I am a digital immigrant.
When I was child, we had a phone attached to the wall, and couldn’t even see who was calling until we answered. We played outside, and occupied ourselves with imaginative games of make-believe and exploration. We had “quiet time” when my mom needed a break, and there was nothing in our rooms other than books and legos to distract us.
By the time I was in high school we had dial-up, so I could AIM chat with my friends, and download songs on Napster.
Never mind that dad needed us to get off RIGHT NOW because he was expecting a call, or that one song could literally take 6 hours to download– it was the beginning of digital connectivity. I could have secret chats with my friends without even making a phone call! I didn’t have to wait until the next day to find out the latest gossip! It was glorious.
Through AIM chat, I began to develop my very first digital identity, with creatively arranged song lyrics and quotes in my away message. It was my first clumsy attempt to digitally signal (through poorly veiled metaphors) what I wanted people to know about me.
“The shoes on my feet, I bought it. The clothes I’m wearing, I bought it. The rock I’m rockin’, I bought it. Cause I depend on me.”
Back then we could choose when to connect and when to disconnect; when to develop our digital identities, and when to develop our real-life identities. Only one of these happened at a time. When I spent time with my friends or family, we were the only people in the room.
Nowadays our digital and real life selves are blurred, and occur simultaneously, because every single moment of every single day, we are connected to everything and everyone.
Nowadays we have a hundred paused conversations happening at once, from text to email to facebook to twitter, with people all over the world, ready to be unpaused by just glancing at our phones. And our phones are with us at all times, which means that now when we spend time with friends or family, it’s never just us in the room.
The digital era has changed our lives. Now when we wonder something, we just look it up. If we think of someone, we text them. If we’re bored, we entertain ourselves. If we’re feeling bad about ourselves, we do something to feel “productive.” If we feel lonely, we turn to social media to feel connected.
We used to have to make plans and then either follow through or stand someone up. Now we can cancel or change plans at any and every moment, and have an entire culture built around instantaneous last minute plan changing.
Now we are constantly consuming– articles, tweets, posts, emails, texts, feelings, thoughts, opinions, brands, images, videos, and more. We are never alone. We are never unplugged. We are are constantly aware that the whole big world, with all of it’s pain and suffering and brilliance and knowledge and support and humor and community, is RIGHT THERE. We know this, even when we turn our phones off, or leave them home.
It’s a different world now, and we live differently in it. But none of this is news.
You’re most likely a digital immigrant, too. The upcoming generations won’t remember another way of being. The digital natives won’t know what it felt like to ever be truly alone or disconnected or unplugged. They won’t know how it feels to be stood up, or to get really lost, or to figure out how to do something complicated without directions.
I’m not saying any of this a bad thing. I am progressive at heart, and I see no benefit to resisting progress or clinging to the past.
Perhaps the digital natives will change the world for the better, because they will have been brought up on new ideas and ways of being. Perhaps they will naturally strike a peaceful balance with technology, and they won’t suffer as we do.
Because the thing is, us digital immigrants… we are suffering.
Our emigration to the digital era happened slowly enough that we didn’t realize what a big transition we were all going through, though it was fast enough to change every single aspect of our lives. I believe that many of us are still trying to catch up, and that there has been an extraordinary cost to our transition.
I’m not hating on the internet, mind you.
I talk to people all over the world every single day. I coach people on nearly every continent, and my social media community lives in every corner of the earth. I love the work I do, I love writing, I love being fully free and mobile… and yet.
And yet I experience an intense yearning to be in a room with other people and not feel the presence of our phones. I yearn for eye contact, and undistracted conversation, and the peace and simplicity that comes from knowing that nothing else is planned or available– this moment is the only option, so we may as well be fully present.
I also have a deep aching to be truly alone.
I turn my phone off sometimes, but I’m still never disconnected, because I know I’m only about 34 seconds away from it booting up. It’s like filling your cupboards with chocolate and then pretending it’s not there, so it doesn’t tempt you– the sensation is not the same as if it really wasn’t there.
I yearn to not know how to do something, or to not know what my friends are up to, or to not know that my peers have just launched a new product. I yearn to wonder, and guess, and daydream. I yearn to be bored and understimulated.
And I’m not alone.
When I speak of these feelings to other digital immigrants, there is an air of agreement.
“Yes,” they whisper. They share how compulsively they check their phones, how they can’t leave the office at the office, and how they “relax” with social media only to find themselves more anxious than when they started. They share how knowing the endless options of what they could be doing right now makes them feel constantly stressed and insecure and unsatisfied.
We are suffering for a lack of simplicity and true connection.
We are suffering from an over-saturation of digital consumption and stimulation.
We are suffering.
I believe we immigrants still need to learn how to thrive in this new world, likely with better boundaries, a stronger awareness of how things affect us, and a shift in priorities.
I have no idea what that will look like, but I suspect it begins with conversations like this one.