I drafted these words on paper, in a coffee shop. I’m now typing them onto the pristine semblance of a sheet of paper onscreen, struggling not to let email or social media break my flow. Oops. Between this sentence and the last, I failed. To err is human. When temptation is ever-present, at some point I yield.
And this is a problem – because my productivity, profit and mental wellbeing are entwined with machines whose agendas don’t always coincide with my own. The buzz of an incoming update fractures my moments. Smart people are paid good money to keep me clicking. Other smart people – and not-so-smart people – don’t set out to keep me clicking, but manage it all the same via endless updates, correspondences, queries, double-checks and busywork. Somewhere amongst this, I get to collaborate, learn, share and create in ways inconceivable to other eras.
I’ve got it too good. Every moment promises more that is amazing, important, interesting or shocking than I can handle in a lifetime.
The late author David Foster Wallace once likened the solitary act of television-watching to hanging out with furniture. Simply look outside the screen for a moment, he suggested – see yourself as if through another’s eyes – and you’ll realize that what you’ve been doing for the last few hours could be construed as very odd indeed.
One reason children are drawn to touchscreens, a psychologist told me, is because their parents are so obviously obsessed by them
I’ve thought of this often as I watch my young son, two years old, watching me. Specifically, I’ve thought of this as he watches me watching the screen of my mobile phone. Children are drawn to touchscreens, a psychologist once told me, not just because they’re intuitive and compelling, but because their parents are so obviously obsessed by them. To infant eyes, the clasped mobile device is where it’s all at, whatever “it” may be: the adult world of work, leisure, relationships; the stuff even grown-ups can’t stop ogling.
Hence my visit to the coffee shop, my pen-pushing wrestle with words and meanings, and my ongoing attempt to keep screens and phones out of sight and mind for a few hours each day. I do these things for more than nostalgic reasons. What I crave is more rather than less friction when it comes to time and attention: the narrowing of options and focus; the space to make thoughts my own. When my son ogles me, at least some of the time I want to be looking back at him.
The software of the human mind may be prodigiously adaptable, but its hardware is ancient
There’s plenty of evidence that I’m not alone in wanting these things. To borrow an imperfect metaphor from technology, the software of the human mind may be prodigiously adaptable, but its hardware is ancient. To be human is to be a mind in a body, grasping the world in resolutely embodied terms: something that’s never more obvious than when you’re watching a young human being taking their first tentative steps towards reading.
How would I feel if my son never held a physical book; if information in his world was something only and always onscreen? Is this any different than a scribe worrying about his child never fondling vellum? I think so, not least because of what it means to fill a young boy’s room with books that can I read with him, night after night, as he turns and grasps and bends their pages. He has already begun to explore them as objects, as words living in the world, that are always and only themselves.
I love technology. What are printed words but technology; what is writing? Yet if there’s a lesson that words and books should make obvious, it’s that loving something demands discrimination. We teach our children not only to decipher letters and words, but to read between the lines; to differentiate between texts; to argue and to refuse as well as to be persuaded and transported. When it comes to the cornucopia of digital technologies, this discernment is equally vital.
I need time apart from my screens in order to grasp what’s taking place on them more clearly
I need time apart from my screens in order to grasp what’s taking place on them more clearly. I need time apart from the crowd in the cloud so that I have something to say that truly belongs to me. I reach for pen and paper not because I’m stuck in the past, but because my memories of a different way of reading and writing are one of the best tools I possess for working out what I really want and mean – and having a life that’s worth living as well as sharing.
I dislike the tidy triteness of tech productivity tips, but I have one for you to try: if you’re anxious about technology’s demands on your time, start your refusals small and work up from there. Research, reject, refine, prune. Step away from the screen, and demand a good reason for going back again.
After all, attention is valuable – and tech companies are lining up to turn your time into their money. Don’t make the mistake of pricing yourself too cheaply.
This article and the associated images are inspired by Tom Chatfield’s ‘Live This Book!’ – part-journal, part-book, it invites readers to explore their beliefs, ambitions, friendships, memories and more.
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