What was I saying? Oh yes, I’m arguing that we don’t experience the world in real time any more.
It’s trite and about 15 years late to say that our lives have become hitched ineluctably to the devices we carry. The addictive qualities of social media, mobile games, and other digital platforms and practices are well-documented and familiar to most of us from our own experience. Our attention has been commodified and sold, often without our knowledge or consent.
This slide into passivity coincides with a similarly alarming deterioration in our ability to focus, persevere, and empathize. Our addicted brains require constant injections of dopamine to validate our actions, we quit when we encounter difficulties requiring creativity and resourcefulness, and we fail to engage with those around us. We’re spectators of excellence. I’m always saddened to see friends and families enthralled by their cell phones, oblivious to the loved ones sitting around them but enraptured by eBay auctions and the Twitter feeds of complete strangers. One facet of this culture of distraction that troubles me is the near extinction of social and personal simultaneity.
Because so much time is spent waiting for the next tidbit of interest, it has become acceptable and unavoidable that we’re made to wait for the intermittent attention of our interlocutors. At the dinner table, questions and comments are left dangling until some trivial task is completed: some email sent, some text read, some Reddit post chuckled at. Of course, none of this unfolds in real time. The shame is that the neglected conversations, the unique opportunities for insight, empathy, humor, and love live in the moment. They’re essentially simultaneous, and they’re gone forever when made to wait. The inversion of our attention from the momentary and unique to bloodless routine has deprived the fleeting moments that determine the quality of our lives of their substance and sublimity.
Nor have we sacrificed our social presence alone. We’re no less oblivious of what beauty, sadness, or other subjectivity lies open to us as individuals. How many of us live moments of inspiring personhood through the medium of our social media accounts? Experiences are now sought so they can be captured in pictures, video, and pithy remarks. I’ll grant that an image can often focus and preserve such experiences, but too often iPhone pictures represent a counterfeit life, a moment concocted for the sake of documentation rather than the documentation of something real and meaningful.
The spiritual cost of this perpetual deferral of “now” is soul crushing. We subsist on the junk food of experience, while our loved ones suffer the devastating alienation of our shallow self-absorption. We have less and less to contribute to our relationships, because we’re caught in the maintenance of the veneer of our self. We ‘re losing the capacity to engage with the world as it unfolds around us.
I remember being “out.” When I was a child, my friends could call on the phone or knock on the door and ask my parents if I could come out and play. If I were away from home, I was “out.” No barrage of texts or calls could get me on the line. I was out.
My favorite place in the world has no cellular reception. When I’m there, I have to determine what I want to do in each moment. I’m locked in the present. Find such a place, even if it just means you leave your phone on the counter when you go for a walk. Experience something and don’t snap a picture of it. Let unique moments stay that way.