New York’s Underground Digital Lab

crowded subway

[credit provider=”Annie Mole via flickr” url=””]

I travel a lot, and there’s one thing that I’ve found to be a unique and useful data point.New York has a digital sensory deprivation zone that tests how long people can stand being disconnected from the web.

It’s called the New York City Subway.

Once you descend the stairs, you’re offline – cut off – and until your journey ends, you are forced to survive without the always-on connection that increase keeps us connected to work, the world, and our family.

In the past six months – two interesting behaviours have emerged.

The First is The Mid-Journey Check in.

There are some subway platforms that are near enough to a strong 3G signal that you can connect to your email from the subway platform. 72nd Street for example. There, you can see digital refugees who’ve gotten off the 1 Local, and are standing by the turnstiles, furtively connecting and downloading email, so they can get back on the next local and answer email offline as they screech and rumble their way to work.

The Second is The Digital iPhone Collision.

This is the pile up that occurs at the top of the stairs, as a train full of digitally deprived New Yorkers scrambles to daylight, and stares down at their phone, waiting for the signal to return them to the world of their digital tribe.

There are lots of reasons why digital deprivation is worth noting, and watching.

Until recently, the only place you could see this phenomenon was on aeroplanes, and travelling business people snapped on their phones and re-connected as soon as wheels hit the tarmac. But that seemed understandable. Flights were long, and business people flying could often find that two or three hours off-line could leave them ‘out of the loop’ on important industry news, deals in motion, or office politics.  And, with more and more planes now adding Wi-Fi, aeroplanes are no longer the digital respite they once were.

But New York’s Subways are different.

The people riding them are average folks, albeit east coasters who tend to be a bit type ‘A’. And the subway trips are relatively short, anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour.  Which has me wondering – are we moving toward a place where being connected to the net is a bit like oxygen? The compelling power of ‘now’  has us reading, sharing, connecting, and responding in real time.

Daniel Sieberg, the host of Tech This Out! on ABC News NOW, calls what we’re going through a ‘tech addiction’ –  and writes in his forthcoming book about how to ‘regain balance in your life.’  I haven’t read his book, it doesn’t come out till May 3rd,  but his premise has me pondering our connection to the web and the nature of addiction.

When you click on your smart phone, check your mail, read Twitter, and look at your Facebook page after a 30-minute subway ride, what instinct is driving you? Is it a modern day version of the caveman’s fight or flight instinct? Do you fear that missing mail or news will somehow leave you in the digital dust? Sure,  there’s some of that. But I have this strong sense that it’s more than fear. It’s something more evolved, and potentially potent than that.  It’s the emergence of a connected,  global community, and an innate sense of responsibly to stay in sync with your virtual tribe.

So, either we’re addicted, or we’re connected. Either we need a cure, or we’re about to see our brain expand.

One thing is for sure, we’re going to need to find new ways to manage the digital ‘bounty’ we now produce.   Like it or not, the volume of data isn’t going to slow down any time soon.

Steven Rosenbaum is an Author,  Entrpreneur,  and CEO.  His book Curation Nation,  was published by McGraw Hill Busines in March / 2011