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The Wireless Edge: Disconnect!

Being always connected may be good for productivity, but it can wreak havoc with peace of mind.
I've spent my entire wireless technology career, now going into it's fifteenth year, working to promote wireless technologies and mobile computing, and especially their ability to deliver critical information to any location at any time. I've used wireless computing in almost form, beginning with Radiomail over the RAM Mobile Data network, and am forever experimenting as part of my consulting practice with a constant stream of new handhelds that I evaluate in various operating conditions. While I remain enthusiastic about the power of the technology, and believe that we're still in the infancy of how the technology will permeate and affect our lives, I think it's time to start coming to grips with the effects of always being connected on our psychological state.

I started thinking about this recently when I sent an urgent e-mail to somebody I was working with at another company. I received an auto reply saying "I am currently on vacation until Feb 28 and I will not be checking my e-mail." That was okay with me so I start making other arrangements. Yet, within 10 minutes this person responded to my e-mail. I guess his auto reply really meant "I am on vacation and I am getting my e-mail wirelessly. I will respond if it's urgent, otherwise I have a reasonable excuse to not reply at this time."

As a consultant, I can work from almost anywhere, and with considerable flexibility in my work hours. However, this is a two-edged sword as I can be in attractive locations with my family and can stay on top of my projects, but on the other hand, I almost never get away from my work. For a while, the trick was to take personal trips where I didn't bring my laptop. But today's smartphones are so becoming so capable that they let me stay all too connected.

This would all not be so bad except research suggests that the brain adapts to this sense of constant connectedness. The cover story of Time Magazine, January 29 this year, "The Brain - A User's Guide", made it clear that how we choose to live our lives, and what we mentally dwell on, actually shapes our brains. The article titled "How the Brain Rewires Itself" states "??? has come the realization that the adult brain retains impressive powers of 'neuroplasticity' - the ability to change its structure and function in response to experience." So the more connected we are, the more we adapt to that condition, and the less we can tolerate any delays in information. Otherwise, why would we all crave push e-mail that delivers our e-mail in seconds, versus much simpler polling approaches that might occur every fifteen minutes.

The New York Times on February 17 in a short piece called "Wireless Codependency", reported Robert Bornstein, a psychologist at Adelphi University, as saying "The superconnected may develop a dual-dependency. They're not only counting on other people too much, they're also hooked on the devices themselves, sometimes to the point where they feel utterly disconnected, isolated and detached without them." I guess we, the authors and the readers of this column probably all belong to this "superconnected" category.

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