On the struggle to stay present in a world full of screens
I’ve always been hesitant when it comes to adopting new technology. I was one of the last of my friends to join Twitter. I carry a notebook and enjoy taking notes by hand. Even as I write this buying a flip phone sounds pretty tempting to me.
My parents say it’s because I’m sensitive to change. I don’t disagree. I cried when French Toast Crunch was discontinued. I didn’t want to give my childhood bunk bed to my younger cousin even though I hadn’t been living at home for years. Can you blame me? We live in a world where so many things exist beyond our control. The most consistent thing in my life is my credit card statement.
But in the case of me vs technology, there’s something beyond the idea of change that makes me uneasy. The reason for my reluctance has more to do with connection, and more specifically the quality of that thereof.
I don’t mean to be all Technology Is Bad™️. Of course, technology is an important and necessary aspect of an evolving society. Advancements in technology save us time and simplify day-to-day activities. Technology can improve accessibility for people with disabilities. Social media can amplify the underrepresented and spread thoughts like never before. I’ve made a handful of great friends because of social media. In many cases, technology can even save lives.
Still, I can’t help but think that just because we can use technology somewhere, doesn’t mean we need to. It’s about balance, as life tends to be. I can’t help but think how the abundance of screens is transforming the way we interact with one another, and how it’s personally affected my own habits.
From “dating app fatigue” to drowning in emails, we’re constantly communicating through tiny windows. We’re increasingly opting for the efficiency of interaction over the meaningfulness of interaction.
What’s more, enhancements in artificial intelligence attempt to predict our every move, turning what makes us most human into statistics and algorithms. Alexa answers our questions with astonishing speed. A new Gmail feature consists of a suite of automatic replies that populate based on a conversation. Efficient? Absolutely. Sincere? Hardly.
In many cases, the need to be time-effective is crucial. Like many, I don’t have the time to sit down and respond to every message with a five paragraph essay combined with a heartfelt Haiku. That’s not realistic. My worry, however, is that screens are largely becoming the focus of my day, and more troublesome, my interactions.
The numbers appear to back this up. Recent research conducted by Nielsen indicates that U.S. adults are now spending nearly half a day interacting with media, including TV, social media, video games, internet, and more.
Hi, I’m one of the biggest culprits. I’m on Twitter way too much. I’m constantly deleting and re-downloading dating apps. As a writer and comedian, I rely on the internet to make a living. I rely on social media to share my work. My phone is just as much a part of my bedtime routine as brushing my teeth.
It’s no wonder that millennials have been deemed the “Burnout Generation.” I relate heavily to the nature of getting bogged down by small tasks and the need to always accomplish more — to always be “doing.”
I also believe an extension of that conversation should include how these behaviors can result in loneliness. As someone in my twenties, as I move and take new jobs and attempt to make new friends and meet new romantic partners, I find it harder to form genuine connections. I believe this is at least partly due to the way screens and technology are now woven into the fabric of our daily lives.
A recent study confirms that younger generations tend to experience more loneliness.
“Our survey found that actually the younger generation was lonelier than the older generations,” said Dr. Douglas Nemecek, Chief Medical Officer for Behavioral Health at Cigna.
Don’t get me wrong, as an introvert part of this thrills me. I’ve cancelled my fair share of plans to watch Netflix. If I could get Chinese food delivered to my bed and not have to say a word to anyone, I would (@Grubhub). I cherish my alone time like it’s buried treasure. But it’s also frustrating. When I do decide to emerge from the cozy confines of my room, I want to be as present as possible. I get frustrated with myself when I’m not. It’s tough when the average American checks their phone 80 times per day.
That means I must be checking my phone [finds calculator app] 2,000 times?
And it’s not just responding to messages or other updates, it’s the proactive nature of living in a hyperconnected world — a world that quantifies social interaction then rewards you for it.
We feel the need to post videos of us hanging out on our Instagram stories. We map out our thoughts to get likes and retweets. We sacrifice a sincere moment in the present for a designed moment in the future.
Who could forget the 2018 Plane Bae story. Remember the (very bad) viral video of the homeless man shaving on the train? Before both there was “do it for the vine,” a rally cry encouraging users to create viral content by any means necessary. The point is that often times technology is telling us what to do more than the other way around, whether we want to believe that or not.
We sacrifice a sincere moment in the present for a designed moment in the future
Between myself and those around me, the sound of constant notifications fills up a room like an orchestra. Each app a different musical section. Each phone lighting up at a different time, acting as the light show in the backdrop. It becomes overwhelming.
The last technological straw for me was the other day when I went to the McDonald’s near my apartment.
I’ve been to McDonald’s a million times (because duh). But this time was different. I was confused as I walked in and was greeted by two large screens, each with the text, “Order Here.” I imagine this was what it was like seeing fire for the first time.
Where are the 20 piece chicken nuggets? How do I find the dollar menu? How do I ensure I get the sauces I want? The Minnesotan inside me wondered who to say “please” and “thank you” to. I just turned and said it to the closest stranger. He was less than receptive.
“Technology has finally gone too far” I thought.
For context, I have history with McDonald’s. One sits directly across the street from my high school. As students, we weren’t allowed to leave school property. A valid rule. But come on, what was I supposed to do, not eat fries?
We’d sneak out during lunch or in-between classes (sorry if any of my teachers are reading this). Eventually the employees had our orders memorized. We would strike up conversations. They knew our names. They knew when a big test was coming up — when the next big game was. They never told our teachers.
It was our deep-fried secret.
It was as if they were allowing us to pretend to be rebels, knowing full well that as long as we were there we weren’t sneaking off to get in any actual trouble. I know it’s not much, but the trust built through those organic interactions meant something.
I think about the similar experiences I’ve had throughout my life. Those spontaneous, surprisingly pleasant interactions. The seemingly mundane interactions that turn into something more. Things I fear I now miss by looking down at my screen or opting to stay home to watch movies.
I think about the person who sat next to me on a bumpy flight who ended up being an alumnus from my college. I think about how I met my current roommates through random conversation. I laugh when I think about the woman who I met at a Vikings bar in Virginia. She accidentally spilled a beer on me, leading us into a conversation where I found out she grew up down the street from me back in Minnesota.
I’m also a summer camp person. For those unfamiliar, that doesn’t just mean I went to summer camp once. It means that at this point camp is a part of my genetic makeup. My 23andme results included bonfires and song sessions.
I went to a Jewish summer camp in Wisconsin for thirteen years. Seven years as a camper and six years as a staff member. That’s important because it was time built into my year to unplug from technology. For thirteen years, I looked forward to spending my summers in the woods — away from the city and away from my phone. Not a tweet within miles.
It was during these summers that I experienced crucial personal growth, had the best conversations, spent my days outdoors, and learned the most about myself.
I always talk about how much I miss camp. In reality, what I miss is an environment driven by sincere conversation and uninterrupted creativity. Something I find hard to come by these days.
It was a WiFi-less oasis in the heart of dairy country.
For thirteen years, I looked forward to spending my summers in the woods. Away from the city—away from my phone. Not a tweet within miles.
While I still have the occasional “summer camp” moments, I feel they happen less. It’s harder to unplug. It’s more difficult to focus. I have more going on. The city is constantly moving. I have rent to pay. I have The Good Place to watch.
That’s the reason why I was so upset (perhaps irrationally so) when I wandered into McDonald’s that day.
In that moment standing in front of those screens, I couldn’t help but think that technology isn’t just replacing jobs, it’s replacing human connection. It’s making us less empathetic. It’s replacing the interactions I enjoy the most. The ones I look back and laugh at. The ones that led to good stories. The ones algorithms can’t predict. The interactions I take for granted. The type I want more of.
I’ve started 2019 by reevaluating my interactions with technology.
How do I use it? Why do I use it? Most importantly, how does it make me feel?
There are entire organizations dedicated to the idea of teaching others how to use technology in more responsible, intentional ways.
But even with research and education, the impact technology will have on us is still something we can’t fully comprehend. So as innovation speeds up, I’m committing to slowing down. I’m leaning into “realistic unplugging.” I’m vowing to make my everyday, face-to-face interactions (or the interactions I want) count.
I’ll call my friends more. I won’t hide out in my room as much. I’ll limit my time on social media. I’ll let my emails sit for another minute. I’ll enforce the coveted “no phones at the dinner table” rule. I’ll take more deep breaths. I’ll spend less time responding to trolls. I’ll actually talk to my Uber driver (okay probably not, but baby steps).
Because in the end, I know that sometimes there’s a difference between being connected and feeling a connection.
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