Unplugging (sort of)

This week, we’re on vacation in Cape Cod with my wife’s family.  They’ve been renting the same tiny cabin by the beach for the past 35 years, and coming here is pretty much the highlight of our summer each year.  Last summer, we brought Theo here when he was just three weeks old.  This morning, he and I took a walk along the harbor in Provincetown at low tide — he thinks of each beached boat as a giant bucket, just waiting to be filled with sand.

The problem is, whenever we’re on vacation, I have a hard time finding the right balance between “unplugging” and staying engaged with the real world.  One the one hand, I want to remain connected with work and friends, on the other, I just want to tune out, relax, and be with the people I’m with.  Inevitably, I end up fighting the struggle each day, carving out some time for the important stuff at work, and forcing myself (with limited success) not to stress about it too much the rest of the time.  It’s tough, and to some extent I feel like I achieve the worst of both worlds: neither able to fully enjoy my break, nor be fully present for important happenings at the office.

This has become more of an issue as technology has evolved.  Here at the cabin there’s never been any phone or TV.  Then there were cell phones.  Next, internet down the road at the town library. Then, iPhone and blackberries.  Now, this year we have a mobile broadband connection for our laptops, so we’re as connected as we can be.  For certain things, it’s great: we watched the World Cup final online last weekend, and yesterday my father-in-law did an interview via Skype, which saved him a day-long trip up to Maine.  But, work email and things to do are now within arms reach at all times.

I suppose the vacation case is just a microcosm of the larger question of how to balance real-world face time with online time.  Fred Wilson, one of my favorite bloggers, covers this topic frequently, and I’m really amazed the extent to which he’s able to stay engaged with the networked world without driving his family crazy.  In our case, the family is only semi-digitally integrated; it’s just not part of our culture to always be connected.  Maybe getting an iPad would push that culture change in a good way.

Lastly, I think it also comes back to information fitness — using online (all?) time to do the most important and productive things, and not just consume endlessly as you might in a less online constrained environment.  And of course, one of these days I’ll be able to plan ahead enough so that everything is under control at the office and I don’t have to worry about anything.  But I’m sure if I did that, I’d find reasons to plug back in…

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