Google executive Eric Schmidt offered some seemingly simple advice in his commencement address at Boston University last weekend: “Take one hour a day and turn that thing off.”
This is odd coming from a man whose career has been based, with enormous success, on making it ever harder to turn that thing off.
And — I can tell you, as a mom who’s waged a losing battle against excessive screen time — Schmidt means things, plural: iPhone, iPad, laptop, desktop, BlackBerry, Kindle. We are multiply wired, ensnared — for better and for worse — in a world of ubiquitous technology.
“What’s the first thing that you guys do when you wake up? Right? Check your phone, your laptop. Read some e-mails. Comb through your social networks. I’m awake, here I am! Right? If you’re awake, you’re online, you’re connected,” Schmidt said. “Some of you are probably texting right now, or tweeting the speech, changing your status.”
In the official Boston University video, as Schmidt speaks, the camera focuses on graduates in mortarboards, tapping away.
Schmidt’s message, naturally, was not anti-technology — it was antibeing-ruled-by-technology.
“People bemoan this generation that is growing up living life in front of screens, always connected to something or someone,” he said. “These people are wrong. . . . The fact that we’re all connected now is a blessing, not a curse.”
Mostly, which is where Schmidt’s piece of take-away advice came in. “I know it’s going to be hard,” he said, as the camera zoomed in, this time on a graduate shaking her head in disagreement — or maybe disbelief at his audacious suggestion. “Shut it down. Learn where the off button is.”
Here, Schmidt could not resist a series of digs at an unnamed Other Company. “Don’t push a button saying I like something — actually tell them,” he said. “Life is not lived in the glow of a monitor. Life is not a series of status updates.”
As commencement speaker advice goes, this is pretty good. There’s a chance that, unlike most platitudes of the not-an-end-but-a-beginning genre, it will stick.
But what struck me about Schmidt’s challenge is both how difficult so many of us would find it to implement and how pathetically modest the goal of unplugging for a mere hour a day actually is.
Consider these statistics:
●Among those who text, girls ages 14 to 17 sent a median of 100 messages daily in 2011, according to the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project. The average, which includes high-volume users like Certain People Who Know Who They Are in my family, is 187 daily texts.
●A survey from the publisher of Parents and FamilyFun magazines found that 12 percent of Millennial Moms, born between 1977 and 1994, had used their smartphones during sex, giving new meaning to the phrase Family Fun. “There is no part of their lives that is media free,” it concluded.
●More than half of children ages 5 to 8 have used an iPad, iPhone or other touch-screen device to watch videos, play games or engage in other activities, according to a 2011 report by Common Sense Media. Just 11 percent of children age 8 and younger use such a device on a typical day, but for an average of 43 minutes. You can guess where this is trending.
Unlike Schmidt, I believe this constant connectivity is both blessing and curse. The blessing is the Internet’s no-transaction-cost capacity to maintain friendships — camp, school, even grown-up life — forged in the real world. I witnessed this on college tours with my daughter, who spent the drive texting constantly with friends, sharing real-time assessments of campuses and figuring out where to meet up for dinner.
The curse is the powerful, distracting addiction to the world of instant updates and constant feedback. A friend who works at the Pentagon, where security blocks smartphone access, describes the novel experience of meetings where people actually listen to what is being said instead of tapping out e-mails.
A decade ago, pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter, pre-BlackBerry, I took a year off from work. In that short interval, e-mail was transformed from something you checked a few times a day to a never-ending enterprise. Now, in those forget-the-charger moments when I am away from Internet or cell for more than Schmidt’s prescribed hour, I feel an almost panicky sense of disconnection.
Back then, the notion of unplugging for an hour daily would have seemed laughably easy. Not anymore, which is why Schmidt’s challenge is so important, and so sobering.