“The difference between technology and slavery is that slaves are fully aware that they are not free” ― Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Man dies on a train, the body goes unnoticed for hours” read the headline. I called him Manuel. It was the last thing I remembered discussing with my friend John before I left New York City. Ten years later and back in London – life had moved on. Things were going quite well for me in that intervening period, and Manuel featured very little in my consciousness. But something changed that.
It was a spring weekend. I was sitting on the basketball court bench waiting for my son to finish practice. While the kids practiced their drills, I checked my emails, used Whatsapp, read news updates and searched for any other capabilities I could find on my device. I was completely consumed. “Good shot Cy!” shouted the coach. The entire team erupted in applause, the raucousness dragging me out of my digital trance. Cy’d just scored an amazing bucket. “Did you see that dad!!?” he shouted, incandescent with pride. I raised my head, oriented myself and smiled. “Well done son,” I said embarrassingly. I looked to my left and noticed for the first time that there were other parents sat on the bench with me; all of them transfixed by their phones. “Phew,” my embarrassment dissipated. I wasn’t the only one. But my embarrassment was quickly replaced by a perfect blend of disappointment and recognition.
The Digital Age: How to Reclaim Lost Human Connection
Start Questioning Your Habits to be more Mindful
Recognition of the effects of ‘frostbite.’ It wasn’t the first time I’d seen this affliction in myself; the frostbite of the Digital Winter. I’d been suffering this disconnectedness for years sleepwalking, like those New Yorkers on the train, into the cold.
I needed to make a change, to discipline myself. My very own Kaizen began. Everywhere, I saw these digital zombies. I now call them ‘The Frostbitten.’ I saw them in groups and pairs. On their own and with family. In restaurants and at bars. On the buses and trains. They were everywhere. WE are everywhere. I often pondered, “how many people could quietly die on my train right now without anyone noticing?” Okay, so it turned out that no such catastrophe had occurred on my daily commute to the office. But what about noticing, not death, but life? What else had been happening closer to home, going unnoticed in my own life?
Connect More With Family
“Let’s go for a beer,” my brother said only a few days later. “Let’s do it!” I couldn’t wait to test my new digital discipline. Ever-so-often I’d put myself through a digital detox to reclaim some of my lost mind space, so my brother’s invitation was another great opportunity to ‘thaw out.’“Only through our connectedness to others can we really know and enhance the self. And only through working on the self can we begin to enhance our connectedness to others.” ― Harriet Lerner Click To Tweet
We met and talked, looked each other in the eyes, laughed and joked. The bar heating simulated the glow of a wood-fuelled fireplace. It was the first time I’d noticed how he had changed over the years. Observing for the first time, I could remember, his once-black beard now interspersed with clusters of silver hair. Older in his face but fitter than ever. I noticed how trim his body looked; he had the body of a man 20 years his junior. His hands felt rougher than I could recall too, like a freshly salted motorway during the winter. The long toil in the life of a seasoned builder had taken its toll, but his fingernails were short and immaculate. I noticed his hair was long and clean but only in moderate condition. His dreadlocks had seen better years. Each lock was a different length, some broken so short that I saw parts of his tender scalp which I had not seen in over two decades. Andrew spoke in a calm and measured way, his voice rich but yet soft, reflecting the kindness of his heart.
Be Present in the Moment
I visited my dad months later, basking in the sunset on the porch of my Caribbean family home and sipping slowly from a freshly opened coconut. The scent of freshly cut grass perforated the warm sea breeze, accented by the subtle scent of nearby Bougainvillea. “Ready Cal?” dad shouted. “Ready when you are!” I retorted.
We arrived for dinner at a fine restaurant on the south coast of the island. “Good evening and welcome! Can I offer you gentlemen a drink to start?” asked the young waitress, her teeth so brilliant her smile lit up the room. “A bottle of the finest red for my son please,” my dad replied with a smirk on his freshly-shaven face. His pink shirt was pressed to perfection; the seams on his long sleeves were so sharp they could draw blood from beneath the toughest hide. Spirit Millionaire Cologne by Lomani wafted off of his collar and warmed the air as he spoke. He ordered the flying fish and creamed potatoes while I opted for the catch of the day; Mahi Mahi and a selection of sumptuous seasonal vegetables. The warm moist air gently kissed our cheeks while the ocean spray periodically refreshed us.
I observed my father with my new eyes and watching his every fibre change with each subtle change of his expression. When he spoke of his grief and relived his joy. The radiance of his face was a sight to behold when reminiscing about a spinning top my granddad gave him as a three-year-old boy. I watched him with pride and emotion as he transported himself 75 years back in time. A peaceful bliss came over me, and my phone was nowhere in sight. At that moment I missed my device like a bad day in the office. Present in that moment, The Digital Winter seemed to be a figment of my imagination. Further still, it seemed a strange season on a distant planet. I spared a thought for Manuel and wondered if he would still be alive today if everyone on the train in New York that fateful morning had seized their opportunities to reconnect more frequently with themselves and with others.
In the end, my journey allowed me not just to look but to see. To rediscover the value and warmth of the human connection and the value of being present in the moment. Not only to me and my own wellbeing but to others’ too. The Digital Winter has become a silent epidemic, not destructive by intent, but dangerous nonetheless. It reinforces a state of unconsciousness if only due to the laws of unintended consequences. Let me be clear. I love my devices; they serve me well. They are tools for the modern world, for work and for play. But I am learning the value of balance and the need for balance in my life to support my own wellbeing. The warmth of the human connection has allowed me to come in from the cold.