When it comes to technology, I vary a little bit in terms of where I fall on the spectrum. While I’m not a Luddite I do appreciate the tactile nature of things like pens and paper over emails and texts. And while I’m not an early adopter I do see the value of the technologies and tools that actually make my life easier and more enjoyable.
My philosophy on hardware, things I either have to carry or keep in my home, is generally similar to that of my kitchen tools; they must serve more than one function. Like my Vitamix blender. It makes smoothies. It makes soups. I could make baby powder out of granite if I wanted to. It’s fantastic.
Two years ago my sister gifted me an Amazon Echo for the house. Mainly it’s a great speaker. It’s also a lot easier to tell Echo to stop, skip or change the volume than it is to walk over to my computer every time.
It’s great for cooking when my hands are messy and I need to set a timer. We use it to check the weather every morning and for the time. Occasionally a more obscure need will arise as did the other night when, after watching When Harry Met Sally, we needed to immediately know the age of Billy Crystal and the marital status of Meg Ryan. (70 and not currently, respectively)
So yes, it’s a handy tool.
A while ago I got rid of my alarm clock. I realized seeing the time in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep is, in fact, more stressful than helpful. I also read about the negative effect the bright blue light from those numbers had on my ability to fall and stay asleep.
Which meant my fiance and I needed our phones in the room to serve as alarm clocks. I didn’t like hearing the buzz of a notification or an email. I didn’t like the feeling I had of wanting to check my phone or how close they were to us. When I shared my frustration with friends they didn’t always understand. Some told me they slept with their phone next to them, like a lover. Or even in their hand… like a binky.
I didn’t understand why so many people thought that was OK.
So, I went and bought a small Echo for our bedroom to serve as a voice-activated alarm clock. The size of a hockey puck, it sits on my side of the bed ready to do our (limited) bidding.
And largely it has been a wonderful shift. We can control our alarms and our lamps by voice. Snuggled up in bed, ready to pass out, the thought of moving even an inch to turn out the lights seems unbearable. In those moments, voice-controlled bulbs are fantastic. It makes sleep seem much more imminent. Occasionally, Echo won’t work and we will take our anger out by yelling terrible things at it. I readily admit we have said terrible things to our Echo.
And while Echo will, occasionally, turn on thinking its name has been called (the word a**hole will do this) it has been a generally positive addition to our lives. It is a tool with specific functions we use deliberately.
The exact opposite of the seven different screens we have in our home.
One television, one desktop computer, one iPad, two laptops and two phones. Seven screens in a one bedroom apartment seem like overkill. We have one screen for every 93 square feet in our home. Who could possibly need or even make use of so many screens?
Well, according to a study from Reportlinker, the average American, who has 7.3 screens per home.
I don’t think I would be as frustrated about all of the technology if it were easier to ignore. The laptops and desktop are generally devices we use for specific purposes. But our phones are portable and almost always at arm’s reach. They turn on instantly, ready to stimulate us in myriad ways.
Which makes them more useful and addictive than Echo, whose most common response to us is:
I’m sorry, I don’t know how to answer that.
That’s usually when we swear at it. But our phones always have answers for us. It’s why we spend so much time on them. And lately, I’m becoming aware of how much time we spend on them for no good reason, simply because… they are present.
It’s this weird codependent relationship. Despite my desire to limit the amount of time I spend on my phone, I’m still checking it. Nudging it every so often. “Hey, little buddy? Did you need me? Did you have a message for me? An email maybe? A notification about a forthcoming concert? No? Are you sure? Let me refresh you just to be sure!”
It is why earlier this year, in my quest to use my phone less, and unable to do it with my mind powers, I changed my phone screen to black and white. I realized quickly how uninteresting the screen was in black and white. I had less of a desire to look at it. And those notification bubbles (which I have done my best to turn off) have no power over me in black and white.
Haha! Take that little red anxiety balloons!
Yes, online browsing can be more challenging And yes, it is annoying when taking pictures. Granted people around me think I am trying to be “arty.” But I definitely use my phone less and am much happier about it.
And let me be crystal clear: This isn’t me saying you should follow suit. I have strong opinions about the word should. It was something I did to help me derive less enjoyment from simply staring at a tiny screen. It is interesting how several times people have asked me how they could make a similar change on their own phone.
But there are still notifications on my phone. Dings, vibrations, and messages. It still provides information and stimulation. So while I may be on it less overall, I’m still checking it much more than I would like. Which is why I’m really happy about the new iPhone feature that shows my usage. As usual, that kind of information is alarming and disappointing. I definitely underestimated just how much I was using my phone.
Oddly enough, it feels like I check my phone most when I am at home. Since my fiance and I keep our phones on vibrate in our apartment, we don’t necessarily hear the calls or texts that come through. Which means we check our phones frequently to see if we’ve missed something.
It is a terrible way to live life, constantly wondering if you’ve missed something… anything.
Because I really don’t think there is much to miss. I generally don’t believe in the concept of “important texts.” If something is really that important somebody will call you. And if it’s an emergency, they will call you until they get ahold of you.
Our phones, at their best, are communication devices, information providers, swiss army knives of technology so powerful we can barely comprehend their potential. But I argue, more often than not they are anxiety provoking batteries that drain our focus and power our distraction.
There is so little that is voluntary about these devices. It is partially why I get so frustrated when I see my fiance check her phone, or when I feel like I need to because she does. There is a strange permission we give ourselves to check our phones when somebody else checks theirs. The same way we check our phones at restaurants when the person across from us uses the bathroom. We are retraining ourselves to see our interactions as spurts of time in between doses of digitally released dopamine.
All of this is in my head as I wrestle with the following question: How do we structure our home to be one based on human interaction and connection instead of stimulation and distraction?
My friend told me about a “tech bowl” in her home where the phones go for dinner time and to charge. I love this idea. Studies have shown, and you can probably vouch for yourself, even having your phone within your line of sight causes a low level of anxiety. I like the idea my phone isn’t my wingman but more of a house butler. Available when I need him, but silent and out of sight otherwise.
My fiance teases me. She thinks I’m a fanatic. Maybe she’s right. But with screens and technology, I feel like to be fanatical is to be rational. This isn’t a quest to shun technology but to be deliberate about how I interact with it. It is about holding on tighter to human connection than the phone in my pocket.
I will settle for being out of step with society if it means being more present with the people in my life.
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