New! My Talk at Google's 2018 I/O Conference on Building Healthier Relations with Technology

A CNN.com Blog: Does It Matter Where and When We Are?

I was asked to write this CNN.com blog as part of their recent series on our mobile society:

 

Tonight, as my husband stands in our bedroom, fingers whirling across his smartphone and eyes glued to its tiny screen, I have no idea “where” he is. Is he checking the score of his beloved home team, or dealing with a rant from an indefatigable boss overseas? Is he working or home-ing, or both?

This melding of work and home, of course, is an old story. In 1999, I wrote an article about three generations of a Baltimore family and their work-life balance. Shattering my romantic views on what it was like to live a few easy steps from work — literally over the store — the family’s elderly patriarch told me that his parents couldn’t wait to move to the suburbs and put some distance between family and work. Their hardware business had shadowed their evenings and weekends, stealing peace. Decades later, the patriarch’s restless, cell phone-toting, entrepreneurial son blamed the portability of work for his recent divorce. … read more

Digital Dharma: The Art of Preservation in a Copy-Paste World

Replication is at the heart of life. The genetic information encoded in our DNA allows new life to be passed along and to evolve. Children learn through imitation. And the copying of written information allows us to build on the past and make knowledge accessible. Gutenberg turned a wine press into a vehicle for individual enlightenment.

E. Gene Smith, a scholar of Tibetan literature and the subject of an intriguing new documentary, was a highly original hero – of the copy. At his death in 2010, he left behind a single volume of essays, but an enormous lifework: the preservation and reproduction of tens of thousands of rare, seminal Tibetan texts from a canon integral to the history of Buddhism. In an age when information seems quick, easy and even expendable, the film Digital Dharma should make us think carefully about technology’s relationship to replication in our post-analog lives.

As a lanky young man with a flair for languages, Smith was earning a PhD at the University of Washington in the early 1960s when he became a student of Tibetan lama and refugee, Dezhung Rinpoche. But Smith’s studies were stymied by a lack of texts. The country’s astonishing canon was imperiled first by the Chinese occupation and later the Cultural Revolution, when monasteries, libraries and books collections were destroyed in huge numbers.

The destruction wasn’t merely symbolic. Most often, no other copy existed when a Tibetan text went up in flames. Even into the 20th century, Tibet had no printing presses, so texts consisted of hand-lettered manuscripts or books printed from carved wooden blocks. Moreover, the texts themselves are crucial to world history. Tibet is one of four languages in which the Buddhist canon – or dharma – is preserved, and the country’s vibrant literature as a whole reflects its place as a crossroads of Asia. The losses were akin to the destruction of the library at Alexandria.

Enter Smith, a Mormon-turned-Buddhist who began a personal, decades long quest to search and recover and then print copies of thousands of Tibetan books and texts. Working for the Library of Congress from New Delhi beginning in the 1960s, he traveled tirelessly across India, Nepal and Bhutan to find texts that refugees were hiding, then found ways to use U.S. aid to fund the printing of new copies. With velvet guile, he navigated Cold War and Sino-Tibetan politics, always placing the books – not human differences – at the center of his quest. “The idea is to deliver the tradition back to the owners of the traditions,” he told the Buddhist magazine Mandala in 2001.

Smith’s vast publishing efforts, however, didn’t stop at the printed page. The movie climaxes with his late-life efforts to digitize the vast collection he accumulated at the Cambridge, Mass.-based Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center, and his 2008 travels back to Nepal and India to give exiled Tibetan monks laptops and hard drives containing their own monasteries’ sacred, now-digitized collections. The monks were ecstatic. In the film, one beaming abbot wears a pouch around his neck containing a flashdrive that Smith mischievously told him was an “amulet.” Is this the magic of technology? At the first joyous monk-meets-computer moment, the audience at the film’s July 25 New York premiere burst into applause.

The story seemingly ends there. But digitizing isn’t a magic solution. The laptops will need upgrades, the flashdrives must be updated, and digital media is more fragile than we often imagine. We must offer as much curatorial care to a digital canon as we should to the vast and still-important treasures of our print age. As well, the speed and invisibility of the digital neatly hides the truth of entropy. Just as our genes mutate, our traditions evolve, and our stories change, so too a digitized canon will shift little by little in the making. (Just peek at Google Books, with its typos and missing pages, to see that copying is never perfect.) Just as our ability to see the world is a construction – our vision is interpreted by our minds – so too the handing down any bits of culture for the future is a building, a choosing, an incremental shoring up.

Today, we too often believe that technology neatly solves a problem when in reality, technology merely shifts the nature of the challenges before us. I have no doubt that the inestimable Gene Smith deeply understood this. But do we, as consumers, producers and curators of the new canons of our age, understand what we are doing? Perhaps we should copy and paste a little less often, and think about knowledge a little bit more. Gene Smith’s vision will be missed.

The film, directed by Dafna Yachin, will be screened August 1, 8, 15, 22, 29 and September 5 at the Rubin Museum in New York; as well as August 17-23 at the DocuWeeks film festival in New York, and August 10-16 at DocuWeeks Los Angeles.

 

The Secret of Reinvention in an Age of Longer Living

In a new world of elongated lives and career fluidity, we need to have patience – with ourselves.

That was perhaps the most poignant and startling point articulated by a panel on “Second Careers, Doing Good” held last weekend at my Yale college reunion. I put together the event to explore the trepidation and the liberation that we all seem to feel about the gift of a longer life. Like others in the Boomer cohort, we are eagerly planning or pursuing new careers, which often involve social impact. But reshaping our lives doesn’t occur with push-button speed or ease.

The world has changed in startling ways in the 30 years since my class of 1982 graduated from college. In that year, Sony introduced the first compact CD player and Time magazine’s person of the year was the computer (desktop, of course). Life expectancy was 74, a huge uptick from the 61 years allotted to the average person born in 1935. Today, the smart phone is our teddy bear and cognitive prosthetic – and we’re apt to live to nearly 80, with more of these years than not spent in good health. Gender roles and work-home boundaries have blurred, and we can work anywhere, anytime. The idea of a second or even a portfolio of careers builds on this culture of fluidity, as much as on the potential of a longer life. Otherwise, we’d simply be hoping for longer time on the golf course. Voltaire once said, it’s better to wear out than rust out. My classmates and I don’t want to do either.

But amidst lives of flux, we need patience, said panelist Scott Gelband, a lawyer turned co-founder and executive director of Seattle Music Partners, a non-profit that gives free music lessons to schoolchildren. After burning out on corporate finance law, Gelband went home to a “year in my pajamas.” He told 175 of our classmates and spouses that he had to think long and hard about what to do next – while facing raised eyebrows from family and former colleagues.

As a father, panelist Fred Leone told of wrestling with the question of whether he should take a steep pay cut to lead a non-profit that builds playgrounds for children with disabilities – until his 12-year-old son urged him to make the leap. “Those children need you,” Fred’s son said. Leone, former chief executive officer of Boundless Playgrounds, made the shift, and is now hoping to make another change, and start a new non-profit.

Moving into an encore career does not come easily – or without leaps of faith, said panelist Harriet Rogers Linskey, a marketer turned co-founder of Hands Across the Sea, a non-profit working to improve child literacy in the Caribbean. At first, she and her husband, Tom Linskey, did not recognize how many skills they could bring to their new lives. He is web-savvy and a good writer. She is a great networker and marketer. Their past job descriptions hardly did justice to all their talents.

Encore careers drive to the heart of who we are, and who we want to be. We can’t google the answers to such dilemmas. Earlier in the day, I’d attended a rehearsal at the Yale School of Drama for Waiting for Godot. Asked how she prepared for a role, one student said: ‘I look for the character’s super-objective. What is the essence of what this character seeks?’ I shared her words with my classmates, because in an age of career fluidity, we are always shaping and reshaping our life roles.

Today, 31 million workers ages 44 to 70 want an ‘encore’ career that combines income, impact and meaning, according to the think-tank Civic Ventures. On average, they will take 18 months – and a likely pay cut – to make the change. Twelve million in this age group are interested in starting a non-profit or social venture. In this time of invention and insecurity, we need to take the time to think about our next steps. We need to have patience with ourselves.

Intriguingly, when I mentioned to my classmates that we now likely have about as many decades left on earth as we’ve had since graduation, the room erupted in murmur, chatter and moans. Did the merest hint of the m-word – mortality – shake things up? Did the glass look depressingly half empty or wonderfully half full? I don’t know. But in that moment of tension and excitation and chaos, we all were most wonderfully alive – together.

Are We Losing the Magic of Play in a Digital World?

We began by picturing a young Eleanor Roosevelt teaching immigrant children to dance in the very room where we were gathered. Long ago, a dashing young Franklin D. Roosevelt would come to escort her home. I could see in my mind’s eye his jaunty straw hat, the long twirling skirts, an awkward young woman brave enough to spend her evenings at University Settlement in lower Manhattan.

Nearly a century later, it was fitting that we began an evening’s conversation on the place of attention and imagination in a digital age with this feat of collective reverie. Our minds layered past over present – and the room seemed richer for the memory. Our capacity to move between the here and now and imagined worlds is central to our humanity.

But today are we driving children away from moments of reflection and imagination – and intimacy? Richard Lewis, a poet, organized the evening – the first of a series of three he is holding to examine this crucial question. The first evening in February attracted a dozen music and art teachers, artists, musicians and others. (The series continues March 12 and April 30.)

Play allows us to create a sense of internal space, began Lewis, founder of the Touchstone Center. In play, the young can make something out of the ordinary happen. The child starts the magic – a magic that can be shared. Lewis told of visiting a New York City classroom where he asked children what happens to the sun shining into a car? And could they recapture that sunshine? The children were intrigued. Suddenly, they were talking about “the human ability to imagine,” said Lewis.

We circled the room, offering stories of imagination and reflection in our early lives. A young woman told of the freedom that she felt when she danced. A man spoke of a special, secret rock in a city park. A friend of mine recalled ‘cooking’ with mud and grass as a child in the countryside. She’s now raising a city-bred daughter who didn’t play house with the earth as her toy. Yet she and her daughter now cook – for real – side by side, sharing moments of culinary togetherness. I talked about the magic of the woods where I played with my friends – the trees, ponds, paths and hide-outs that were practically characters in our playtime.

Then we began to gently explore what happens when children immerse themselves more and more in an entrancing digital world of another’s making. That evening as in the rest of our lives, there was a vague sense of worlds clashing. In celebrating the play of our own childhoods, we couldn’t help but worry about its increasing absence in children’s lives today, even as we celebrated the promise and achievement of the technological.

Long after the close of the evening, I mused about these questions, dallying with the differences, circling around these puzzles. And I see two causes for concern. True, digital living offers opportunities for the cultivation of imagination: videogames, tv and the ‘net offer entrancing, wildly visual fictions. Not since medieval times have we inhabited an era as richly visual as ours today. And that’s good.

Yet the screen is a hungry force in the world: children spend more than seven hours daily immersed in media, losing play-time, sleep, quiet and face-time. Lewis recalled watching a child on the subway, glued to a videogame, tuning out a parent who was insistently trying to engage him. If we drive children away from their innate needs to go within themselves to reflect and imagine, we’ll be losing something of our humanity. Are we looking up from our screens often enough – and teaching our children to do so?

As well, while digital escapades tap into the human imagination, immersing the player in entrancing worlds for hours on end, on-screen play too often demands that we fit into templates of another’s making. It provides alluring worlds, where we make choices. But these are not worlds of our own making.

We don’t yet fully understand what our technologies are doing to us, and how we in turn are shaping our machines. But we have to keep asking these questions – and looking up from our screens. I wrote this blog in fits and starts, reflecting over time. And one evening, I reread my notes from University Settlement house, as I hurtled through the night on a train.

In the café car, a mother and college-age daughter sat across from each other, mom in head phones glued to an ipad movie, daughter fiddling with her song lists while playing itunes out loud. Not a word was exchanged for hours. Nearby, a small boy played a video game as his dad toyed with his smart phone. When the father looked over and advised the boy on the game, the youngster hit him and screamed, ‘why’d you make me do that?’ Farther down the car, four women shared giggles and beers, and a couple played backgammon. Half of the people at the cafe tables were looking one another in the eye, sharing a laugh, talking. Half were not.

Where are we headed? What’s being lost and gained as we become entranced by these new forms of magic? And could a loss in time for play affect our ability to connect? I can’t help but think that a rich inner life sets the stage for deep human connection. Imagine that.

Of Einstein and Distracted Driving … and Writing

I shouldn’t kvetch about this, because then I’ll seem like the attention police – a role that I never have wanted to play. Distraction can be a great thing – a creative break, an unconscious impulse to steer in another mental direction, a welcome intrusion from a friend.

But Distraction isn’t the title of my book. And it’s amusing and sometimes frustrating to hear and see how often people make that slip of the tongue… from Distracted to –ion. I wonder if this happens all the time to other authors? Do we celebrate Dickens’ Good Expectations? Did Nabokov shock us with Lola? Is this a peculiarly post-modern symptom of our hurry and overload?

I just stumbled on a particularly amusing example, a humor column by Canadian filmmaker and writer Josh Freed … or was it Greed? … in the Montreal Gazette last fall. The column itself seems to have disappeared from the paper’s website, but I found it in a database by accident. Here’s a slice of it:

In her book Distraction, author Maggie Jackson warns of the shallow modern attention span she calls “Mcthinking.” She says it’s “eroding our capacity for deep, sustained, perceptive attention and stunting society’s…

Uh, sorry what’d she say? I checked my email partway through.

When I saw that a correction ran later in the Gazette, I was thrilled. Someone caught the mistake! But no, the correction alerted readers to the fact that Tolstoy, not Dostoevsky, wroteWar and Peace, another book mentioned in the column. Sigh. Note to the editor: How about giving a helping hand to the living author, the one who’s trying to feed her kids on her writerly profits?

Oh well. Thank you, anyhow, for the shout-out, Josh. As they say, any publicity is good publicity. And I’m glad that you are fighting the good fight against inattention in society.

And on that note, let me give Albert Einstein the last word on distraction. The great thinker once said:

Any man who can drive safely while kissing a pretty girl is simply not giving the kiss the attention it deserves.

Does Self-Control Come in an App?

My HuffPost blog from the weekend on the pros and cons of new apps that screen out digital distractions for us:

Last night, I got a PTA alert about a software application that allows users to block access to email and websites such as Facebook, while retaining use of the larger web for self-selected time periods. Parents and educators alike are buzzing about this new cure for our distracted, multitasking children.

The name of the app? SelfControl.

Certainly, children are inundated with info-streams, enticing video playgrounds and constant opportunities to visit the virtual party of Facebook. The average 8- to 18-year-old devotes more than seven hours and 38 minutes to entertainment media on a typical day, according to theKaiser Family Foundation. About half of young people use media most or some of the time they’re doing homework.

At the same time, young children and even teens often don’t yet have the cognitive capability to say no to distractions. The parts of their brains — the frontal lobes — that underlie higher-order will and thought continue to develop into their 20s.

Still, will flipping a switch to darken distractions help children to cultivate their powers of self-control? Or is such software just a quick fix for a hurried age? Similar software — “Freedom,” “Concentrate,” “Cold Turkey” — is proliferating. Are we once again leaping to adopt technologies, and then asking questions about how they shape us?

Humans, of course, are tool users. We close doors to create privacy. We reach for Post-It notes and apps to augment memory. Perhaps SelfControl, a free OS X application developed in 2010 by a high school student who is now an undergrad at Columbia University, helps augment our will power by guarding the boundaries that we repeatedly fail to respect ourselves. Sometimes our monkey minds do need external handcuffs.

But we should think more carefully about how we’re using SelfControl and other such apps, and whether we really want to hand them off to young children as ready solutions for taming overload.

At the least, using this app should be accompanied by lots of conversation about the ways we use technology and the subtle value systems that accompany their use. We’ve long equated speed with intelligence in the U.S.; the first hand up in the classroom is considered the smart kid. If we dole out apps such as “focus” or “will power” or maybe someday “empathy” to our children, we are subtly giving them the message that complex, difficult human faculties can be obtained with a click. That’s akin to doling out Ritalin while ignoring the environmental factors that have been shown to influence attention-deficiencies.

Placing these apps center-stage in our battle to tame technology ignores the effort and time needed to nurture self-control — and ultimately diminishes a sense of our own potential. It sounds passe to talk about patience as a “virtue,” as my Depression-era Dad did. But mastering a skill would be a hollow achievement if we could do so in a digital instant.

And as decades of research by Roy Baumeister, Walter Mischel and others show, self-control is a difficult skill that’s worth mastering. Along with intelligence, will power is arguably the most crucial means to a successful school and adult life. And it can be trained.

How do we help children cultivate their willpower? Teach them to respect the integrity of a moment. An interruption has ripple effects, breaking into and potentially clouding ongoing thought, while boosting stress and the risk of error, a wealth of studies show. Heavy multi-taskers are “suckers for irrelevancy,” says Stanford’s Clifford Nass.

Set up rules about media use. Sounds basic, but just three in 10 children under 18 are given any parental rules about how much TV and other media they can consume. Helpless parents now feel they cannot shape our increasingly all-embracing media environment. Yet when parents do set limits, children spend less time with media, studies show. Moreover, the very existence of a reasonable rule effectively shows children that the seeming unmanageable in life at least partially can be tamed.

Sure, when my teenage daughters are under deadline, inundated, and over-caffeinated, they might want to download SelfControl for a while. But as my 10th grader said with a laugh when I told her about this application, “Mom, that’s not self-control!”

Does Quiet Un-Nerve Us? A Muse on Tinker Tailor Soldier…

First one, then another… at the showing of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy that I attended last weekend, numerous people walked out of the movie. By the third or fourth exodus, I noticed that viewers were exiting in the film’s most still moments: when the camera lingers on retired spy George Smiley, pensively sitting alone in a pub or when he gives a long, tipsy monologue about his encounter with Russia’s top spymaster. The action had slowed, the hunt had paused – and some voted with their feet.

It’s intriguing that this complex remake of John Le Carre’s classic thriller seems to divide us. Critics, as far as I can see, are mostly laudatory – extolling the cinematography, superb acting, the complex story line. But we, the viewers, seem to love or hate the film; only two of 34 reader-reviewers on The New York Times.com give the movie a score of three out of five. Most rate the movie one/two or a four/five, detesting the film as “slow” and “sluggish” or praising it as  “brilliant” and “engaging”  – and the naysayers outnumber the fans.

Writes marsacademy:  “This film may not find a huge audience, because it has a quality of watchful stillness at its core, which is very unlike what the public expects of a ‘spy film.’ It is not an ‘action’ movie.”

Well put. I think that’s precisely why people were walking out. It’s just a movie of course, and excitement is subjective; your terrifying Ferris Wheel ride could be my aerial nap. But it’s perhaps a mark of our times that people could line up so vehemently in opposite corners over action vs. stillness. Although many of us increasingly battle for calm, we’re still surrounded by – and strongly influenced by – a culture of the quick hit, push-button, the ever-rising tide of busy-ness. After all, adrenaline is as addictive as drugs, studies show.

We may be so shaped by the gadget as appendage, tv as white noise and chit-chat as interaction that it seems stifling to be confronted by stillness. If so, we will surely miss out on the second and third layers of life, or the mysteries that perhaps even our best spymasters may never solve. Hurry past quiet, and we cease to see, as Seamus Heaney once wrote, “allegory hard as a figured shield … polished until its undersurface surfaced, like peat smoke mulling through Byzantium.”

In life as in movies, we have to pause to see what’s beneath the polish.

 

 

Family Life as a Landscape – A Zen Thought for 2012

Heading toward the often stressful, overly complicated, ironically fatiguing holiday season, I had a small epiphany. I’d been trying once again to figure out how to be zen about the big family get-togethers that can fray even the most solid nerves.

Dynamics are never easy in any household, much less a series of households brought together as much through blood as love. And I have many weaknesses in such situations: a sensitivity to pick up on the pettiness that a less-observant person doesn’t see, an amateur anthropologists’ tendency to analyze things, an idealistic notion that conversation should be a back-and-forth, not a monologue.

But this year I took a page from landscape painting, and learned a simple, perhaps obvious lesson: what not to focus on. Intriguingly, the genre of landscape painting that we know so well – the Hudson River school, Canaletto’s Venetian scenes – did not exist in full bloom before the 18th century. Pre-Enlightenment, artists typically depicted a landscape as a backdrop to a religious scene or a portrait. A natural scene was not the main subject of a canvas. Why?

People saw themselves within the land; they were farmers, landowners, conquerors. But they did not see themselves stepping back and viewing the land and their surroundings. Once we could view nature as a landscape, we could see it with fresh eyes.

The lesson here in some ways is the art of focus. Sometimes one needs to focus on a troubling relationship, certainly. But at other times, perhaps it’s best to take a step back and put a relationship in wider perspective. Chances are, you’ll see new facets of the situation by seeing the big picture – and you’ll realize that petty differences are unimportant.

Try it: picture your family as a landscape. It could be a grand canyon, or a churning sea, or a dramatic series of mountain peaks. View each person as just one wave, hill or chasm. Suddenly, you’re able to focus on the larger, beautiful, frail, wondrous fuller scene of life. And you’ll maybe learn something new about family dynamics. Ah, zen!

These Great Sorrows

Is hyper-busyness a form of sloth? It seems beyond paradoxical to consider our efficient, connected, mobile days even remotely… lazy. But both medieval philosophers and early Buddhist practitioners warned of restlessness and busyness as slothful, because amidst such hyper-ness we tend to avoid what’s deep and important.
Think about it. Madly ticking items off our agenda, we easily avoid depth of thought, the discomfort of ambiguity, or the type of thought-experiments that Einstein undertook. Look around – isn’t our addiction to gadgets perhaps a form of avoidance not only to what’s concretely going on around us, but to the deeper bigger issues going on around us?
Taming busyness, we can begin to confront … the blank page. Or we can turn and face our fears, rather than fleeing once again at the sight of them. I’m not advocating navel-gazing, or wallowing in grief or thought without action. But since avoidance of pain, discomfort, difficulty seems to be a specialty of our times, I do believe that a little confrontation with the deeper issues is medicine we could all use.
Here are some thoughts on the subject by the German poet Rilke, as he advises a young protege to be patient with a sad time in his life.
“Do consider whether these great sorrows might not have passed through your very center? Whether much inside you has not been transformed, whether you did not change in some part of your being during those periods of sorrow?”
He goes on to say that moments of sorrow perhaps should be welcomed, “For those are the moments when something new centers into us, something unfamiliar; our feelings grow more out of shy diffidence; everything in us pulls back, a stillness descends and the new that no one knows stands mutely amidst all this.”
Those are words that I wished I’d been able to call forth when, in a recent time of deep sorrow, I was so quickly advised to get on pills or find a shrink. All well-meaning advice. But I couldn’t help thinking that this advice came from a wish to muffle or abolish my pain, rather than an acceptance of my right to listen within, and hear out my pain, and grow stronger as a result.
Sometimes when others are grieving, the best thing we can do is accept their right to be in pain. Instead of saying so quickly, “Get over it. Move on. Get fixed.”

Social Media: Good, Bad and Surprising, brought to you by CNN

“Take some time to just be human, off-line.” Those were the parting words of musician Pete Wentz – 2 million Twitter followers! – at the close of last Thursday’s CNN Dialogue, a community discussion at Morehouse College in Atlanta. The topic: Social Media: The Good, the Bad and the Surprising. My fellow panelists were Wentz, comedian Baratunde Thurston, and TwitChange founder Shaun King, plus the moderator, CNN anchor Don Lemon, all sharp, thoughtful and wholly steeped in the online world. There was so much texting, tweeting and continuous partial attention going on backstage before the talk that I felt too sheepish to pull out work on a mere piece of paper, or … sit and daydream.

When the Dialogue began, there was a fair bit of oohing and aahing at the whiz-bang beauty of it all – we can change the world, I’m in touch with everybody, always, we’re all happier now. But to my delight, there was candor too, and realism, underscoring my view that the level of discussion around technology is maturing, albeit slowly.

We talked about proliferating weak ties, and their limits. In job hunts, weak ties – our acquaintances, friends of friends etc. – can provide information, but little more. Socially, our online friendships strain the definition of the word; a third of Facebook “friends” are strangers or people with whom we have dormant relations. And yet, as Shaun pointed out, he sometimes feels closer to an online stranger-turned-friend across the country than he does to his own family. Social media is powerfully connective.

What’s the impact on strong ties? I pointed out the corrosive nature of punctured presence. When we’re all in the same room, are we having a rich, textured conversation or are we sated by disjointed, fragmented talk? One eye on the gadget, one eye on our flesh-and-blood friend or colleague, we divide ourselves in pieces. The rise of the “blackberry orphan” says a lot. I used to hide my parent’s cigarettes, now kids hide their mom’s pda – or just stay glued to their own.

Shaun told of a “humiliating” moment when his elderly neighbor knocked on his door – her husband had just died – and Shaun couldn’t think of his name. We are islands, despite all our hyper-connectivity, Baratunde said. “Nobody cares about you!,” he said, half-jokingly – and the audience clapped. Shaun worried about the effect of living virtually on the social skills of his four children. Pete told of the many fans who approach him, knowing so little of his music, but expecting a piece of him.

One last scene from the evening: an English major in a jacket and tie asked about the “attachment” people have for their gadgets. His friends tremble if their batteries die, he said. “I never let my batteries die,” said Shaun, to laughter. I talked about the digital detox – a 24-hour mandatory detox from media – that I witnessed at the U.Maryland – and the angst so many students felt when the plug was pulled. Do we have time to listen to the depths of our inner selves anymore?

In witnessing such extraordinary connectivity throbbing around me, I sensed a paradox – a time of heady excitement and creeping unease, of deepening insecurity and the thrill of the hunt. Being steeped in the Net entails keeping up, keeping up, with it all. But are we better people as a result? I agree with Pete: we need to step back, pause and remind ourselves more often simply to be human.