Don't forget simple joys of the unplugged world

Paul Halpern

is a University of the Sciences physics professor and the author of "Einstein's Dice and Schrödinger's Cat: How Two Great Minds Battled Quantum Randomness to Create a Unified Theory of Physics"

One of the stunning breakthroughs of the 21st century is the ability to share massive amounts of information instantaneously, virtually anywhere around the world.

Communication is no longer confined to particular locations or times. A boy in Malaysia can play chess with a girl in Brazil while posting on Facebook, based in the United States, and commenting on a Reddit thread started in the United Kingdom. Scholars no longer have to travel to distant libraries and archives if the information is available online.

These possibilities for connection have led to untold collaborative, creative efforts, such as writers in different locales working on pieces in tandem, and musicians combining their tracks remotely.

Yet, as with any innovation, one must balance convenience with other factors pertaining to the human condition. People are not wired machines with the capability of communicating 24 hours a day and still being able to function. The brain needs time to process information and reorganize itself accordingly. Moreover, some people are more introverted and private than others, requiring even more downtime.

Despite modern technology, there are many pleasures and insights gained by communicating in person, rather than electronically. People's glances can be more revealing than what they say. There are joys observing nature in peace and quiet. Creatively often happens in silent, thoughtful moments.

My grandmother was someone who loved to talk with anyone about virtually anything. She enjoyed sharing anecdotes with friends and neighbors. Yet ironically, one of the most open, social people I've ever met never liked chatting on the phone. Even if I hadn't seen her for months, when I called her up she would say little more than "Hello. I'm fine, how are you? Hope to see you soon." Part of that, no doubt, was her childhood experience with phone calls being rare and expensive, but another part of it was her temperament.

I grew up in a time when computers first started to get personal. As a teenager, I was the geeky technology user carrying around pages of printouts from simulation games I played or tried to develop. I loved displays of robots, artificial-intelligence schemes, and other innovations. I was one of the first people I knew to use email, post on forums, play online games, and join social networks.

As I used computers more often, I became very much aware of whenever I was overdoing it. As much as I enjoyed the online activities, I felt a sense of freedom and release when I shut down my computer and took a long walk or bike ride outside. It was even more relaxing to put computers aside for weeks when I went on vacations. Computers were entertaining and useful, but so were books, newspapers, natural places, conversations, and so many nontechnological pleasures.

Today I still consider myself very technological- and computer-savvy. I'm active on Twitter and other social media, write blog posts, send numerous emails every day, and use online sources of information. However, I continue to relish taking breaks from electronic communication and any other form of screen time.

If I am outside, exercising, driving, reading, talking with friends, having dinner with others, and so forth, I don't generally carry any kind of communications or computational device. Only after I'm finished taking the break from technology, and feel mentally and physically refreshed, do I check my email and (landline) voice-mail messages.

When I'm taking a walk, the last thing I want to do is receive a text message, phone call, or email. If I'm thinking deeply about a research question, trying to rephrase something I've written, or aspiring to develop a new idea, the same. My brain tells me that it needs quiet time (except maybe music or the sounds of nature) just to function. If someone were trying to contact me, I'd find out soon enough and be rested and prepared for it. That is just my own preference; everyone has different levels of comfort about communication.

Perhaps my need for times of disconnection relates to my poor ability to multitask. I admire those who can multitask so well that they can respond to a flow of smartphone and computer notifications and still get work done.

On the other hand, I'm sure there are those who would like more quiet and alone time but feel obliged to communicate. If they don't respond instantly to a message, they worry that others might think they are being rude, or cranky, or that something is wrong with them.

I hope that society continues to support those who elect to take reasonable breaks from communication and don't always respond immediately. Emergency personnel, such as ambulance workers on duty, would be the exception to the rule.

Recent Nobel laureate Peter Higgs found out about the prize from his neighbors, rather than from an email or phone call. Reportedly he doesn't use the Internet or mobile technology at all. While that level of disconnection is unusual these days, I respect and support the right of individuals to seek the level of connection or disconnection they choose, as long as that choice doesn't endanger others.

Technological development often requires creativity. For some people, creativity requires a measure of breaks from technology.

p.halper@usciences.edu