The two-part TED Radio Hour series on screen time has been a fascinating listen for the last two weeks, and you owe it to yourself to listen to the whole thing. There are countless inspirations for stories or blog posts in that tight 120 minutes.
One of my favorite segments was from Abha Dawesar, discussing how computers distort our sense of time and our presence in the now. You can find her full talk here.
Dawesar speaks of a “digital now” separate from the physical present. The “digital now” is made up of all the connections trying to distract us or lead us down the rabbit holes of the internet, the trending topics on twitter, books our friends our reading, all the little places we spend our time online.
I have a fairly mid-90’s or early-00’s experience of the net. While I have a Facebook page and a Twitter account, I use Facebook primarily for amusement, and Twitter largely for puns with my friend Brian and a few links to interesting writer posts. But I have experienced the “digital now” and how fleeting it can be. Often I will want to write a blog post about something going on in the physical or digital present, but by the time I’ve reflected on the event and formed an opinion the moment to discuss it has largely past.
I don’t like being a reactionary writer. Quick writing ends up being sloppy, half-formed, far more arrogant and self-righteous than I ever intend to be, and pisses people off more people than I’d like. Every time I’ve posted something without really thinking about it, I’ve regretted it. Thankfully those regrets have been few and self-contained.
But my sense of time is still governed by computers even if I’m not the most outgoing or plugged-in sort of person. Anyone who has spent time transferring a lot of files from one place to another has felt what it is like to be slave to a machine. I carry these little black boxes around with me, or little colorful fingers, and they all have to be organized, categorized, equipped. Just because I don’t have a smartphone doesn’t mean I don’t like my tablet, or my laptops.
My grandfather had a desk under his stairs he called the “nerve center of the whole operation.” No computer, not even a typewriter if I’m remembering correctly, just papers and pens. My nerve center is more akin to the 90’s stereotype of the hacker, sitting in my dark basement lit up only by screens surrounding me on all sides. I go to sleep with a tablet at my bedside and my morning routine is governed by checking my websites as much as it is emptying the dehumidifier.
Here’s where I can confirm some of Dawesar’s assertions. Few of the memories I’ve formed in the last year that are lasting and meaningful have had anything to do with computers. They’ve mostly had to do with my dogs and my wife. And I have “lost time” many times when using the computer, frittering most of an evening away working on one project or another without realizing it was almost time for bed. Technology is another thing in our lives that demands attention.
I don’t know if I share her faith that people will pull away from technology of their own accord. While I can acknowledge that a walk outside is more physically restorative than sitting in front of a computer for hours, I really have to force myself to do it. Sometimes writing is refreshed by a change of venue, but it is still staring at a screen, just in a place with lighting that induces glare, with plugs that are too far away and chairs that aren’t quite as comfortable.
But we owe it to ourselves and our children to strike some kind of a balance, to not stare at a screen all of the time. Maybe that means leaving your screens in one part of the house, and not bringing them into the others. Maybe that means deliberate and scheduled time with those you care about.
There’s an old cliche that says nobody ever died wishing they spent more time at the office. I suspect the same rule applies to spending more time on Facebook.