Michael A. Stusser explores the #DigitalMadness that has become part of our collective DNA in his new column.
Brainstorming our appetizer’s origin, it was abundantly clear that none of us had a fucking clue.
“Ezza Italiano!” gestured my girlfriend with a drunken flick of her wrist. “Or German,” she added, to cover her bases.
Sean, who moments before had lost a bet about Al Gore, had his own theory. “It’s obviously Chinese. Like Naga-sake.”
I was about to toss my idea into the ring when technology put a definitive end to our impaired improv.
“Shiitake mushrooms!” shouted Edward, reading from his iPhone. “Edible, native to Asia. Genus: Lentinula. The name originates from a Japanese word for “shii”—the tree which provides the dead logs where they’re cultivated.” Sometimes having the world at your fingertips really blows.
I’m not a Luddite. I love technology—Spotify, Instagram, Uber, PornHub—all fab. Instant access to the world’s database can be handy—even life-saving. (Thank you, WebMD!) But there’s also a time and a place for accessing this wealth of information; just because your data plan is unlimited, doesn’t mean you have to be. Sometimes it’s nice to let things breathe—take a few wild guesses, try and figure out some concepts on your own. (Nah, I’ll just Googleit.)
Attempting to find balance in the midst of ever-increasing data streams has become a new fad, like Anti-Gravity yoga, or meditation, but more frantic and all-encompassing. Hipsters have come up with all kinds of tactics to help them disconnect, if only for a little while. There’s “phone stacking,” where friends put their digital devices in a pile at social gatherings, and the first to grab their cell pays for the round. Unplugged camps have cropped up, forcing adults to go out-of-range and off-line (this used to be called camping, before glamping). And most recently, the Arianna Huffington types have descended on the masses, preaching ScreenFree Sabbaticals and TechShabbats, all in the name of Digitally Detoxing.
I don’t want to sound like Andy Rooney, but this all seems a bit contrived. What happened to the notion of being “out to lunch?” There was a time, and not so long ago, when a person could simply leave the house and be “not home.”
“Honey, going to the store. Be back in a little while.” Heaven to Betsies! Can you imagine that now? It would lead to so many questions: Where exactly are you going? For how long? How will anyone get ahold of you? What if I need to send you a list? And what if something really happens!
The main reason none of us leave our mobiles behind is that we all have expectations of availability…. of each other! Like Pavlov’s dogs, when that damn bell rings (or vibrates) we salivate regardless of whether the message has any real nutritional value. And if I ring the bell….you better be there to answer it. “Hey, I texted you a couple minutes ago, but didn’t hear back. I know you got it—it said ‘delivered’ right away…What’s up!?” Our FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) isn’t just about not being invited to the party, but that we might miss out on the ability to share a mundane moment or fleeting thought or pic of our falafel sandwich. God forbid we notice a bike messenger wearing a funny helmet with bunny-ears, and the mass of humanity doesn’t get to see it.
I will let the brain surgeons and cognitive scientists and shrinks and Marshall McLuhans of the world paint a more detailed picture of what constant multi-tasking and information overload does to your psyche. (Let’s agree, for the moment, that a lack of down time will eventually lead to burnout, spontaneous combustion, or a massive stroke.) What I can illuminate is how necessary some old-school etiquette is in living a civilized manner. Eye contact seems a simple enough rule of thumb, but we’ve all experienced a friend glancing at their Galaxy 3 as we share a heart-breaking life story. “I’m listening”—she’ll say offhandedly, while looking at a text and a post and a Word with (more important) Friends. It’s diversion, it’s distraction, it’s half-assed (at best) and it’s not getting the greatest results for feedback, intimacy, or relationship building. Sorry…just a minute, I’ve got to see who…OK. What? Where were we?
Pro or con, Amish or Tweetmaster, Luddite or Selfie-machine, we need to look at smart phones for what they are: TV sets. They are also gaming stations, computers, stock tickers, stereos and video cameras, but to simplify, they’re smart TVs. Would you bring a TV into a bar, or the bedroom, or classroom? (If I had had a smart phone as a teenager—with it’s ability to play music and games, text, watch Hulu and YouTube, and surf porn—I’d still be living with my parents….) Again, I am not anti-Tech; digital devices can be engaging tools for learning new languages, math, and especially anything involving candy and crushing, and generally finding your way around. But there is a time to unplug, and attempt to use your own cerebral search engine to develop a dialogue of ones own.
Perhaps the reason I am so adamant about this topic is that I am at fault; I’m often the idiot immediately posting photos of a sunset that for some reason I think is better or more important than the stunning weather system that you are encountering on your own at that very moment. I need to stop doing that. I need to keep my eye on the sunset in front of me, and the gorgeous woman beside me, and the smell of the ocean and the birds overhead. Sepia-tone Panorama!
It’s time we identify the FUNDAMENTAL SHIFT that digital devices have brought upon us, and figure out how to incorporate them into our lives. Perhaps we should have had this conversations in 1988: “Hey, uh, I’m not comfortable with you talking on the phone at the table in this restaurant, so could you take it outside, please?” But we did not. So let’s have it now.
Though we are at a precipice, the good news is that we are not Cyborgs. Yet. GoogleGlass and iWatches and Wearable Tech may be coming, but that doesn’t mean we have to have our retinas tattooed to keep up. Setting limits isn’t just a good idea, it’s HUMAN. And if we don’t get our minds around finding the “off” switch, we’ll burn out faster than an iPhone 3 trying to find reception at Burning Man. I am simply suggesting we find a way to build screen-free time into our daily routine, before incoming messages overwhelm us in the blink-of-an-actual eye.
We’re all adults here. You’ll obviously heed this advice, or you won’t, you’ll go on a Digital Free Date with your wife, or you won’t, you’ll force your kids to put the damn thing away when they’re talking to grandma, or you won’t, you’ll buy an iLockbox for the weekends or you’ll go on being an over-addicted juke monkey constantly tethered to work and news and other people’s whims (and cat videos). The choice is yours. But what I will say, is that if we don’t carve out some space now, we will be lost in the multi-tasking madness, craving more and more stimuli, and unable to know HOW or WHEN to let our noggins idle, if only long enough to stop and smell the roses (#valentinesdayiscoming).
My theory on our appetizer of Shiitake mushrooms, by the way, was that in order to get the Shiitake name, they had to be grown in 100% pure organic manure—shit—and then you could take them anywhere you wanted. Fuckin’ Google….(Please share.)