27 Dec It Just Does
…forgot to publish this back in May ’18 when I wrote it…
I just got home from a long weekend at a music festival. It was the first festival I’ve been to where I was acutely aware of the number of young people, those fresh faces who look between sixteen and twenty-one. I noticed a correlation of the youngins’ and the number of active cell phones in the crowd. Most millennials, myself included, have watched this change in human connection, and judge it as negative. I’ve assumed the generation it most strongly affects (Generation Z or iGen) see those who oppose this change as idealists or lost in the past. But most iGeners aren’t choosing this, they just haven’t yet stopped to examine their habits involving the exponential change. They inherited this connectivity, with Millennials the last generation to witness its birth. Humans have grown more easily connected in ten years than the hundred-thousand years prior.
This nonspatial connectivity allows for communication and collaboration on levels only predicted by SciFi authors. What else, it allows for a higher level of inauthenticity, which SciFi authors also predicted. Nonspatial connectivity doesn’t encourage people to be fake (fear does that), but when I can spend a full minute contemplating how to express myself, the process of self-expression is disingenuine.
For instance, when texting this sentence, it is different from the way I would speak it because I’m able to pause *pauses* and decide exactly how to *pauses to look at thesaurus* articulate my thoughts and feelings. If we were speaking in-person, I’d have to articulate on the fly, which is the way organic social interaction goes. Because of these demands, organic social interaction encourages us to know ourselves better. Group dialogues shouldn’t be composed as St. Vincent’s New York. They should be authentic.
Ever watch conversations where someone in the group is holding their phone? They glance at the phone more often than they look at the person speaking. Rarely do I see a group of iGeners focus singularly on the speaker. I don’t think they believe themselves such fine multitaskers, they’ve just been given the gift of infinite connectivity without a guidebook. When there’s an increase in the quantity of demand without an increase in resources (attention and energy in this case) there’s a corresponding decrease in quality of product.
When I look into your, with no other input available (phone, computer, television), my attention and energy are spread only so thin. I focus. I hear you, comprehending more. I empathize and am more likely to stumble across the wonderful human experience known as compassion. Even when my mind wanders within a conversation, about what I’ll say next or how long hungry I am, at least it’s contained to the present spatial connection. The only demands on my attention and energy are coming from within the conversation, from me and you.
I’m guilty too. At the festival I attended, I found myself glancing at my phone, only for a second, during St.Vincent’s mind-blowing performance. I know it doesn’t matter, because, really, what is one second taken from two hours of live music? Even if it happens ten times through the concert, it’s only ten seconds, right?
But this skews the experience of time. Every time we look at our phones, it multiplies the quantity of moments experienced. The mind doesn’t need more moments. It needs higher quality moments.
Usually, the average moments we experience are short and scattered. Remembering to call Mom, a moment. Thinking of what’s for lunch. Noticing a pimple on the chin. And between these moments, there are countless touches with other moments, little thoughts or feelings that go unnoticed. That’s the way life is for most of us.
Then there are long moments. Like waking up. Most people’s minds move slowly first thing in the morning, and our thoughts aren’t yet competing for our attention. We feel the bed sheets, we hear the alarm, we smell the coffee being brewed in the kitchen. We stand up and stretch. We trudge to the bathroom to pee and wash our faces. Those first moments are felt experiences of reality. Some people experience these things while exercising or reading a book or listening to an interesting piece of music.
And there are stretched moments, like seeing your partner for the first time in a week. You see her face, her smile, you feel a warmth and tingling in your chest. You’re so excited to touch her, to hug and kiss her, to ask her how she is, to tell her how you are. Sometimes, with the overwhelming amount of felt experience of such an important moment, our minds stop, and our awareness opens to include everything. Look how her hair catches the sunlight. Look how bright her eyes are. The sweet way she smells. The joy in her laugh. Even the sound of Bluejays singing around you. That’s one, unbroken moment, stretched out by a quiet mind and fully felt experience. A stretched moment is created by undivided attention and translates to quality time.
When we scroll social media, we experience, just barely, thousands of moments. Each picture, status, and tweet we scroll across, our brains experience those moments with only the most shallow comprehension. Because of the rewarding brain chemicals (which we used to have to work hard for) we’re creating the habit of shallow understanding on a diet of high-quantity, low-quality moments.
Who gives a Facebook post more time than it takes to read (or decide not to read) the words written? I’ve never meditated on a tweet or stared deeply at the photo of someone’s dinner like it’s a Monet.
It doesn’t seem to matter that I’m looking away from the performance on stage, because what are ten seconds in two hours? But my mind already has trouble stretching moments, giving quality attention. Divided attention creates no lasting memories. Try to remember something from your instagram feed from last night. What about five days ago? I doubt you’ll remember anything besides perhaps the comfort of laying in bed and sinking into the routine of mindless scrolling.
Scrolling through the infinite number of moments technology affords us today, literally kills time. It’s what people do in the DMV line or that last hour at the office. If I want a moment to matter, to remember an experience when I’m old, or to be changed by an interaction or conversation, I have to stretch the moment until it becomes high quality. I say it doesn’t matter to look down at my phone while St. Vincent is performing, but it shears the moment in two. When I look up from the notification or SMS, I’m in a new moment. I’m much less likely to remember the moment because I’ve invested less undivided attention to it.
Undivided attention is what creates lasting memories.
Only monks and saints can focus undividedly on something for more than a few seconds, and that’s my point. We don’t need help dividing our attention. The more we split our lives into more and more moments, the less quality time we get to experience. When I say it doesn’t matter, ten seconds of distraction in two hours, I’m saying that creating lasting memories in my life doesn’t matter. If I want a remarkable life, ten seconds in two hours does matter.
It just does.
I challenge you to watch a movie without your phone. Leave it in another room in a hard-to-reach place. Put it inside a sock and under your mattress. You’ll be surprised how many times you find yourself thinking about the phone, about what may be happening to it. But keep watching your movie. Notice how often your hands absently reach for the phone, how often your mind wanders to that ongoing conversation in your direct messages, whether anyone at work has emailed you, or who might’ve commented on your last post. Watch and note. When it happens, don’t judge yourself. Just say, “I’m divided right now.” Notice how you might’ve missed something in the movie.
By the end of a 90-minute movie, you’ll be experiencing one of two things. One, you’ll feel a sort of calmness because your attention is less divided than usual (but, remember, our minds will divide time and attention into pieces without the help of technology). The other experience you might have is you’ll be feeling so drawn to your phone that you won’t even know how the movie ended, nor will you care, because part of you will already be in the sock under your mattress.
Some people say, “this is just the way the world is now. Embrace it.”
I say, “this is one choice the world has now. Choose it.”
Nonspatial connectivity is the greatest gift of human history thus far. But it’s also the great threat to the quality of our history. Can you imagine trying to read an in-depth history of the year 2018 fifty years from now?
While nonspatial connectivity gathers us from across oceans and national borders, it’s also separating us, moment by divided moment. We have infinite lines of connection with billions of people, but we have finite amounts of attention and energy. Choose those connections. Deepen them. Choose the kind of memories you want to have when you’re on your deathbed, and you’ll never miss the memories you didn’t make.