good of mileage Greg Garner made on a recent run.  Do I really need to know that? (he’s fast by the way)  My next step is turning off that little alert icon that appears on my apps as I don’t need to see the 999 unread email messages I might have.

2. Don’t Respond to Everything Right Away – 

I try not to respond or read alerts or social media while sitting in the car.  Notice I didn’t say “while driving”.  This is still a bit of a challenge, because, just like the Skinner rat, I sometimes want to know what someone is sending me.  Of course, with the new watch, I can see the alert on my wrist and just choose not to respond, but that’s still a distraction.

3. Employ the “Pomodoro Technique” –

The Pomodoro Kitchen timer

The Pomodoro Kitchen timer

When working on a project, I employ the “Pomodoro Technique“.  I have to give props to Lisa Johnson for sending this my way, but it’s a simple technique used to maintain focus throughout a project.  Here’s how it works.  You write down a goal or project that you need to work on.  Then you basically turn off all notifications, shut down email, turn off your phone, etc for a period of 25 minutes.  When the 25 minutes is up, you can take a break for 5 minutes to check email, social media, your clothes in the washing machine, etc but then you have to get back to work on the task for another 25 minute period.  I even employed this technique while writing this post!

Let’s face it, we’ve been distracted creatures for thousands of years, but it’s time we started managing those distractions and not letting them rule our lives. Do we really need to know when our washing machine is done?  The next time you suffer from Notifistraction Disease, ask yourself, is it really important that I get this alert on my phone?  You might find yourself being distracted by more pleasant things like nature and birds and…..squirrels!

Now….what was I saying?

 Note: This post is the third installment of a 5-part series on digital zombies, re-animated, if you will, from my SXSW presentation on Surviving the Digital Zombie Apocalypse.

Digital Zombie Series: Can We Ever Be Alone Again?

My original avatar...very prophetic

My original avatar…very prophetic

Lately I’ve noticed a strange phenomenon that occurs at traffic lights around town.  The light turns green and the first car, after some hesitation, pulls forward.  Then the next one, after another prolongued delay, does the same.  This continues until maybe 4 or 5 cars have traveled through what would normally be a 10-12 car light.   When I look over at the drivers, they are all doing the same thing: checking their phones.

We’ve seen a lot of commentary on the web recently about our addiction to our phones.  Last week I wrote a post about the Digital Yawn, an event that seems to happen more and more in social settings.  This restaurant in Beirut actually gives you a 10% discount if you turn in your phone and socialize a their restaurant.  And for those of us that must remain connected, the city of Philadelphia implemented these texting and walking lanes near city hall so we don’t crash into each other.

NPR has released a couple of thought-provoking materials in recent months including this article that “We Are Just Not Here Anymore.”  In the article, the author Linton Weeks takes us through the concept of the “Severed Self” and asks the question, “how can we ever feel comfortable with others when we don’t even feel comfortable with ourselves?” He mentions a course at the University of Washington where a professor actually teaches his students patience, reflection and meditation by “unplugging” for a few minutes before class.

In September of 2013, NPR’s All Tech Considered site released a short film titled “Forgot My Phone” by videographer Charlene deGuzman.  It was meant to be somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but actually highlighted the fact that we aren’t really present unless we are connecting and documenting our lives on our devices.  I found myself both laughing and crying during the two minutes of this video.

Lastly, comedian Louis C.K. went on a comedic rant about cell phones on the Conan show. In his interview he mentions the fact that we can’t truly ever be alone and “be ourselves and just sit there.  Being a person.”  He goes on to say that “underneath everything, there’s that thing…you know…that empty.  That knowledge that we are all alone. It’s down there.”  While he’s a comedian, I think he’s waxing poetic about the fact that we can’t  let ourselves ever be truly happy or truly sad because we are constantly connected.

As educators (and parents) we need to work with kids (and ourselves) in balancing our lives in every way. We talk with them about eating right.  We talk with them about manners. We talk with them on how to behave in various situations. I’m going to argue it’s time we talk to them about when it’s ok not to connect.  When it’s ok to just “be”.

I’ve struggled with this personally as I’ve always felt my phone was an extension of my hand. Then, several months ago, one of my daughters told me, “daddy, can you put down your phone and pay attention to me?”  It broke my heart but also alerted me to a larger problem.  The message I was sending her then 4-year old mind was that the phone was more important to me than her.  I also found myself feeding our youngest daughter her bottle at night with one hand with my phone was in the other.  I was missing that magical moment of physical connection with her, because of my need to have a virtual one.

So I decided to change.

I started to enforce these 5 simple rules for myself:

1. When I get home, the phone gets plugged into the charger and that’s where it sits the whole night.

2. While the kids are awake, I don’t work, connect, tweet, blog, etc. I just spend time with my family.

3. When feeding the baby and getting her to go to sleep, no technology whatsoever.

4. After the kids are in bed, unless it’s a major project, I don’t work or tweet or blog.  I spend time with my wife watching a show (lately it’s been House of Cards) or washing dishes or cleaning up toys or just talking.

5. The phone stays downstairs, connected to the charger all night.  It doesn’t go into my bedroom.

Though I haven’t followed these rules every single day, I find them easy enough to maintain and actually find that I’m working a lot more efficiently because of my disconnection.  When feeding our youngest her bottle at night, I take the time to connect with her, but I also use that time as sort of “reflection meditation” if you will.  I reflect and evaluate my day.  I think about creative projects that I need to start or problems that I need to solve.

I discovered that I can just “be alone” digitally and the world will move along regardless.

So the next time you are at that traffic light or in that waiting room, hold off on taking out your phone and checking it even if it hurts. Instead, take a moment to breathe in life.

Reflect.

Think.

And just “be”.

Note: This post is the second installment of a 5-part series on digital zombies, re-animated, if you will, from my SXSW presentation on Surviving the Digital Zombie Apocalypse.