I was sitting at the gate in the International Airport of Dubai, waiting for my connecting flight. The airport, which could vie to be voted as the "best airport in the East" is definitely making great efforts towards that goal. From the architectural design, the convenience of its facilities and -- of course -- shopping, everything looks innovative and cutting edge there.
Not surprisingly, wifi is free and available everywhere. When I tried to access my mail, the sign indicated "Wifi connected" -- but somehow I had no connection. The little ring was turning and declaring "connecting" but it never happened. I asked my neighbor and he replied he wasn't either able to connect, he wondered if it was a problem with his phone. I don't think so, I replied, since I had the same problem.
This situation made me reflect on the marvelous and ongoing progress in technology over the past decades, which I am sure continues surprising every one of us. I recall joking as a teenager with a friend, that I had a camera and could actually see her while we were talking on the phone. Now we can skype, video conference, FaceTime, use Google Talks and I am sure there are many other options to have a live chat while seeing each other. It pretty much doesn't matter where we are on the planet, there is a good chance that we may be able to connect with anyplace else. (Well, perhaps not at the Dubai airport.) We don't have to wait two or three weeks to get an order confirmation sent by mail to another country, or a response to a letter to a loved one. We can Whatsapp and text, and for the youngest, emails are already a bit antiquated. We express our feelings in 140 characters in a tweet, use smileys, voice recordings or selfies.
Sharing also became so much easier. We can update our whole circle of friends, family and acquaintances with a single post on Facebook, have Whatsapp groups or participate in a conference and tweet our reactions to the speaker to an audience of unknown co-tweeters. We do our own videos and post them on our personal YouTube channel. We don't even have to wait for a specific time to be connected -- the phones are not turned off unless expressly required during a flight, and our portable devices have become a new body part, being carried around wherever we go, wherever we are.
And yet... does this mean we are more connected to each other? At what level are we more connected to others? I repeatedly hear comments from my students indicating it is a "bizarre yet welcomed experience" to sit in a circle during class, to see each other's faces and to have time to pause, listen to each other, not letting anything interfere with the opportunity to be fully present. My colleague Karthyeni Purushothaman, who teaches at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, comments that she starts her class talking about being present, what that means, inviting the business students to reflect if technology brings us really closer or if it acts as a socially accepted wall that can separate us, with our bodies in one place, but our attention somewhere else. Or possibly, not fully anywhere, as we do our mental leaping from one thing to the next.
I also have to catch myself, when working at my desk and someone stops by, how I give half-attention while I continue half-doing what I was in midst of, or when picking up the phone, when I continue typing while I'm half-talking to the person on the line. We know already that multitasking is not actually possible, that we cannot simultaneously be 100 percent involved in two things; we just split our focus, and each one gets only an incomplete fraction, a kind of minimal attention. This is a case when two halves don't in fact make a whole. I try to avoid these habits that I question, and I like to go into meetings without my phone -- or at least with notification sounds switched off -- and remind myself that I can be present, or not, and that it's my choice every time.
Chris Laszlo and Judy Sorum Brown, in their book Flourishing: The New Spirit of Business Enterprise observe that "technological advances that have improved our productivity and made our lives easier in uncountable ways have also had the unintended consequence of taking us away from the spiritual experiences that were more common in earlier, less technologically driven times. As we have enabled us to go faster and with an ever-increasing amount of information available, our minds and hearts have gotten out of balance."
Technology may offer us the hardware and the software to connect. But then, real connection, it seems to me, will only happen if we use our heart-ware. So how connected are you?