The New York Times recently put on the front page of their business section an article titled "Silicon Valley Says Put Down Your Devices," along with a picture and quote from me, and many of my friends and Wisdom 2.0 speakers. It addressed the need for us to find balance. It made me wonder, though, "Is our task really one of putting down our devices ... or are we missing out on a larger discussion?" I think the latter. Let me explain why.
Some level of balance is certainly needed. If we spend too much of our day glued to a screen, or tweeting, or on Facebook, our systems do not operate well. We also need fresh air, exercise, and direct human interaction. There is only so much information we can process before we reach a max, and knowing when to turn off the cell phone or computer is important. Could most of us likely do better with less time looking at a screen? Probably.
However, just focusing on that misses the point. At the end of your life, will you ask, "Did I live with balance?" I doubt it. I do not think that is the primary question that guided Gandhi, Mandela, or the Buddha. There is something more to our lives ... and to creating a better world.
The New York Times article, for example, described Wisdom 2.0 as focused on "the pursuit of balance in the digital age," though that is not really our primary focus. Instead, we focus on living with mindfulness and wisdom -- which includes harnessing the power of technology, mindfully. While balance is important, there is something much more important. For lack of a better word, let's call it purpose.
There are people who use social media (like Beth Kanter of Beth's Blog or the folks at CharityWater) with such purpose and heart, it becomes a tool to break down barriers and create a better world. Of course, we all need balance to perform well, but the question is less about balance and more about impact. A day spent without your device, but instead spent gossiping to friends and neighbors, is surely much less impactful than one spent on social media helping to raise money for a well in rural Africa so people without water can drink.
Make Technology Work for Us
Used with intention, social media and other contemporary digital tools can serve us well. There is certainly an addictive quality to these devices, giving us little data hits that keep us coming back. But it also opens up vast doors unlike ever before.
For example, I had never organized a conference before I started one about four years ago, living in a town of 1,000 people in rural New Mexico. How did I first learn which technology leaders were interested in wisdom and technology from out there in the country? Through Twitter, of course. And how did I connect with them, not knowing their email addresses? Again, Twitter. I still use it to engage people.
The Real Conversation
The real conversation of our age is less about "putting down" or "picking up" and more about partnership. It is about how to connect to one another through technology -- and in person -- purposefully, in ways that are beneficial to our own well-being, effective for our work, and useful to the world. It is one that engages the best external qualities of our age, including social media, along with the best of our internal qualities (mindfulness, care, love) to move toward a more open and transparent world.
Twitter cofounder Biz Stone, an advocate of Twitter of course, likely put it best on the need to harness the inner dimension, when he wrote:
"Whatever your role is at the company you work for -- whether you're an executive with many reports, or an individual contributor on a team -- practicing regular, daily mindfulness and compassion will make you a healthier, more productive person. Additionally, the people you work with are going to respond better and do better work. The outcome is going to be a superior product or service, a happier user or client, and in the best case -- a positive global impact."
Follow Your Vision
The real question is less about technology and more about vision and purpose. Connected to to our purpose, we can use anything to make the impact we want, both personally and globally. Not connected to our purpose, we can use anything -- online or offline -- to distract us.
So yes, let's all find balance, but let's not forget the more important subject of wisdom, of living with meaning and purpose. This may mean taking months away from our gadgets when needed or it may mean actively using them to improve conditions in the world.
If we can focus on that, our own lives -- and the whole world -- will likely be better off because of it.
Soren Gordhamer is the founder and host of Wisdom 2.0.