The first time I saw it I did a double take.
Sitting in the courtyard of a bar downtown, while drinking and playing cards I turned to grab my beer and saw it out of the corner of my eye. A young woman was sucking on her phone. No, wait. She was holding a vape pen and her phone in the same hand. No, that wasn’t it either. The phone she was holding had a vape pen that was… part of the case?
I tried not to stare but I kept looking over to confirm what I had seen. A phone case vape pen. Or a vape pen phone case. Had she bought it or made it herself? Either way, all I could think about was how we had finally figured out how to combine separate addictions into one. A single mega-addictive object.
It was depressing.
It also got me thinking. So many of the things in our lives we used to engage with separately have moved closer and closer to all becoming the same activity. We live in the age of perpetual multitasking.
Mathematicians talk about singularity as the point at which things break down and are essentially undefined. I don’t know if I could think of a better description for much of the way we interact these days.
If you are doing everything at the same time, what are you actually doing?
We multitask from sunrise to sunset. Everything we are interacting with becomes, essentially, undefined. Our attention is no longer focused, our focus is no longer clear. We are in this amorphous interaction with no beginning and no end and a constant need for satiation.
When I first started thinking about this idea I imagined I would be writing about how we keep finding new ways to combine addictive activities. Then I thought it might be more about how we talk about those activities and how the language of addiction is now the language of daily use.
But pulling on both of those threads didn’t lead to very much. Yes, we do live lives of incredible convenience requiring less and less effort from us. And yes, we do have a weird pride in what we binge on and what we are addicted to. But in thinking about this I kept hearing in my head the title of a book I never read.
“Everything that rises must converge.”
The way technology has heightened progress, increased speed, decreased barriers, and afforded us incredible amounts of time feels like an ever-quickening ascent. Twenty years ago the closest that woman could have come to a vape pen phone case would have been to smoke a cigarette taped to a landline.
Phones and vape pens affect our behavior deeply. So does information which has become its own species of stimulation. It is all a kind of satiation which our appetites have outpaced. I don’t believe we combine activities to save time anymore, I think we do it just because we can, and it feels abnormal not to.
I get it. Even before the internet, I felt myself craving stimulation. Wanting to do everything at once.
My first smartphone exacerbated that desire. I became obsessed with occupying every moment. Walking, train rides, car trips, or just alone time meant I never wanted for stimulation. In the very same device, I had books, articles, videos, podcasts and the slot machine of social media. Facebook was the house and they extended me unlimited credit.
What started as a need to fill a stimulation void shifted to fill a want for knowledge; to capitalize on every single moment. I felt the need to always be learning and growing smarter. Leaving home without a saved article or my headphones sparked frustration and anxiety within me. I needed to have all of those tools at all times.
Even at home, I craved it. I watched videos endlessly. YouTube was an infinite water slide I went down head first with my hands tied behind my back. I registered for online courses in subjects I wanted to know but didn’t have the commitment to learn. Art History. Architecture. Cooking. I even tried to relearn Italian through an app I would use to capitalize on my time in the bathroom. Of course, that failed.
There is only so much Italian you can learn on the toilet.
And while I could argue I did become moderately informed, I know it came at the cost of will power. With unlimited opportunities in front of me, consuming felt mandatory at all times. Whatever I was doing always had “and” in the middle of it.
I became so focused on maximizing every moment of my time, of my day, of my life, that I was rarely at rest except in an exhausted state. Mindful Magazine asked the question, was I addicted to doing? I was.
Action addiction is real, and nobody is immune. When dopamine is always the goal are we really doing or just avoiding not doing? Never having to go beyond arm’s reach for anything maximizes our time, sure, but at what point does our maximized time provide diminishing returns?
I am sure earlier than we would like to believe.
Which brings me back to the phone case vape pen. As much as I thought it was absurd and depressing when I saw it… it possessed a kind of grotesque honesty.
I want all these things at the same time. I need them, combined like a Transformer to satiate me.
I don’t know where this road leads or if anybody cares. A life that wants for nothing can easily feel like a life that couldn’t survive with less. Which means we may have already lost the ability to distinguish between want and need.
The resonance of the activities we partake in have shorter meaning and longer consequences. At some point, we will inhabit a state of both always and never at the same time. And that terrifies me.
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