More on Our Distraction Sickness
Recorded on September 23rd, 2016
I keep thinking about Andrew Sullivan: My Distraction Sickness — and Yours. Shortly before I read his article, I was thinking about how I spent the evenings of one summer when I was home from Va. Tech, renting movies with a friend after working during the days refurbishing computer terminals. I’d go to her house and we’d drink beer in her family’s basement den and watch actual VHS tapes1 of whatever early 90s movies were out then (like Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts”, or similar). Maybe there was some sort of improvised dinner, but that was pretty much it for the night! When I got home, I didn’t have a shame-spiral email address weighed down by years of unanswered messages. There was no World Wide Web (at least that I had access to) to browse, no smartphones to check, no Twitter, no Facebook, and no CNN.com to rot our minds with every page refresh. 22-year-old me surely had fewer responsibilities overall compared to now (no house, no real job yet, very few bills, no debt). But beyond the absence of the actual things to take care of, there’s a difference now where we feel like the multiple channels of input require constant tending lest they get out of control. You don’t want your email to get too moldy and you don’t want to slight someone on whatever your preferred social media app is. The convenience of Amazon, online banking, mobile task management apps and text editors means there’s always some planning or scheming or writing or shopping you could chip away at in the in-between time.
Imagine if Sullivan’s article had been a passage from some sci-fi book in the 70s, a picture of what the coming network would do to those who dove into it too deeply. It reads like an account from the looming future:
In the last year of my blogging life, my health began to give out. Four bronchial infections in 12 months had become progressively harder to kick. Vacations, such as they were, had become mere opportunities for sleep. My dreams were filled with the snippets of code I used each day to update the site. My friendships had atrophied as my time away from the web dwindled. My doctor, dispensing one more course of antibiotics, finally laid it on the line: “Did you really survive HIV to die of the web?”
I’ve been (and will often continue to be) the person sitting alone at a bar or restaurant, staring at my phone. The reasons are: 1. I’m an introvert. Of course I prefer the safety of a device queued up with my favorite articles, posts by friends, and unorganized information to groom. 2. From what I hear, people at nudist resorts or nude beaches do not stare at each other. If they regard each other at all, it’s all in the eyes. Keep your gaze high. You don’t want to stick out. You do the same thing at a bar or restaurant where everyone is nose-deep in their phones. Now the phones encourage us to not look at each other at all. You don’t want to be the one weirdo staring around, looking up at the ceiling or smiling at the other patrons. “Who’s the creeper? Why doesn’t he keep to his phone? Why doesn’t he have a book?”
Even knowing all this, I don’t see myself completely swearing off my mobile devices anytime soon. But just like taking a shower every day is a good thing to do for your body (and everyone around you), it’s equally good to regularly step away from the electronic information-pellet dispenser long enough think about why we do it so often, and whether it’s how we want to spend 30 seconds here and there, multiple times a day, while we’re still alive.
No matter how much we fetishize the past, good riddance to VHS tapes. ↩