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Balancing your e-life

Most people know the name "Kardashian" even if they don't know why.

Most people know the name "Kardashian" even if they don't know why. They know what Lady Gaga wore to the Grammy's, who Jennifer Aniston is currently dating, who A-Rod slept with last night, that Sandra Bullock married a 20-timing douchebag with a Nazi and tattoo fetish, that Tiger Woods is a 120-timing douchebag and kind of a cheapskate to boot.

But how many of your neighbours can you name?

A recent book by Bill McKibben - EAARTH: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet - explores this recent mystery phenomenon in the context of the economy:

"In the halcyon days of the final economic booms, everyone on your cul de sac could have died overnight from some mysterious plague, and while you might have been sad, you wouldn't have been inconvenienced. Our economy, unlike any that came before it, is designed to work without the input of your neighbors. Borne on cheap oil, our food arrives as if by magic from a great distance (typically, two thousand miles). If you have a credit card and an Internet connection you can order most of what you need and have it left anonymously at your door. We've evolved to a neighbo(u)rless lifestyle; on average an American eats half as many meals with family and friends as she did fifty years ago. On average, we have half as many close friends.

"I've written extensively... about the psychological implications of our hyperindividualism. In short, we're less happy than we used to be, and no wonder - we are, after all, highly evolved social animals. There aren't enough iPods on earth to compensate for those missing friendships."

It's the iPod line that struck me as particularly poignant. Every time I go to a restaurant there seems to be a table of 20-somethings busy sending text messages to people who aren't there and ignoring the people who are, and somehow this has become socially acceptable. Cars drive by me where the driver is talking on a cellphone, the teen in the front seat has his earbuds in and the kids are in the back seat playing with Nintendo DS's or watching videos. Families walk through the village a little apart, mom or dad a few steps behind talking on a phone.

A few years ago the Whistler Film Festival premiered a movie by Quebec's Denys Arcand called Days of Darkness that highlights the absurdity of our e-Lives, and the communications breakdown that our gadgets create. I highly recommend it.

These days people carry on long debates with complete strangers on Internet sites, meet people for seconds at a time on Chat Roulette (and then ask to see their boobs) and play video games online against people from halfway around the world who they will never meet face to face. We have hundreds of friends on Facebook, most of them classmates or casual acquaintances, but we still don't know our neighbours.

I've been just as guilty of embracing electronics over people. At one point a week ago I looked up to see my wife at work on her computer and my daughter watching a movie on our iPod Touch while I was alternating between watching the hockey game and fiddling around on my laptop. It bothered me at so many levels, yet I'm not sure what I can change it - people bring work home with them these days, it's the playoffs, and it was raining outside so my daughter was stuck inside (and I told her she could watch a movie later if she was good).

But change we must if we want to be happy. It's a simple affliction to fix, and you don't have to go full Luddite to do it:

Number One, turn your cellphone off when you're meeting friends and family. Unless you're expecting a life-changing call there's really no reason to leave your gadget on. Make that a rule among friends when you go out.

Number Two, leave your phone at home sometimes. Yes, there are safety issues to consider, but if you're driving three kilometres to buy grocieries then you're probably going to be okay. If you bring it you'll invent a reason to use it, so don't.

Number Three is to limit your recreational computer/video game/TV time to a reasonable amount, like an hour a day. If you go three hours one day, then miss the next two days' worth to even things up. If you're watching playoff hockey then track those hours and make them up over the summer - the players themselves are out golfing and you should be too. There are tools out there like parental control settings on video games and downloadable timers and programs that you can use to moderate your intake.

Number Four is to make a list of things you should probably be doing instead of wasting time - exercising, housework, cooking healthy meals, recreating, learning an instrument/language/skill, reading a book, etc. Some legitimate activities do require computers - e.g. art and design, writing, making home movies, paying the bills and keeping a budget - but if that's the case you should focus on doing the thing itself and not get sidetracked, which is easy to do.

Number Five is to purge occasionally. Go camping for a week or on a holiday and leave all your gadgets behind. Some withdrawal symptoms are normal, but at the end of your e-cleanse you should have a greater perspective as to what is truly important.