Sunday, April 30, 2017

Media Fast and Binge: The Lives of a Monk and an Addict

So this was the week where we were to investigate the effects of our modern technologies by investing their effects on our lives – an experiment, then, into the rhetorical and qualitative effects of digital technology on our lives. After a week of trying my hardest to follow the fast/binge guidelines, how did it fare?

To be completely forthright, the media binge wasn’t terribly hard. For my meals, I normally eat while browsing the web. Outside of class, I found it quite easily to be either on my phone or laptop, doing either homework, or mindlessly browsing the internet. I did refrain from using my devices while working out; but even still, the binge was near complete in its consumption of my life. And that was the scary part, was just how little had to change for me to be completely absorbed by my technology.

I use an application called RescueTime. The idea is simple: Download RescueTime to your computer and mobile phone, and it’ll track how you use your computer. From getting down to the specific types of websites you visit, to word processing applications, to software development, it keeps track of everything that I do. The idea, then, is to use this knowledge to be honest with one’s self about how time is spent on mobile devices. During the binge period, it was easy to attain levels of recorded time at 8, 11, even 12 hours on my personal devices. This doesn’t even consider the time I spend on university computers in the Avery computer lab, which is certainly non-zero. And if class time, workout time, sleep time, and morning and night preparation time is factored out, that means remarkably little of my day was not spent on a device. In terms of my commitment to the binge, I’d argue it was successfully implemented.

But how did that feel? Rhetorically, how did that impact my life? The old clichés come to mind. I was less connected to the physical world. I was distracted from my friends and family. I wasn’t as “present.” But the things which I really noticed, far more than anything else, concerned two fundamental concepts in Greek rhetoric – time and attention. In the binge, time, in its kairotic and even industrial sense, seemed to function on autopilot. Hours, precious hours, time I will never get back, was lost forever, and quite quickly. It was remarkable how quickly the days went by. Given that the binge wasn’t much of a change for me, you can imagine how I feel about how quickly the academic year went by! I truly felt an utter disconnect from the regular rhythms of life. The internet, after all, is a timeless place, truly eternal insofar as content from 1996 is just as available as content published 5 minutes ago, and can jumped to and from in a matter of seconds.

The other quality of my life which I noticed was markedly worse in quality was my ability to focus, and how I spent my attention. It’s not often that we think of things in terms like this, but our brains have a fixed quantity of energy they can expend on a given day – an amount of mental work we can perform before cognitive performance begins to suffer. I found myself, being constantly engaged and ever-distracted, having drained my mental resources on social media, news articles, and YouTube videos. By the time I needed to really be thinking, as in the case of my homework or studies, I found it much harder to focus, by virtue of being drained. I also found it much harder to focus now that I was accustomed to always seeking out fresh new distractions. I fully admit I am much more hedonistic than I’d like to be; and nowhere is this more apparent than on the internet, where I can just. Keep. Reading. Forever. I love it. It’s my shit. My brother reads books; I read every article ever published on the internet. It’s candy to me, and I can’t stop. As a bonus, I also couldn’t control myself from spending egregious amounts of time on social media. I became actually quite frustrated with my inability to not be on Facebook. But with my mental energies and willpower already sapped, I was powerless to not keep up with the Joneses.

So how then did the media fast fare? Initially, it was quite challenging. My morning companions – 538, The New York Times, The Atlantic, The New Yorker – were gone. In their place was left the cold solitude of breakfast, lunch, and dinner alone. I hadn’t even noticed how my technology had allowed me to isolate myself so. Outside of class wasn’t much easier. Now, when all my class-time obligations were finished, I basically had two options: Do homework, or do...something. I didn’t know what to do with the time. I didn’t want to do homework; but I couldn’t go to my comfort zone, to my favorite online writers and websites. It was as William Powers wrote in Hamlet’s Blackberry, “When you’ve been in screenworld for a long time, you start to lose touch with the third dimension. The rooms were so still and silent, everything in them frustratingly inert and noninteractive” (Powers, 227). And so it was for me, alone in my quiet, boring, bland dorm room. Eventually, I just decided to do homework, and that was to my benefit. I read a book I hadn’t touched in a while. I worked out and talked with other people in the hall. It got better.

And indeed, there were many benefits of the media fast that slowly became apparent. Something I also included in my media binge was music. I uninstalled Spotify and unplugged my Amazon Echo. And honestly, I never realized how much these services were hedonistic crutches to me. If I didn’t want to do homework, what would I do? Spend 5 minutes finding the perfect song, and another 5 minutes listening to it. Then, and only then, would I slowly, lethargically, drag my cursor to open up that word processing application. It’s not that there’s anything inherently wrong with the enjoyment of music; but because its access was so easy and ubiquitous to me, I couldn’t not have it on near constantly. And as another source of stimulation, it further served to distract from my days. With it gone, when I hear music, either at some event or just in public, it was like seeing a long lost friend; and there was a sort of recognition of the benefits of moderation in the pleasures of various things.

Aside from that, I also spent as little time on social media as my project for this class would allow. Honestly, I’ve been wanting to delete Facebook for years now; I hate it, how it consumes me and sucks my life away. I don’t have the self-control to abstain from it under normal circumstances. However, during the fast, it was a wonderful break. I didn’t lose track of time nearly as often; I wasn’t bombarded with self-esteem draining pictures and posts; and I didn’t get riled up about political happenings. It was nice.

So how would I characterize my binge/fast experience? In total, it was certainly an enlightening experience. I became much more aware of my hedonistic procrastination techniques, and the enabling role that technology has, in my life. I felt at once like an addict and a monk. I know what is right; I know that I am becoming the tool of my technology, being mined for data, whipped from desire to fleeting desire. And yet I struggle. I fight everyday to avoid the trappings and temptations of my devices. It will be a struggle for as long as I like those “nice” things – social media, endless entertainment, limitless information – more than I love something more fundamental: Depth of experience. And so, I left my binge/fast experience reminded of another quote from Hamlet’s Blackberry about the quality of our experiences: “It’s ultimately not a product of time or any other quantifiable attribute. Rather, it’s about the inner life that a given experience takes on – its meaning” (Powers, 13).

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