A Note From the Road

The costs and benefits of disconnection in the always-connected age

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I am reminded of a reality of the reporting life: We think of this as the always-connected age. Indeed, if you'd gone away to Mars eight years ago, and just suddenly been plunked down in any American city small or large, the first texture-of-life difference you'd be amazed by is that people are always staring at little devices in their hands, even when they're otherwise walking, standing in line, (oh no!) driving their cars, or for men (OH NO!!) standing at urinals in the rest room. And on days when you're mainly in your office or at your home, the main challenge can be breaking away from the constant online lure.

I find that it's very, very different on the road, where ideally as a reporter I should spend a lot of my time. What I think of as "working" connectivity involves: (a) having a real keyboard to type with, rather than a tiny smartphone screen on which to hammer out "thx" or "c u soon," (b) ideally having a place to sit (even if it's an airport concourse), so I can type with both hands rather than using one to prop up the computer and pecking at keys with the other, and (c) having a fast-enough connection for a long enough time to see what is going on. By those standards, when I'm not in my office it can still seem to be the rarely-connected era. 

Over the past month I've spent a lot of daylight hours either traveling to someplace, in various non-connected circumstances; or interviewing people and touring farms, factories, etc, where my attention is on the people I'm seeing; or being in meetings; or staying in places with shaky online connections. I've spent the past few hours getting to and sitting in the San Diego airport, where the wifi coverage (like most provided across the country by the AWG company, in my experience) goes off and on, and am about to spend the rest of the day and evening aboard an airplane -- which, because it's a United B-737, means it has no wifi. [And where we've just been told there will be a three-hour takeoff delay.][Now back to one-hour.]

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I am not in any way complaining; I feel more fortunate by the day to be able to make a living doing what I love. By far the best part of the reporting life is the time when you're out seeing, learning, listening, and being surprised. (The worst part: the actual sitting-down-and-writing.) But while the benefits of the disconnected life are clear -- adventure, discovery, the ability to concentrate on the person or place you're actually encountering rather than with an eye drawn to the electronic simulacrum of life, the simple chance to read or think -- I've noted that the costs of disconnection also seem to mount up. There are so many emails I "mean" to answer, and know that I never will; so many discussions with friends, readers, or critics I unintentionally let wither; so many leads I would like to pursue, from political and aeronautical developments to the Atlas Shrugged Guy. Even a few years ago, you could be away from the internet through a 24-hour cycle and still feel perfectly normal. Not so much today.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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