I watch my 17-year-old as she goes about her home life, her smartphone cradled in her palm like an extra, permanent appendage while she eats, watches TV, sits chatting with her friend or responds (distractedly) to a conversational overture from me. She’s rarely not looking down at and acting upon it in some way, whether scanning Facebook, posting a quick shot of her cat on Instagram or Snapchat, or playing an inexhaustible supply of games adapted to tiny screens with all the engineering expertise Silicon Valley’s finest have been able to bring to bear on the matter.
I worry about how much has become passé in her world—books, magazines, phone conversations, street games, even email, voicemail, and undivided attention on a television show, which she never gives any of them, even though she claims she’s following every step of the action just fine, thank you.
Last week I suggested we go to the movies. “I hate movies,” she said. “Hate” was in the tone I used to reserve for asparagus and brussels sprouts when I was her age. Something beyond understanding.
Perhaps it’s because smartphone use isn’t permitted in theaters (yet). No multi-tasking opportunities in that darkened room, just solo her and that solo film that usually lasts two whole hours. Bo-ring…
But there has been something else bothering me about all this, too, and I think I have finally come to realize what it is.
I fear that every day, I am becoming more and more like her.
And to varying degrees, most people I know are trending the same.
We are all ADHD now. (Or is it just me?)
I live in and for the world of books. Almost can’t remember when that wasn’t the case, when I wasn’t taking my lawn-mowing or paper-route money down to the local supermarket with its rows of popular 50-cent paperbacks, all of them emitting the fresh ink-and-glue smell that intoxicates me still after all these years. But I’m not into them (literally, anyway) nearly as deeply and tenaciously as I used to be.
My face is much more often buried in a screen.
The bleed of the Ping-Ping-Look-Here! digital world plays no favorites and does not distinguish between modes of engagement, work or play. It’s the very devil itself, grinning greedily at the human weakness of what the Buddhists call ‘monkey mind.’
True, a good deal of this is for work, where relentless computer time has simply become the coin of the realm, the indispensable tool. It’s almost unfortunate that my work leaves me no option but to spend most all day on the computer, whether lying down or sitting with my laptop noodling through emails or hooking it into a larger monitor at a desk for more substantial tasks.
Since my leisure time reading and correspondence makes use of the same tool in previously unimagined ways, computer time encroaches more and more on the time formerly reserved for physical books. That also includes, and I do not fail to note the irony, the reading and writing time I use to produce this blog.
So it turns out I’m staring at and scrolling through a screen in an almost unbroken stream stretching from moments after awakening to sometimes hours after I’ve fallen asleep.
That’s when I often come to with the laptop now slid off my lap and angled oddly off my stomach or thigh. Dawn to dusk, wall to wall, chalkline to chalkline—choose your metaphor for my apparent devotion to my machine.
But it’s not even the quantity of my digital time that truly concerns me. After all, a lot of it does involve research and good hard thinking of the type done with books, magazines and other media. But the issue of quality is becoming more problematic, it seems to me.
Lately, I’ve been feeling a kind of dis-ease, wondering where my days go and what I’ve accomplished in the course of them. Work projects are getting done, invoices are being sent out, so it’s not that I’m not accomplishing anything. But increasingly, it feels to me that I’m not. It’s a case of death to projects by a thousand tiny cuts, leaving any feeling of accomplishment all bled out by the time the project finally does get done.
Nothing ever seems to start, proceed, develop, and reach a logical, internally satisfying break point or, better yet and be still my heart, come to a conclusion. Instead, one confronts a constant barrage of multiple inputs regarding multiple projects, bulletpoint to-do lists, fascinating related articles to the bulletpoint to-do lists, fascinating related links flashing from the fascinating related articles referred to by the bulletpoint to-do lists, and Wait, here’s a text—client or friend?—and Ping, there’s another email and I wonder if Apple stock has come down some more and lo and behold here comes a phone call ring ring oh that clever musical tune!…and just how did I come to have 16 open windows on my computer screen before I’ve accomplished even one stitch of real work?
Or has this become the real work?
My name is Andrew, and I am Distracted.
I should emphasize (“admit?”) this, too: I’m not talking only about work projects here. The bleed of the Ping-Ping-Look-Here! digital world plays no favorites and does not distinguish between modes of engagement, work or play. It’s the very devil itself, grinning greedily at the human weakness of what the Buddhists call “monkey mind.”
I should also say I am not fishing for project management tips, amazing day planners, or referrals to top-ranked personal coaches who can help declutter my mind and slow its dervish whirl. I know there are things I could do to cut the noise, divert the intrusions, keep me attending to one thing at a time. (I’ll settle for a mere 10!)
There are techniques! Methods and interventions!
But I’m not too concerned about what I could do. I’m concerned about the insidious way this happens.
The issue is the creep of the digital world that seems to come at us relentlessly, from every direction. Absent great awareness and intention to keep it at bay, it percolates into our lives like an incoming tide, little rivulets forcing their way into all the unprotected low areas and then joining together to first saturate and then just drown us as we give way to a kind of digital zombiehood, eyes down, unresponsive to other humans or the natural world, and powerless to take a breath.
I began this blog nearly three years ago for many reasons, though the one I could formulate most clearly in my mind at the time was that I wanted one place in my life where I could focus on only one thing for hours at a time. One thing, one itch, one question, with no competition, no clutter, no multiple neural firings in response to rapid-fire incoming stimuli.
The luxury of slow thinking in an ever more impinging and pinging world.
Aaron Copland and Ansel Adams? O.K., I can focus on that!
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Twitter: @AndrewHidas Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/93289242@N07/
Ongoing appreciation to photographer Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos grace the rotating banner at the top of this page. Some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/
All other photos of abstract digital art by Tina H., some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ololiuqui/