Ding. You have a private message. Ding. You have a new follower. Ding. Someone replied to your post. Ding. You've got mail. Ding. Time to make your move in Warlight.
Screens big and small dominate my life. I stare at them for most of my waking existence, rarely breaking my gaze. The digital dream has come true. I Skype with an old friend in China. I have thousands of songs in my pocket. My productivity is through the roof. My neck aches sometimes and my fingers tingle, but I don't slow down. I'm pugged in. I'm an early-adopter.
See, I'm in control. These touch-screen toys can be turned off. I can close the lid on this laptop whenever I want. I can walk away. But I rarely do. Hours pass. I'm still here juggling tasks, keeping abreast, staying in touch. Feeling connected. Me and my screens. The new intimacy.
My daughter walks into the room. "Daddy, when will you be done?" "In a few minutes, sweetie." "Come downstairs, Daddy." "I'll be there in just a couple of minutes, okay?" "Okay, Daddy." Ding. Finish the post. Ding. Somebody likes my podcast. Ding. Spam problem needs attention.
Twenty minutes later. "Daddy! When are you coming?" "I'm almost done, sweetie. Just another minute. Almost done." "I want you to swing me." "I will, sweetheart. Just as soon as I'm finished." Ding. Finish the post. Ding. Check my traffic. Ding. A quick peek at Twitter. Ding. Shoot a link to Instapaper. Ding. Software update. Ding. Stuck on the post. Ding. Ding. Ding
One hour later. Google Plus notifies me and I respond. TypePad alerts me and I respond. iCal reminds me and I respond. My attention is required. Click. Click. I'm relevant. I'm vital to the conversation. I'm in the middle of something big here. Ding. My daughter has given up.
The house is quiet. I walk downstairs and look out the window. My wife is pushing Zoe on the swing. She's laughing, my broken promise forgotten. It occurs to me I could get some real work done in a quiet house like this.
That's when it hits me like a bus. The sad, self-absorbed reality of it. "Go outside, breathe the air, and play with your daughter, you SOB!! What's the matter with you?!" Ding. I feel ashamed. Ding. I get the message. Ding. I jump off a moving train.
Call it penance. Detox. I stop gazing at screens. Five days with no tweets. No Zelda. No email. No RSS. I jettison the barriers - the screens, the earbuds, the chatter. I disconnect to reconnect with the non-virtual world I inhabit. Recalibrate. Reevaluate "productive." Embrace silence. Ride my bike. Build towers for the joy of knocking them down. Pay attention.
I adore video games. I treasure the online community and the authentic connections all this amazing technology enables. I love writing my blog. None of this has changed. I don't mean to equate the interactive grid with prison. YMMV.
But I think it's possible to find yourself drawn into a cyclical "ding-response" existence which feeds on perpetual content-flow. It feels important at the moment it grips you, but ultimately evaporates when the next momentous thing comes along. Jump off that train, and it barrels along without you. When you decide to reboard you'll realize that you may have missed a few stops, but that train never really had a destination anyway.
Balance. I needed to find my way. Now I hear Zelda inviting me back. Excuse me, I need to take this call.