Cell Phones, Distractions, and the Illusion of the Future

A great talk, related to this podcast, by Sherry Turkle on her fantastic book, "Alone Together"

Transcript of podcast:

So a few months ago I decided to quit my job and volunteer at VerdEnergia, which is an intentional community, focused on the proliferation of permaculture. It's really in the middle of nowhere in Costa Rica. We are miles and miles and miles even from a small town, let alone a major city. There's electricity, but there's virtually no cell phone service, and you can only get some very slow, pretty much dial-up level Internet from about 11 at night to 6 in the morning. So it's really pretty far off the grid, by most standards. So, I knew this when I came here, and I was really looking forward to living that kind of lifestyle for a while, and I anticipated the internal relaxation that comes from that kind of disconnection.

But one aspect I didn't really think about was how there'd be more social intimacy amongst the people here, because of that. So I'm all for technological improvements, I'm not a Luddite, but it's been so awesome when we eat together, we eat in community and there aren't any cell phones at the table, or almost never. Whereas back in the first world, on the grid, myself included, everyone has to check their goddamn cell phone every five minutes when we're at the restaurant, when we're at the dinner table, to make sure that our friend didn't text us and we missed it, or somebody sent us a Facebook message, or we're just looking at bullshit. I was looking at my Facebook feed, my Twitter, my email about this sale coming up. Mostly bullshit.

You really don't have that here because there's nothing to check. You get to give your undivided attention to people, and they get to give their undivided attention to you, and the level of connection that you experience and the depth, and the focus that you can have with that is awesome. I really think that it's a huge selling point for coming to a place like this that people like myself don't often consider. Being away from this has made me reflect a little bit more about, why is it that we check our cell phones so often? Of course we have the dopamine boost when we look at our e-mail and we get a nice email from our boss saying we did a good job or whatever it is. But the incessancy of it, the fact that it's so ubiquitous, what's really going on there?

I have some thoughts on what's happening there, I just think stepping away from it has given me a little bit of perspective on it. We like to tell ourselves, "We need our cell phones because what if people need to get in touch with us?" I don't think that's what most of the phone checking is about. If somebody really needs something, they'll call and you'll know that they need something and you'll do something about it. It's checking of this other kind of stuff.

One thing that I've realized is that the phone checking--it's almost like a baseline social marker for people, in that they need to do it to show that they have something they need to check--they have a friend who might be texting them, a boyfriend or a girlfriend, a "this", a Tinder conversation, something going on in their lives worth checking. And of course, we often feign this to seem like we have a lot going on, when we don't really have anything that important to check. And because of that, here people are a lot more vulnerable. If people are feeling like shit, or have something they want to share, they're more open to it, versus I think what we often do back on the grid is we retreat, to our cell phones, to kind of box ourselves in, to shelter ourselves from the world.

And I'm totally guilty of this, I don't want this to sound like I'm on my high-horse and saying how wrong everyone else is. I definitely think that I've been guilty of this, and I really hope when I go back on the grid; I don't kind of retreat back into this stuff. So there's none of this at VerdEnergia and it's really interesting and really awesome for people that have grown up in the cell phone checking-era. It's not even the cell phone era--cause it used to be cell phones were just--you could call and play "Snake" maybe, but it was pretty much just that--now, the entire world is available on our phones, so we have endless numbers of distractions that we have in our pocket, at any moment. Or it's out on the table, a lot of the time.

Another thought that I had was that cell phones offer this kind of distraction from uncomfortable thoughts, things being brought up in ourselves that are disquieting, much the way that I think noise is often used to hide any kind of uncomfortable silence that we have. So it's used as kind of a social-filler when there's some kind of awkward tension within ourselves or with another person. We had this defense of the phone, "ok I'll look at the phone and pretend to do something so I don't have to deal with reality." Again, I've totally been guilty of this.

But it made me think of a passage by Carl Jung, the psychologist and thinker, from, "The Earth Has a Soul". He's talking about noise and I think his thoughts on noise as this kind of distraction, can be applied to cell phones because they're sort of a visual noise, where we can just distract ourselves and stimulate ourselves to avoid whatever is coming up. He says,

Noise is welcome because it drowns the inner instinctive warning. Fear seeks noisy company and pandemonium to scare away the demons. (The primitive equivalents are yells, bull-roars, drums, fire-crackers, bells, etc.) Noise, like crowds, gives a feeling of security; therefore people love it and avoid doing anything about it as they instinctively feel the apotropaic magic it sends out. Noise protects us from painful reflection, it scatters our anxious dreams, it assures us that we are all in the same boat and creating such a racket that nobody will dare to attack us. Noise is so insistent, so overwhelmingly real, that everything else becomes a pale phantom. It relieves us of the effort to say or do anything, for the very air reverberates with the invincible power of our modernity.
— The Earth Has a Soul: C.G. Jung on Nature, Technology and Modern Life (p. 159). North Atlantic Books. Kindle Edition.

So I think a useful, modern comparison to what Jung's talking about is the Facebook news feed. Because think of what the Facebook news feeds is--it's really just an algorithmic conglomeration of shit--people that you've friended on Facebook. And it's presented in this stream, news feed fashion, to give it this kind of sense of, "ok, what's going on? What’s happening in the world?" And it gives it this sense of importance. Because we're all friends with so many people and everything, it's endless. It's a 24-hour news feed of stuff we can distract and stimulate ourselves with.

And I think there's a safety to the Facebook news feed because you can experience things through the computer screen, through the cell phone screen, rather than actually having to, face-to-face feel something, to be vulnerable, and I've experienced a lot of vulnerability and a lot of the relationships here feel so much more solid and sincere because people make eye-contact, and they're not half-present, with half their presence being on their cell phone.

The other day a friend came up to me and looked me in the eye and told me she wished we would talk more--and I just thought it was so nice that somebody came up to me and looked at me and said that, versus it being a Facebook message, versus the person not being willing or thinking to say that because they're sort of distracted with what they're doing on their cell phone or on the internet or anything like that.

Another girl told me straight away that she thought I was attractive, she thought that I was a physically attractive person, but she personally wasn't attracted to me. Of course, I didn't love to hear that--but it was so nice to have somebody look me in the eye and tell me that, versus, back on the grid, that would probably be maybe a Tinder conversation, or Facebook message, or text message. It would've been robbed of the emotional richness in the situation. But it made me feel so real, even though it was unpleasant. These are things that I think we're robbing ourselves by filtering all of this stuff through a screen.

I had an ex-girlfriend who didn't want to have--we were having a fight about--I don't even remember what it was, but she refused to have the conversation in-person, she wanted to have the fight over GChat--because it would have been all too painful and real to have a conversation in-person, like a human being, where you see and feel emotional cues, when you hear the inflection in a person's voice. These are all things we are robbing ourselves of when we resort to these forms of communication. And I wonder, what would've happened if we had had the fight in the jungle? Maybe we would've reached some better, more emotionally honest place.

The last one that I'll talk about that I've definitely experienced that is really common nowadays when we have unlimited information, is FOMO, we call it, fear of missing out. And we respond to it by--we're always checking our phones to make sure nothing else bette is going on. On New Year's Eve, everyone needs to have five different plans of what they're going to do, in case they arrive at a plan and go, "Oh! What if this other plan is better?". The irony of this is that it guarantees that you'll enjoy nothing, and you'll always be in some other abstracted reality, instead of the one that you're really living.

And what's great about living at Verde, is you don't really have a choice but to accept what is present. You know, I'm sitting here by this river and I don't have an option to figure out if there's something better going on somewhere. Yes, I can go and walk somewhere and figure it out but I don't have a phone that tells me what every other person on the planet is doing with themselves currently, and think about whether I need to be doing that or not, I can just do this, be fully present with it, and fully engage with it, fully experience it.

It's awesome that I can get fully into spreading chicken fertilizer. I don't have to check my cell phone to see if it's time to do something else or not, I can just do it. When we gather these devices, we say it's to stay connected, we say we want to stay in contact with whoever we want, but what it ends up really doing is it makes real connection less likely because we're so bewildered by the options available to us, the amount that's going in and what everyone else is doing. I think we're having trouble connecting with anything that we're doing.

And this is what I was doing back on the grid, it's like paying whack-a-mole, things pop-up, you have to go and hit it, and you're never actually enjoying hitting the mole, you're always worried about the next one that's going to pop-up. And I think that also these tools, things like Facebook news food stuff, are used because we don't like ourselves--we don't like our reality, we don't like what we're doing, we don't like our job, we don't like who we are, we don't like our girlfriend, our boyfriend, our this, our that, so if we just kind of keep the input of distractions flowing, we'll basically forget, much the same way that people that drink themselves silly or get addicted to drugs to forget about how they don't like their reality.

But this was really unconscious for me-the fact that this was going on--that instead of facing something in our lives that we don't like and trying to do something about it, or just experiencing it, just experiencing your own sadness about loss, whatever it is, it's ok to just feel that and not bombard yourself with distractions to escape.

Even though we're talking about modern technology, these are of course thoughts that have been thought for thousands of years, but I think they're often lost on us and lost on myself. Blaise Pascal said 400 years ago,

We do not rest satisfied with the present. We anticipate the future as too slow in coming, as if in order to hasten its course; or we recall the past, to stop its too rapid flight. So imprudent are we that we wander in the times which are not ours, and do not think of the only one which belongs to us; and so idle are we that we dream of those times which are no more, and thoughtlessly overlook that which alone exists. For the present is generally painful to us. We conceal it from our sight, because it troubles us; and if it be delightful to us, we regret to see it pass away. We try to sustain it by the future, and think of arranging matters which are not in our power, for a time which we have no certainty of reaching.
— Pascal's Pensées (pp. 50-51). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.

And it's in this sense that a lot of our pleasure comes more from anticipation of experience, than experience itself, and I think Pascal would think of it as cell phones as this kind of demon of present detachment.

The cell phone allows us to conjure up these illusory futures and plans for ourselves and other possibilities and they truly are illusory because it's our own projection of what we think that other people are doing and experiencing, not the experience itself.

And I've been a worrier my whole life, I come from a family of worriers, and I know what it's like to think that you're missing out, and you haven't made the right choice, and that you're in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people. The people that say, " be present", and wave it around, it's insufferably trite. But there's of course truth there.

We should consider turning off our cell phones for dinner, for talking with your friend. Don't trust yourself to not look at it, because these things are designed for us to constantly be looking at them, they beep, they blink, they do this, they buzz. Just turn it off, put it in another room, and just totally be present to what you're doing. The things that make us most human, vulnerability, intimacy, love, they require us to do away with these distractions and surrender to our present.

And I really believe that what would make my life tragic is to never feel like my experience was worth engaging with, for me to always be considering some other alternative to what I'm doing. That's the tragedy, not oh, thinking about, well, "Did I do the right thing? Did I not do the right thing? Do I go left, do I go right? Up, down?" That's just life is that you have to decide these things, the only choice is to whether you're going to engage with it or not.

Alan Watts, a more modern thinker, wrote a lot about this sort of thing, and a lot about the present and the future as an abstraction. He said,

…the future is still not here, and cannot become a part of experienced reality until it is present. Since what we know of the future is made up of purely abstract and logical elements-inferences, guesses, deductions—it cannot be eaten, felt, smelled, seen, heard, or otherwise enjoyed. To pursue it is to pursue a constantly retreating phantom, and the faster you chase it, the faster it runs ahead, this is why all the affairs of civilization are rushed, why hardly anyone enjoys what he has, and is forever seeking more and more. Happiness, then, will consist, not of solid and substantial realities, but of such abstract and superficial things as promises, hopes, and assurances.
— The Wisdom of Insecurity, Page 61

It's interesting to think of constraints, the constraint of living in the jungle, as something that actually opens up possibilities instead of narrowing them. But this is what I've often found is the case, I can read better and in more depth here, than I ever could on the grid. I can write in more depth, I can do things like this post with total focus because there's literally nothing else going on.

And I don't have t worry about whether I'm missing out on something else that's happening in the world because I just don't even know about it. And I don't need to know about it, I can just do this.

So when I go back to the grid, I hope I'm not worried so much about deliberating about every decision, over and over and over again, but just going with something, with just doing it. We're up against an unprecedented array of distractions and possibilities for things that we can disguise our own reality with.

And it's going to take a lot of effort to do these kinds of things. I'm trying to give myself a little prep talk here, because these are things that we have to bring to our consciousness to move forward, these are not things that are not just going to happen unconsciously. What's going to happen unconsciously for me is I'm going to check the Facebook news feed and check the email constantly and constantly, these are things that we have to fight and we have to create rules for ourselves and boundaries so we can fully experience being human.

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