If revered ancient cultures could maintain themselves for thousands of years without the aid of a smartphone, why is it that within just a few hundred, we’ve managed to drive ourselves into the ground?
Editorial Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed on this web site are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of National Road Magazine, the NRM staff, nor any members of the team at Distinct.
This first chapter is more of an introduction. Maybe a statement of purpose. A mission statement? That would be counterintuitive to its purpose. This is about escapism, not conformity. Fair warning, this will offer thoughts far more stream-of-consciousness than well organized topics. I intend to focus on different things in each “chapter” but cannot promise what that will hold. I don’t know of any other way to do it. Adding too much structure seems to reduce the meaning of my intent, which is ultimately to journal this experience uninhibited. My apprehension around opening myself up this much publicly should also be pointed out. I do enjoy sharing moments of my personal life if it provides some sort of meaning. I can’t promise this will have meaning to you, the reader. Only that this will offer insight into one man’s experience. It is sure to change with each installment. It will undoubtedly contain words and phrases that, by tomorrow, could be considered culturally inappropriate. Not intentionally, of course. But it seems to me this is the way the world is evolving and to try and guard myself from some future ridicule is futile. I can only hope, at the very least, this first paragraph can be entered into evidence at that trial as a disclaimer.
How is it possible, in this tech-driven age, to disconnect? That is ultimately my goal. To break away, even temporarily, from the digital connections I maintain each day. It is next to impossible to navigate the modern world without a smart-phone. Businesses choose to post their information on social networks, rather than pay for a dedicated website. Advertisements infiltrate everything; from pop-ups on web pages to robo-calls and junk email. Navigating a strange city without a global positioning system in your phone or car is unheard of. We are as dependent on technology as we have ever been, and it shows. At least, in the United States. I accidentally left my wallet at home while traveling for work once. I survived three days without it, using only my smartphone. While on some level, it was cool to realize if I get stranded again I’ll be okay, it was also a bit scary.
Each day I become more aware of my own relationship with electronics. I sit in front of a computer when I’m in my office, and in front of my laptop when I am not. At home, if I am not outside doing chores, I’m indoors with the television on in the background for white noise. Or, I’m sitting directly in front of it. And then, it is difficult for me not to pick up my phone to thumb through social media posts, even though I am absorbing media from the television. In an attempt to reduce my usage, I’ve deleted most of the profiles I had on major social media. To further reduce my time spent scrolling, I began the practice of removing connections with people. At first it started with individuals I interacted with in person on a regular basis. I felt if I saw someone weekly, I didn’t need to see what they were doing in between face to face interaction. What then would we have to talk about? The purge grew to those I had not been in touch with, in person, for years. Because, why? If I haven’t seen someone in years, what purpose does it serve me, or them, to stay up to date on their evening meals? It all felt so fake.
Removing my own ability to interact with other people via online connection reduced the amount of time I spent on social media, mindlessly scrolling through posts. The unintended consequence was that I missed some things, like the invitation to my twenty year high school reunion. The event never even crossed my mind until someone I’d not heard from in over a decade sent me a message through a professional network asking if I would attend. After confirming I would not be able to make the event, the conversation ended. Even though I politely asked what that person had been up to in recent years, I received no response. So, despite making the effort to find a way to contact me, that person didn’t seem to care about anything else to do with my life. I won’t lie, I was a little disappointed. But it proved a point I’d been making for a while. Those “friends” I’d accumulated through social platforms were nowhere near the definition of the word, even if we’d had a real life relationship in the past. So then, what was the point of keeping those digital connections?
Ever since my self-eviction from social media, engaging with people in person has been much more meaningful. It is entirely possible that is an oversimplification, but this is just my personal experience. I don’t miss political debates fostered by links to biased news articles. My life is much less stressful. When I have a conversation with a distant friend it’s because I’m genuinely interested. It’s far more satisfying and if we must tie it back to the need for connection, it solves that problem too. Strange to think that humans ever interacted without digital means, let alone for thousands of years. How ever did we make it?
It’s no coincidence studies are showing the effects of this constant use of devices with screens are not positive. Increased rates of depression, dissociative disorders and suicide are directly tied to the amount of time we are in front of screens. A Nielsen report in 2014 stated that an average adult spends eleven hours a day in front of a screen. Eleven hours! I can only imagine it’s increased, six years later. As if those indicators weren’t enough, more disturbed sleep, eye strain, weight gain, and lower self-esteem are directly correlated to the amount of time we spend interacting with electronics. The biggest shift is in the addiction to screens. Social media created a new way for individuals to receive hits of dopamine.
Suffice it to say, this is the new normal. I worry about what comes next. My son struggles with screen addiction. If he is not watching cartoons, he has his phone or tablet out. And if he’s not interacting with either of those, he wants to play video games. We restrict his time, of course, but his demeanor is markedly different after spending too much time with any of them. Even physically, I can tell when he has reached a limit. His eyes get dark circles underneath, his attention span is limited, and his temper is short. Very, very short. Despite our best efforts to encourage him to find activities that are not electronic, at some point the argument becomes exhausting for all of us. It’s difficult to mitigate. The problem isn’t just his, or kids in general, it’s everyone. I’m ashamed to say when there is a lull in a conversation, even in a group of friends, we all tend to find ourselves with our phones in our hands. It’s ingrained in our culture now. And I don’t think it will ever leave. Not without some sort of mass awakening.
No one has been able to convince me that as a collective species we are responsible enough to wield the power of the digital age. But my distaste for digital social platforms does not mean I’m unable to acknowledge their potential benefits. We now have the ability to select all of our groceries and have them delivered to our homes without ever getting dressed. For many, this is a wonderful tool. It’s crazy to think about, but I know several retired individuals who have become personal grocery shoppers to make a little extra money on the side. They only work when they want, as much as they want. There are jobs available now that no one could even imagine a decade ago. At the same time, the reduction in human interaction is a cost. I’ve stood in line at coffee shops and watched people walk in to collect their beverage from the counter, then walk out without saying a word to anyone. They order their drinks ahead of time and pick them up. Digital makes things faster, of course, but is that better?
Our social structure has completely changed in the last twenty years. News clips are now derived from social media posts, because people stop to record everything. We see everything through a digital filter. Our ability to harness technology for the improvement of life is very high. But not high enough to overcome our want to be distracted. In a digital world we can be what we want others to think we are, and never have to face our reality. It’s far easier to present the false image than to do the work to be a better version of ourselves. I think that’s so sad. The most powerful resource in the world, the internet, full of limitless knowledge, is at our fingertips. At any given time one can access any subject they wish to learn about: find a program to learn a new language; watch instructional videos on how to build furniture; read books in online libraries. What do we do with it? Fill it with pornography and cat videos. The decline in quality of spelling, grammar, and particularly the ability to have a normal conversation is depressing. If online interaction isn’t the cause of those things, it’s doing a great job highlighting them as existing problems.
Each time civilization reaches a peak – that is to say, when efficiency creates spare time, we seek out means to fill the void. For the easiest example, consider the Roman Empire. Arguably, their technology for the time was highly advanced. Running water, sewer systems, indoor plumbing, trade, farming, construction and more, created a scenario in which the day-to-day needs of people were taken care of. So without the urgency to meet basic needs each day, society found itself with “free time.” New forms of entertainment evolved, most notably the gladiator games. All to essentially provide people with something to do in order to distract and prevent civil unrest. Lay modern American culture on top of the Roman example and it’s not too different. The means of distraction aren’t quite the same, but the principles are there. Even the need to constantly be at war with an enemy has managed to remain a part of our social construct. If not as a distraction, as a weak means of creating a false sense of unification. “Us versus them.”
Sometimes I wonder just how blurred the line is between reality and a false existence. Distractions like the ones we have today seem to encourage complacency. Perhaps the better term to use, rather than false existence. Complacency more accurately describes the apathetic attitude most seem to have toward any threatening issue. Because we see things through digital filters, it adds a layer of dissociation from a real issue. Our most recent past president of the United States seems to struggle with this very concept. His level of dissociation from reality is so high, he lacks any form of empathy. I think this is true of a lot of people. As a whole, society views poverty as bad. We share posts on social media about how we should give money or resources to combat poverty. But when we’re asked to pass out supplies at a food bank, or ladle soup at a shelter, we shy away from it. Such response requires tangible interaction bringing us face to face with the problem we vehemently insist should be resolved.
Can you tell I’ve been thinking a lot? It’s like this all the time in my head. Encouraging my son to spend more time outside is easier said than done. I think back to my time at his age, and if it was nice outside you couldn’t keep me indoors. My dad probably had the same sentiment, only his time at that age was spent doing chores. And a lot of those chores, I bet, would be considered cruel for kids today. The further back in history we go, the more responsible children are forced to be. In Alda, Nebraska, there is a monument to two boys, ages 12 and 15, who were attacked by a party of Souix and Cheyenne. This was 1864, mind you. The boys were attempting to flee, and were shot with arrows, one of which pinned them together. They eventually made it to a doctor who treated them. One of the boys lived to be middle-aged and the other died an old man. Compare the experience of those boys to yourself, or your own children. My son will be thirteen soon. I would never dream of expecting him, even in the care of an older sibling, to travel for miles to pick up a load of hay. Let alone be attacked and make it home to survive. Getting my boy to brush his teeth is a monumental feat. Perhaps this is a commentary on my own parenting, but I don’t accept all of the blame. Thanks to technological advancements, the option of sending my son to pick up hay doesn’t exist. While I’m grateful for that, it does seem a bit like we’ve lost something.
All of these things: the constant barrage of information, the near requirement of participating in an online world, the unseen waste generation and effects on mental and physical health give me incredible anxiety. Looking at the world from a holistic perspective is far more disappointing than it is encouraging. Honestly, how could it be? I don’t care how many cat posters your office has that say “hang in there,” or how many blog posts there are telling you how you can be successful in five easy steps, our problems as a species are overwhelming.
People really are remarkable. Some are blessed with the ability to appear calm in the most stressful situations. Most of that is probably derived from heavy training, but others come by it naturally. Others can’t handle the slightest bit of stress and express it often. The amazing thing is, those calm individuals are feeling the same way as those who are panicking. They choose to react differently to the same instance. Even those with years of training which allows them to have a calm reaction, still make a choice. That is one of the most amazing things about humanity. We’ve evolved to a point where we know, deep down, we possess the ability to choose how we behave. Yet, here we are, literally choosing our own poison.
Easier does not necessarily mean simpler. I once heard a story about how the popular store, Target, was so accurate (no pun intended) in predicting their patrons’ shopping habits, they sent a teenage girl coupons for infant supplies, before she realized she was pregnant. That might be an urban myth, but to be honest I’m not so sure. Data, in this world, is gold. If corporations can learn enough about us, they can *ahem* target us with specific marketing to increase sales. From items we wear on our person, to the way we surf the internet, down to the way we peruse a grocery store, our habits are tracked and recorded. Our habits, then, are sold to marketing organizations for one purpose, to make more money from our behavior. What’s more shocking, is those actions taken regularly, without much thought, are incredibly complex. The data shows us just how many steps we go through to arrive at one choice. We perceive it as a simple task when it is anything but.
From a certain point of view I find that kind of data fascinating. Like most things, there are gross amounts of potentially positive actions taken based on our collective behavioral information. But as I’ve already pointed out, that’s not how humans work. If there is opportunity to exploit that information to raise one’s status over another, we’ll take it. The millennial generation is the first in human history to be almost completely documented from their first day on this earth. They are plugged in from birth. Consequently, as educated as they may be, or “woke” as they think they are, they’ve been operating inside a system designed entirely to take advantage of them. In some respects, it’s like a living version of The Matrix. And at this very moment I just realized how close we might be getting to that reality.
Rising from the imaginations of those we consider forward thinkers, augmented or virtual reality is pulling us further out of a physical reality. I suspect I will get into the irony of that, for me, later on. I think augmented reality is awesome. It can assist people with disabilities by providing additional tools for them to interact with their environment. What a marvelous invention! The rest of us rely on it for entertainment. The same technology that allows an individual who is deaf, to participate in a conversation with someone who doesn’t know sign language, can also turn a sidewalk into a personal Super Mario obstacle course. A “live” game. Now those dopamine producing awards embedded in games on a phone apply to how many virtual blocks you can break while walking to the bathroom. It also means increasing the amount of screen time a person uses. I don’t know much about the psychological effects that can have on one’s brain, but it seems to me that training it to accept digital input as reality versus, well, reality, is a bad thing. Science fiction has explored this concept numerous times. One of the better examples, I think, other than The Matrix is a movie called Surrogates, starring Bruce Willis. In this movie, humans plug into beds and operate robotic surrogates of themselves in the “real” world. The premise stems from a fear of being injured or dying due to the random mishaps of everyday life. Of course, the lesson is, it is far more damaging to humanity to live as surrogates than living out life naturally. It is also a shining example of our collective propensity to abuse technology that should otherwise be helpful.
Oftentimes I think I’m being too cynical; that I’m not giving us enough credit as a species. Part of the issue might be that I’m examining it from a very cush worldview. I’ve had my share of woes, but never been more than a phone call away from assistance if I needed it. I’ve been hungry, but not long enough to starve. I’ve been destitute, but had the education, strength and support system to lift myself out. I’ve also known abandonment. All the social media in the world couldn’t cure my loneliness at the time. Then again, I don’t believe overcoming those struggles had anything to do with the technology available to me. It had to do with my family, friends and willpower. Was I able to conquer those obstacles because I lived in a country that had resources available to me? I argue it had far more to do with more basic connections than modern resources. If anything, I believe it made me more self-reliant. Less prone to fall under the spell of keeping up with the Jones. The truth is I don’t need a lot to survive, and am in fact happier when I have less.
Much of my life has been figuring out how to operate within a system that I never fit into. So much competition, proving one’s worth, dominating others through intimidation. Capitalism, this economy of consumption, makes no sense to me. I find the model of patriarchal structure exhausting. Add to it my religious upbringing, this looming possibility of eternal punishment, and I couldn’t help but feel anything except boxed in. The absurdity of arguing over words someone said 2,000 years ago is never lost on me. Neither is the obvious measuring-up that takes place between people in social scenarios. Could be complete strangers or best of friends, it still happens. In each case, I find myself asking, who cares? The whole dance is draining.
This takes us back to the beginning. Escapism. There is a movement of people choosing “simpler” lifestyles over modern benefits. Tiny houses, raising chickens, vegetable gardens, composting, recycling – sustainable choices made with the intent of lowering one’s impact on their local environment. I am always surprised how much judgment follows these individuals. The way an older generation looks at them like “dirty hippies.” Or, in the case of my father, who grew up on a farm, can’t imagine why anyone would want to go back to it after living an “easier” modern life. My childhood was filled with memorable one-liners from dad about only having one pair of shoes, sewing holes in socks and using an outhouse. But here we are, sixty years away from his youth experience, discussing the effects of climate change due to modern benefits.
Have we reached a tipping point? Are we past the point of no return? Does it really matter if a small segment of the population in the United States adopts more sustainable practices? Sometimes it feels like we’ve sold out the future of our species, and maybe every other, for just a few more hits of dopamine. If people realized those same effects can be felt without artificial support, would we see a mass exodus from electronic media?
It seems more and more people are figuring that out, I just don’t think it’s enough. Comparatively, the population of the United States is small in the world. It is the third largest country behind India and China. Still, with 370 million people in the U.S., there is an incredible amount of land space. 3.8 million square miles, to be exact. That means there is 64 acres per person in the U.S. Obviously you’d have to subtract what is considered habitable land to come up with a more real number of acres people could reasonably survive on, but even if that number is divided in half, it’s a lot of space.
So, if there is all this space, how is it possible we could ever feel constricted, cramped? It is a mental state, not a physical one. We’re designed to live in communities. Just not towering, mashed together centers, linked by systems of roadways, digital and electronic grids. Because of the way we live, it should be impossible to feel alone. Yet millions suffer from depression citing their loneliness. I just don’t think our species is mature enough on an evolutionary scale to keep up with the pace of technological innovation. We have the mental capacity, not the emotional amplitude to handle it. Which is why, when someone stands up and shouts that the earth is dying and we’re responsible, the majority of us shrug and dance our way to doomsday. This is why we fall victim to distraction. It’s simply too much to process. There’s no other way to cope.
Like so many others I’m trying desperately to find a balance. To live in a society that insists we participate on terms determined by a few, while maintaining some kind of autonomy. Finding joy in the easy things while keeping myself honest about how much I procrastinate the real priorities. It’s hard. In our society it might be the toughest time in the history of our species. We here at the self-declared top of the chain, look down on cultures that embrace sustainable lifestyles that have existed for centuries. We see them as backward, stuck in the past and primitive. They don’t know what it’s like to put their feet up at the end of the day and turn on the news, therefore they are less than. Yet here, at the top of the chain, we fight addictions, mental strife, health complications and poverty, every single day.
If revered ancient cultures could maintain themselves for thousands of years without the aid of a smartphone, why is it that within just a few hundred, we’ve managed to drive ourselves into the ground? Irreversible effects of climate change, constant competition, gross consumption, pressure to succeed, false sense of entitlement – god dammit it’s overwhelming. If you don’t pursue those things, well then you’re lazy, less fortunate or it’s implied you’re ignorant. There is a mountain of inherent knowledge lost on entire generations because of perceived advancements in technology.
For me, it’s too much. I owe technology, and by that word I mean computers and access to the internet, much of my knowledge. I could have gathered it through libraries and books, but I didn’t. (It may be argued that books and libraries themselves are technology.) I watch YouTube videos on how to install ceiling fans, repair my car, tips for gardening and more. I like to think I use the digital resources available to make myself more self-sufficient, and thereby, live a more fulfilling life.
Enter this self-inflicted challenge. Which, I promise, does have a point, if you really want there to be one. The goal for me remains the same, escape. So this is the beginning of a journal documenting my attempt. I have a brain full of conflict and lots of desire to sort it out. The only way I know how is to do what I always do, dive into a project.