Ambient Intimacy and The Death of Downtime

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So, I was hanging out with Far Beyond The Stars blogger, Everett Bogue recently and he turned me on to the work of “cyborg anthropologist,” Amber Case.

Her video on how technology and human beings are working together in a radically different way just went up on the TED website. It’s fascinating how mobile tech is literally changing how we exist and connect. But, toward the end of her presentation, she spoke to something that’s really concerned me as of late.

We have all, says Case, been gifted with the ability to connect with anyone anytime. We don’t have to, but we can.

Case calls this ambient intimacy, because it’s always there.

But there’s a downside. Ambient intimacy, from a behavioral standpoint also creates a scenario where the constant ability to connect, give and get feedback compels us to want to do it more and more.

The more we do it, the more we want to do it. And, the more powerless we begin to feel to NOT do it. It’s a phenomenon known as intermittent reinforcement and it can often look a whole lot like addiction.

Hyper-connectivity isn’t innately bad. In fact it’s revolutionary on many levels. It keeps us dialed into more people and that can lead to genius creation and relationships. But, it’s what it takes away that’s scaring me and Case.

Ambient intimacy evaporates the pause.

The moments in your day where you’re unreachable. Where the only person you can connect with is you. Where you get the time and space to go inside. To reflect. To discover. To synthesize and create. To come home.

My friend, Scott Belsky recently wrote about this in a post titled, What Happened to Downtime?

Connectedness facilitates the collision of ideas and that, by and large, is a good thing. But, in my experience as a creator, DISconnectedness has been an equally important and rich source of ideation, innovation, expression and evolution.

Curious, what do you think?

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49 responses

49 responses to “Ambient Intimacy and The Death of Downtime”

  1. Thank you Jonathan for another wonderful post; it’s call BALANCE I guess….
    In gratitude,

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by remarkablogger, kurio's resource, Santi Chacon and others. Santi Chacon said: Ambient Intimacy and The Death of Self-Reflection: So, I was hanging out with Far Beyond The Stars blogger, Ever… […]

  3. DJ Bradley says:

    Not only is quiet space, and deep listening essential to the creative process, but self reflection is critical to learning; which is essential to entrepreneurship. Whether you meditate, go for a walk, or take a long drive–the only way to create the space to disconnect from our instantaneous lifestyles is to make a commitment to do so.

  4. Heather Holm says:

    I hope that more people will continue to take up a meditation practice of whatever type. It is the complete antidote to hyper-connectedness.

  5. i find the quiet to be the most generous time of all. connecting is fun, but solitude and silence heal. good point made in your post!

  6. Mark Silver says:

    This is a huge deal. A huge deal. I recognize an addict-like pattern, and guilt that comes up when I’m unreachable… and also the meta-witnessing of that in myself that says, Whoa! Hold it… I’m not required to be available.

    I’m old enough to remember home phones- no cordless ones, that would ring and ring… not answering machines.

    We can’t go back, and I don’t necessarily think we should. But holy carp and codfish, I think it’s incredibly happy to have unreachable times. Or I’d go insane.

  7. I love connecting with others, but downtime is where I connect with myself. It is absolutely crucial for me creatively to have uninterrupted time where I don’t answer the phone, check email or interact with others.

  8. Dave Ursillo says:

    Fantastic piece, Jonathan, sharp and concise.

    These intentional moments of silence, disconnectedness and aloneness — ambient intimacy (great phrase!) — better connect us with the present moment, “The Now.” They serve to help remind us to live presently among all of our pursuits.



  9. eKathy says:

    Jonathan, I love you. You are a writer. Please look the definition of entitled before it loses its meaning altogether. Sorry, peeve over.

  10. Hi my name is Julie and I’m a connectaholic. 🙂 I see this as a question of feeding the ego vs feeding the soul. The connectivity addiction gives us the rush of expression/response and, as Case points out, compels us to follow those “rush” paths wherever they may lead us. Without the “pause” those reactive paths become the guide and we can find ourselves far far away from where we ought to be – farther from our core – farther from our own inner wisdom. I’m only beginning to understand the impact myself (as a recovering connectaholic) and am finding that my nacent meditation practice is giving me a different kind of rush. Thanks for your constant and reliable support of true contributions!

  11. Hugh says:

    I agree, Jonathan. The pause or the downtime that we have each day can be the most productive time for us. Sure, we have the ability to connect and to be accessible 24/7, but we have to be proactive and schedule time for ourselves, manage others’ expectations, live according to our own schedules, whatever you want to call it. If you don’t take control of your time, someone else will.

  12. Maureen says:

    I believe fear of being alone with our thoughts or the fear of being unproductive drives much of this constant connectivity. Too often, any type of movement or activity is seen as being productive. Culturally we are fast-moving and encouraged to be constantly busy and connected — assuming all this activity equals productivity and success. Experience tells us that this not necessarily true. We fail to leave ourselves the Space to breathe, think or dream. This downtime makes some of us and some of the people we interact with uncomfortable.

    As for me I’ve always tried to put Space in my days for myself — it’s the only way I can function but I’ve always felt out of step with my peers for not not filling every moment of my day — a bit of slacker. I certainly hope seeking downtime is a growing trend.

  13. Cory says:

    Haha…when I first started reading your post, I thought you were going to say that believing we “could” connect at any time, day or night, produced that same pseudo-results as the fitness machines that litter most of our homes…
    Because it is now available all the time, we “could” do it anytime we want…and then it becomes a place to hang the laundry!

  14. I’ve known Amber for several years, and her work as a cyborg anthropologist is brilliant. She is also working on products that help us use technology better. Her Loqui project is very interesting (combining maps and human behavior).

    I’m most concerned for our kids, who grew up in this electric-connection rich society, and who have neither downtime nor boredom. Boredom is such a good thing for kids, it necessitates creativity, and now that we have the ability to plug in kids to DVDs in the car, and to games on the Ipad and Iphone at any time, when are they going to be forced to create and interact with one another?

  15. I love the idea of the cyborg. I think in time, we (humans) will exist in something the size of a pinpoint and be able to shed the limits of our current bodies and the planet we live on.

    Maybe now, we are just experiencing the very early stages of this which is what Amber talks about.

    In the meantime, we do live on our bodies and our minds and I know I am feeling super-connected too much of the time and feel the addictive pull of always needing to be “somewhere.”

    If someone wants to live in that reality, go for it, but I really agree that the quiet reflective time that is so lacking is having negative impacts on us as individuals and as a society.

    I guess these are just the early bumps along the road to a new human being and a new existence, but boy, I wish I had better springs to handle the bumps.

  16. Hi all –

    Once again the universe creates a confluence of events as my topic for todays blogs (in process) is about the value of reflection.

    The value of reflection should not be underestimated. It is truly priceless. It helps on multiple levels including mental and emotional. It can help reduce stress as well as foster creativity.

    To help foster such time we need to not judge those that might be looking out a window or perhaps sitting on a park bench “doing nothing”. Do you know that they are doing nothing. Perhaps they are actually thinking and reflecting. Perhaps they are like Thomas Edison, taking time to consider their creations.

    In a way, I think of Yoga as a type of reflection. It’s value is more clearly accepted as we are doing something physically. But isn’t part of the action to slow down, breath, bring that pause? Meditation is also. I believe that there is a reason they are on the rise. We are moving so fast and we need to “schedule” the pause.

    I agree with Briget’s concern with the younger generation. I’m amazed at how fast my daughters can say “I’m bored”. When they say that, I make an effort to stop and help give them ideas of what they can do. I also have several books of activities to stimulate their minds. I don’t give them the DS. The TV is in the basement, the DS is in the drawer, the computer on the kitchen desk. They must ask to use any of them. The stereo, books, and toy…always available.

    May you each find time today and every day to stop, pause, reflect and find balance. If for only a moment or two until the chaos of life catches back up again.

    Be well everyone.

  17. Wow this is weird, because I discovered this video myself and shared it on Facebook last week. Synchronicity for the win. 🙂

    Another way to say the main message here: meditate (in whatever way you like, whatever that means to you).

    You know what one of the greatest blessings in disguise is for me? Having a busted car radio. I can’t listen to anything as I drive. At first I was pissed but now it’s so valuable to me that I will never get the radio fixed and lose that precious silence.

    • Michael – I rarely turn on the radio or play CDs in the car. I started (or should I say stopped) this nearly a decade ago. It’s my “think time”. Where else can you find such silence with your mind…ok when the rest of the drivers aren’t having anger management issues that is. Might some of the road rage go down if folks were “multi-tasking” so much while driving. A question to ponder. Faith

  18. George Sroka says:

    This poem sprang to mind when reading the original posts and replies:
    “But let there be spaces in your togetherness and let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Love one another but make not a bond of love: let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.” – — Khalil Gibran

  19. My son saves me from “intermittent reinforcement” thankfully! So does my ability to put my laptop on sleep and step away. Of course this ability was honed pre-hyperconnectivity. One last thing: I don’t feel downtime is synonymous with self-reflection and ‘inner’ time. Downtime is a lazy day at the beach, a great movie. Self-reflective or mindful time is probably my most important time. It’s the the springboard for all else. It’s time I’m invested in and it’s very productive in a nondoing sort of way. It brings about the spaciousness out of which my output forms.

  20. Marko Saric says:

    I actually went on a 10-day meditation course to disconnect over the New Year’s. No distractions at all – cannot read, talk, watch, listen, write… 10-days might be a bit extreme for most people but even a 2-3 day digital downtime could help get us back to focus. I wrote a post about some details of what I discovered while being disconnected on my blog.

  21. Annette says:

    My observation is that maybe we are not very good in communicating our boundaries, when am I available and when am I not available. People do get annoyed/overwhelmed with information, however, they don’t know how to communicate to people how and when they are available. The old “lets make an appointment in the diary and sit down” has taken on a new dimension.

  22. I just have to watch myself and see that this is a growing problem that is going to have to be addressed by many of us who are addicted to constant connectivity and losing attention span and experiencing other side-effects. I’m attending the Wisdom 2.0 Conference at the end of February in San Francisco that was started last year to try to talk about this issue. It will bring together key people from Twitter, Google and Facebook as well as leaders in the mindfulness community.

    • Ever wonder what we might find if we stopped right now to d a poll? How many people reading/responding have been “glued” to their PCs since they logged on this morning? How many happen to be in PJs? Not that PJs are bad, but it is perhaps because we haven’t stopped long enough yet today? How many eat at their PC? I just caught myself doing all three this morning. Time to shut down the PC and deal with other things in life for a while.

  23. wendy says:

    I’ve been noticing for a long while that we’re SO connected that we’re disconnected.
    I love that your article speaks to the idea of connection and need for validation and reinforcement as addiction. So true. We no longer seem to ask ourselves for internal validation, we’re seeking it from outside sources, which is dangerous.
    Even if it doesn’t reach addiction level for some, it’s still a question of quality vs. quantity. Quantity seems to be in the lead right now…

  24. Hi Jonathan,

    Extremely pertinent points made here! I think it’s a matter of getting over that initial “romance” with technology and hyper-connectivity and eventually returning to “normal” life having integrated the new capabilities of communication coupled with your own ability to discipline yourself when it comes to managing your daylight hours.

    Thanks as always!


  25. Deborah says:

    Ambient intimacy. damn. love when a truly sophisticated process is nut-shelled in a two word phrase that defines it with telepathic grace, speed & agility. Knocks me onto my literary ass in admiration!

    and for those of us who’ve been blessed/cursed with extraordinary empathic wavelengths since birth – those who’ve remained sane already know how critical full disconnect is to maintaining a whole Self.

    Tho not immune to the occasional social ‘addiction’ aspect, my life exists in the pauses – not in the connects.

    For so many great reasons – best post of 2011 Jonathan. Thank you so much for sharing Amber Case and yourself this morning 🙂

  26. Ooh this is something I’ve talked about a lot with my family members over the holidays. One of my relatives noticed that her employees were sneaking off to the “bathroom” to check their phones / send text messages instead of focusing at work… I was essentially explaining to her this hyperconnectivity or ambient intimacy like Case calls it.

    It’s amazing because the best moments of brilliance definitely come from the pause. All my best ideas happen in the shower, during or after yoga, or on walks with my dog. No cellphones or computers involved. 🙂

  27. Cory Huff says:

    I’ve known Amber for about a year, and she’s as smart as that video makes her look. You should see her presentation on Hyperbolic Geometry. 🙂

    She’s fun too. Thanks for highlighting her.

    I regularly go on media fasts, where I unplug to recharge. It’s the only way for me to stay sane.

  28. When the input/output devices shrink down small enough to seem to disappear (which is where all this going, by the way), then things will get really interesting. For many, augmented reality will be the only reality.

  29. Jenni Baier says:

    Thanks for posting this! I also value my downtime, but as a hyper-connected person, even my “down time” isn’t as “down” as it used to be. I probably need to take some steps to correct that 🙂

  30. I like to read as the way to unplug, even turn my phone to vibrate and relax. All the electronics we use today for seemingly everything can cause an overload. Everybody should find a way to relax!

  31. Brett says:


    I think the idea of hyper-connectivity has actually effected my relationships in both the real and online worlds adversely.

    What happens is I tend to go overboard on either end – long ‘pauses’ followed by periods of extreme connectivity. The problem? I disappear to reclaim my humanity after a period (1-2 months) of being totally plugged into the Matrix, which then hurts the relationships I’ve been creating.

    Digging deeper, I’ve found I do the same thing in my personal life – I have periods where I focus on other people, then I take long breaks from others in solitude.

    The problem is – how do I reconcile the two? Becoming consistent and balanced is hard when I have to make a choice between alone time and “plugged-in” time.

    Great post, Jonathan. Thanks for provoking some serious thought.

  32. Michelle says:

    Excellent post. I struggle with this personally, and have had to take some smaller breaks until I can figure out how to schedule longer ones. I think that employers also have to be very clear with the expectations in the workplace so employees don’t burn out. Eventually the idea to “be available” all the time for your job will have to go, because you won’t have any employees left who aren’t burnt out. Some employers are experiencing this now as the economy is starting to shift, but there are many left who haven’t really dealt with the issue. I think this next year will certainly be interesting to watch concerning this subject!

  33. Sue says:

    This post exactly sums up several thoughts that have been around the edge of my brain without coming front-and-center enough to be articulated – thank you! As I spend more time on the internet and read different blogs and all, I am struck by two things: the addiction aspect of the constant connectivity; the homogenizing of thought as a result. I’ve noticed that what may start as a “trend” among bloggers rapidly builds to where I’m seeing the same things everywhere I look. The same designs, the same “talking points”, the same references – originality is becoming harder to find. I concur with the thought that “downtime” is completely necessary to avoid being sucked into the maelstrom of sameness. “As the within, so the without…” – if we never bother to go within, how can we manifest our true selves in the world? So glad I found your blog – thanks again!

  34. Marc says:

    Disconnectedness is an integral part of ‘Getting Things Done’ in my world everyday. Since I run two content based websites, my highest priority is to provide high value content for visitors that come by every day.

    If I stop providing value, I stop getting paid. If I stop getting paid, then I have to join the regular morning commute. I’ll pull out my non-existent hair before that happens.

    Borrowing productivity tips from Eben Pagan’s Wake Up Productive, Tim Ferriss’ The 4 Hour Work Week and David Allen’s Getting Things Done, I put my blackberry on silent or ring only, place it in another room where I can’t see it, and begin the business of creating content each morning.

    It’s how I wrote my Master’s Thesis in 6 months, how I shifted from 20 hours per week to 2 hours per week on one website and how I launched my most recent website.

    The rest of the world eventually catches on.

    If I were on all the time, then people would have a large quantity of time with me. However, everyone I know values quality over quantity, and turning off the connectedness is one of the best ways I’ve found to do that.

    Scarcity does raise value. Being fully present and aware without distraction doubles it.

  35. Vicki says:

    I think the “always-connected society” problem is the next step after the “everyone watches TV” society (which came after the “electric lighting in the house stay up late” society. Some see it as a problem. For some, it IS a problem. For others, it’s not.

    I’ve had a cell phone since 1990. It’s used for outgoing calls. Only my spouse has the number. I have a smart “phone” now. It’s on during the weekday when I’m in the office. Only my spouse has the number.

    I read the web when I feel like it. Or I read a book. I don’t watch television; I do watch movies.

    Maybe it’s because I’m an Introvert. We _know_ how much we need downtime.

  36. Wilson says:

    I’m with you and Case on this thought,

    From my own experience also being disconnected has helped me keep a balanced life.

    It’s important to develop a plan of how much time you spend connecting to the web and to other things.

    and yes,

    the web is awesome, but there’s nothing like connecting person to person.

  37. Lu Phillips says:

    Great piece for sure but looking over the posts I get a sense of the whole thing tilted a bit paranoid, extreme, and self-reinforcing among this group of us at least. To have some fun, I’ll take a stance from an opposite position.

    If connectedness can scale to addiction then it’s more like a cup-o-joe in the morning versus being strung out on crack. Miss it one morning and you may get a mild headache and start out sort of cranky… not a life changer.

    Downtime, uptime, sex, communication or whatever is a choice we make for ourselves when we need it. That’s it. When we get a bout of insomnia your body eventually will shut us down in spite of your mind holding onto the anxiety keeping us awake. If we could possibly OD on over-communicating then we’d back off the 2x/week visits to the shrink, calls to mom, and beer with friends every Sunday that the Bronco’s play.

    As Amber said toward the end, the whole thing takes on a familiar organic neural structure. That has me wondering if our capacity is only just getting tapped. And, as far as connecting goes at least, we may be still be less than 10% of our mental capacities and capabilities. We may be inventing and teaching ourselves these cool, new skills day by day–but that doesn’t mean we’ve collectively gotten past kindergarten! We still don’t know how to keep our hands to ourselves (think Iraq and Afghanistan) or not eat the glue (think Enron and Lehman Brothers).

  38. I guess there’s a lesson in all this, along the lines of what my wife has always said to me, “If you are aware of something (behaviour-wise), you can change it.”

    With the right amount of willpower, or WANT to do it, you can change enough to not let this become an issue.

    I admit that I do get itchy every now-and-then when I’ve not got my iPad under my palm when watching TV or something, but I stick through it to at least get an hour-or-two a day when I’m NOT connected.

    If nothing else, it’s for my health.

  39. I think more and more people will follow the likes of Danah Boyd and Gwen Bell and have digitial sabbatical. I think we as adults should parctice this regularly – daily, weekly and even yearly as a way to relax, daydream and play in our own thoughts.

  40. Jonathan, great post. We don’t think about personal time enough, and I think it’s one of the most important things we can do as professionals, creatives, anyone! Connectedness is great, but if it severs the connection you have with yourself, true success seems to leave.

  41. Spot on with this article, Jonathan. I recommend in-house retreats (4 hrs, 8 hrs, 24 hrs, 48 hrs) to my clients. Get outdoors. Some psychologists have been studying rather fervently the effects on the brain, mind, and behavior of being in front of screens for hours at a time versus being outdoors. A little spooky.

  42. I think back. Think back fondly on the times when I’ve been disconnected. Not reachable. Present with just myself and the moment as it unfolded.

    I remember times when it was ok if you were “unreachable” for an afternoon, a weekend, a month. Times when we were accountable to simply the moment. How nourishing it is to explore the world for the simply joy discovering for our.

    No tweets, photos, posts, texts. Simply enjoying some time alone. A rare commodity these days. One worth cultivating too!

  43. […] Ambient Intimacy and The Death Of Downtime […]

  44. Geri Stengel says:

    Losing time to let your mind wander is a serious loss, indeed. I guess the only place left for the solutions generated by a detached mind to surface is in the shower and when we sleep.

    Another loss caused by ambient intimacy is presence: If you interrupt a face-to-face conversation or dinner to take a call or if you are texting during the staff meeting, are you really “present?” Much as people praise multi-tasking, I think lack of real presence curtails the in-person interaction that allows ideas to bounce around the room or around your brain until they reach an “aha” moment.

  45. Phil SImon says:

    Interesting post and concept.

    Sounds quite a bit like some of the concepts in Nick Carr’s compelling book, The Shadows. One more reaction: this is quite like Kranzberg’s law:'s_laws_of_technology

    Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.

  46. MitchAndreas says:

    I really liked this post. It has allowed me to riview my methods of meditation and how much I am or am not achieving during this important time.

    It also reminded me of a matter which was brought up in PiersMorgan’s debut interview (CNN). In this case the interviewee responded with the importance of now, the importance of connectivity in the moment.

    I say this because surely there are times when you will brush a person aside in order to complete another ‘important’ task at hand. The question is at what time do you disconnect? Do you not answer the phone at work to complete other tasks, ignore a child who says Dad? or Mom? Doing an interiew is sometimes in that regard far simpler, when the timing is set, everything is ordered, you anticipate some query for that moment in time. What of the unexpected moments in time?

    Alternatively, I must cringe at those who port a cell phone and often give this ringing phone importance over certain events (such as dates), personal cell phones in the office, and the list goes on…

  47. Leszek Cyfer says:

    Many years ago Robert M. Pirsig wrote about this speeding flow towards shallowness, towards fleeting “what’s new?” searching. To dig deeper channels for thoughts he wrote the legendary book “Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance”. If you didn’t read it already, do it – there are answers for what caused this run for news and shallow emptiness of a lonely suburbs. The continuation – “Lila – an inquiry into morals” has given me even deeper understanding of the world we live in. I cannot recommend them enough.