“Technology doesn’t just do things for us. It does thing to us, changing not just what we do but who we are.” – Sherry Turkle, in “The Documented Life” from The New York Times
The other night I arrived at a bar long before my friend, who wouldn’t arrive for another thirty minutes. My anxious subway miscalculations tend to get me places far too early, rather than late. Coupled with this is the fact that many of my friends have the opposite problem, which has led me to master the art of sitting and waiting, alone by myself. It sounds so simple, but it occasionally feels like a feat when I speak to others who tell me they can’t bear to be alone in public like that, or I look around me to see that everyone without a companion is absorbed in the glow of their phones.
I’ve always enjoyed doing things alone. I’m an introvert at heart who needs quiet time to come down from the bustle of public life and social interaction. Some people feel revved up by time spent with others, but though I enjoy it in the moment, I often leave feeling drained and itching to decompress. Certain activities have always appealed to me as independent pursuits, like shopping and going to the movies. I love having the freedom to choose where I want to go and what I want to see, sitting in a theater “alone” but surrounded by strangers. There’s something vaguely romantic about it that I’ve always clung to. And that goes for grabbing lunch at a café by yourself, too—preferably with a good book in tow.
Despite this, I found myself growing increasingly uncomfortable as the minutes ticked by without a friend to chat with. Glances from the bartenders and wait-staff seemed to ask: is she okay? Has she been stood up? Their pity was poignant. Suddenly I was overthinking every small movement I made: where to place my hands and where to rest my eyes. When it was too much to bear, I clamored for my phone, scrolling through endless Twitter and Instagram feeds and texting random friends about totally unimportant things.
This was the final straw in suppressing a notion that’s been brewing in my head for a while: I am not immune to the allure of technology whatsoever; as a matter of fact, I’ve begun to feel like I am far too tethered to it. Like acknowledging a form of addiction (which I’m sure it is), it’s a difficult problem to actually solve on your own. My willpower can be great when I want it to be, but up until now I haven’t wanted to put the kibosh on my technological love affair all that bad.
It’s not that I think technology is evil, or the downfall of society, and I find most treatises along those lines to be totally overwrought. For instance, people who write off selfies as purely narcissistic, frivolous acts appear to me as small-minded and lacking in any historical reckoning of self-expression through the ages. I believe that Instagram and Twitter, like most wonderful things in life, are as much gifts as they are detractors. But for me personally, they’ve been hovering way too much in the latter category these days. I find it increasingly difficult to sit alone with my thoughts, or to experience something without sharing it. Notably, this increased tenfold when I finally caved and got an iPhone last year, what with its abundance of applications–those hate-to-love-them mediums for distraction.
This morning when I stumbled upon the New York Times article cited above which discusses this topic, I found it to be more genuine and less extreme than most literature on the subject. It was the last impetus I needed to convince me that attempting to live a less technologically-reliant life was a worthy pursuit. The author writes:
When you get accustomed to a life of stops and starts, you get less accustomed to reflecting on where you are and what you are thinking.
We don’t experience interruptions as disruptions anymore. But they make it hard to settle into serious conversations with ourselves and with other people because emotionally, we keep ourselves available to be taken away from everything.
These days, when people are alone, or feel a moment of boredom, they tend to reach for a device. In a movie theater, at a stop sign, at the checkout line at a supermarket and, yes, at a memorial service, reaching for a device becomes so natural that we start to forget that there is a reason, a good reason, to sit still with our thoughts: It does honor to what we are thinking about. It does honor to ourselves.
Her words ring disturbingly true. When I feel overwhelmed by my thoughts, I often reach for a device to assuage me…to take me out of my own reality. More often than not these distractions are counterproductive, closing us off to thought processes that are important for us to go through–to actually sit with. It seems reflective of an ever-growing societal fear of discomfort, with our environments catering more and more to our most specific needs and taking agency away from us. Call it a mass coddling, if you will.
More and more I am noticing how technology allows me to avoid more important pursuits and more enriching lines of thought. With the picture now so vivid, it’s become too difficult to employ denial. With New Years around the corner, I’ve been trying to develop some legitimate resolutions, ones that are hopefully less trite than those we’ve come to expect. Increasing my daily discomfort is at the forefront, as I feel a lot of my life choices have become too safe—and with that I now include decreasing my reliance on technology. This is nothing groundbreaking, as many have done it and written about it before. And despite how difficult it can often be, every author seems to report back that it’s also highly beneficial, making their days more productive and their moods less gloomy.
Of course technology can be great. But when unmitigated by time taken off from it, it can nibble away rather rapidly at a lot of important human qualities. We aren’t just struggling to communicate in reality with others—we’re struggling to communicate with ourselves, to be at ease with our own thoughts. And on a simply practical level, it’s sucking away far too much of our time that would be better spent elsewhere. In light of this, I’m starting the New Year early and enforcing strict rules for myself in order to temper the amount of time wasted whilst wrapped up in these devices. Feel free to join?
Notes on my plan: Social media, frivolous apps, and aimless browsing are the enemy here. E-mail and blogging don’t count, as does anything necessary for work or classes.