(Part 1, in which our fearless leader decides to slightly up the navel-gazing ante...)
The wind in Cabarete, on the north shore of the Dominican Republic, is relentless. Blowing mostly east to west, it bends the tops of the coconut palm trees lining this desolate driftwood-strewn stretch of beach backward in continual arcs. A morning might by chance break softly, with only a gentle breeze, but by afternoon, and throughout the evening and the night, it comes unabated.
Within a few miles there are myriad little beaches and inlets, each unique in wind and water, from smooth and crystal clear to rough and choppy, and communities congeal for snorkeling or by surfing preference -- with or without kite. In the evening, the chattering crowds watching World Cup futbol at beachside cantinas fill the salt air with the carefree laughter of people who've spent the day in or on or at the beach and are casually welcoming the evening with cold beer and fresh blended rum drinks.
It's not a bad life.
Scooters and pedestrians mix liberally with cars on the narrow paved road that snakes along the coast -- the cavalier attitude of drivers, a lack of street lights, and little sign of any authority making the this the second most deadly place for pedestrians on the planet. Locals crowd the street, offering taxi rides, tours, weed, jewelry, cigars, Viagra, mangos, and fresh fish. It may be a foreign country, but it has a familiar feel for a well-traveled gringo -- leathery-skin expats who've set up surf schools and restaurants, friendly haggling over prices at street stalls, chalkboard menus in broken English.
There is bravado from the young men -- strong from work, loud from alcohol, confident from the attention of white women on holiday. There is something similar but disempowered from the hollow-eyed young women -- many of them mothers already -- who offer their companionship for short-term mutually beneficial relationships. If you scratch the surface with even a little intent, the stink of colonialism ascends quickly. But scratching isn't required, and the days come and go in peaceful, languid repose.
R. is a tall, lean, soft-spoken Brit, an entrepreneur, recently untethered from seven years in India. He transitioned from IBM consultant to social entrepreneur almost a decade ago, and quietly built a few small mission-driven companies. He is an old friend, and leans toward introversion -- content to spend hermetic months absorbing the world through a computer in near total physical isolation, and then continent-hopping to conferences and workshops.
It's a life made possible by technology, the Internet enabling him to spend a month or two at a time here, interspersing long hours entrenched at his desk with a quick dip in an abandoned sea or a trip to the store for provisions.
Innovation in communications has reshaped our world into something virtually (and tangibly) unrecognizable from only 20 years ago. "The Cloud" envelopes us, a wireless benign ozone layer, an invisible data stream circling the planet, to which we can connect at anytime from anywhere, to find out answers to seemingly anything. It's sci-fi brought to life -- not quite in an L. Ron/Tom Cruise way, but damn close, and it makes a life like R.'s possible.
And as remarkable and exciting and stunning as the changes are, it's the subconscious and psychological effect of technology and innovation on our humanity that fascinates me. Anyone who has walked down a street or taken a train or sat in a business meeting knows that we are glued to our devices, simultaneously present yet mentally removed. At a restaurant, tables are littered with phones, and the slightest beep buzz or blink triggers an immediate spasm of arm and thumb.
We are definitely more connected than ever... but to what?
The vast majority of our interactions with other people now happen through a screen, and it is affecting our ability to empathize, to listen, to communicate -- the medium is the message, and the message is re-wiring our brains, affecting evolution in ways that aren't as physically apparent as the loss of a tail or the addition of an opposable thumb.
Researchers say we check our phones an average of 150 times a day (and that includes someone like my dad, who checks his phone twice a year; the real numbers, especially for younger generations -- i.e. the future -- are much higher). Look at the degeneration of attention spans, the prevalence of ADHD diagnoses, the rise of "life-hacking" shortcuts, the abundance of snippet journalism, the escalation of violence in "casual" interactions -- patience is a virtue much maligned.
We are gadget rich and too poor to pay attention.
Then again, consider the cost of paying attention. There are very few things one can do alone that feel as good as finishing a run in the warm island sun and immediately plunging into the warm and welcoming Caribbean surf. And yet instead of happily dancing in the waves I keep replaying the fate of Suha Abusada, of whom I had just read online. Born severely disabled, and unable to speak, she lived 39 years in that confinement until she was killed in a Gaza clinic targeted by the recent bombings.
Technology is like any tool -- its impact depends on its application. I have immediate access to more information than Einstein had in his entire lifetime -- and yet, somehow I feel that if he were alive, he would advocate long stretches removed from the distraction of constant inundation. How else to think, to create, to find calm?
Once while living in London I fell in love in San Francisco with an American Italian, a gypsy soul encased in a small apartment in the corner of the fog. My mornings were her nights, her afternoons my evenings, and, oceans and continents away, there remained a vast majority of time when she was unreachable. Where previously my days were spent dreaming of companionship, now found, the spoils remained elusive. And so I became a "yes" man, eagerly affirmative for any offer of adventure or exploration -- anything to fill the time until I could see her again. Content in love, I now found myself with the hours outside of 9-5 stunningly open. It was an education.
So I decided to revisit that freedom, that detachment -- to simply be: present, quiet, inquisitive, thoughtful, silly, happy, sad, whatever. No agenda, no task list, no technologically further advanced than roughly 1979 -- just me and a book and a pen and some paper and the presence of mind to grant myself the present of time and explore what happens in the moment.