That Moment When I Realize the Problem is Me

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Photo by Jangra Works, via Flickr

This might come as a shock to many people. (Brace yourselves, sisters!) Occasionally…very occasionally…I do fleetingly think, “Gee, if I had a smart phone right now I could…”

I always decide that for me, the benefit would be far outweighed by the nuisance, the expectation of being always available. But I’ve realized in the past few days that my reasoning is faulty. I’m absolutely right to stay disconnected, but the real issue in having a smart phone wouldn’t be the technology. It would be me.

It seemed like for a week, I kept hearing stories about people who had found their family relationships strained—in some cases broken—by addiction to screen time. Then I read a striking reflection, provocatively titled “I used to be human,” by Andrew Sullivan, who embraced life online until he realized his physical health was failing and so was his ability to have meaningful relationships. Yesterday, I heard him on NPR’s program Here and Now (a great interview, btw).

And when Christian and I talked these things over, we found ourselves stumped by the lack of self-regulation that seems ubiquitous to modern life. I scolded him for how often he feels compelled to check his work email day, night, morning, weekends. And he pointed out how much time I spend on the computer.

That was when I realized that I am not immune. I, too, am driven by a need for distraction. If I get stuck while I’m working, I’ll click over to email, and when there’s nothing there, I’ll hop on Facebook or (less frequently) Twitter. (There’s always something to distract me there.)

I value going out to the Pinnacles or Gans Creek to write because it takes me completely off the grid. It’s just me and my muse and the Spirit. I go out there, first, to be still and meditate, but despite devoting half my nature time to stillness and not doing, I generally get more writing done than I would if I stayed home.

backyard-retreat

I haven’t been going out much lately. We invested in a set of patio furniture that has made my back yard like a retreat—at least, when the wind is out of the north, as it has been the past week or so, and I can’t hear the interstate roaring. But there’s wireless down there, and any time I ran into a speed bump in my manuscript, my brain went, “SQUIRREL!” and I ran off to check Facebook.

Late last week, I decided to safeguard my writing time by unplugging the wireless router before I went downstairs to write. See, theoretically you could just turn off the wireless on the computer (or turn off the phone). But I’ve tried that. When all it takes is a flip of the switch to reconnect, there’s not a whole lot standing between me and distraction. It’s been illuminating to see how often I’ve said to myself, “Oh, I’ll just go look up…oh, wait.”

I’ve accomplished a ton in the past week.

Then, early this week, I imposed a Facebook cap on myself. I’m now only allowed to get on Facebook three times a day. (Only! There’s your first clue, Sherlock.)

The sense of withdrawal engendered by all this clarified for me that the only way I can do everything I do is by staying disconnected, by opting into the digital realm on my terms instead of being in by default and having to consciously opt out. I might be able to control myself, because self-discipline and self-regulation are key to my world view. But I would spend so much mental bandwidth policing myself, I would be taking away from the energy required to do the things that are more important to me.

So for me, not having a smart phone, not texting, not doing All The Things Everybody Else Does, are what allow me to be the woman I want to be. But I’m glad that now I recognize the problem isn’t the technology—it’s me.

Butting Heads With Siri

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Photo by Jimmy_Joe, via Flickr

Siri stopped talking to us when we crossed the Michigan border.

Christian had been worried the entire day about running out of battery, because he’d forgotten his car charger. Now he was even more uptight.

Perhaps it will not come as a surprise to most of you to hear that I was not particularly sympathetic to his plight. I am, after all, the woman who has a “dumb” phone, with prepaid minutes, only so that people who have my kids can call me if there’s an emergency.

The next morning, we left our hotel in Byron Center, MI and drove to Holland for the day. By that evening, the phone was even closer to running out of power than it had been the day before. We tried to get back to Byron Center by checking in only periodically with Siri, but Christian had no memory of anything: no highway numbers, no landmarks, nothing.

I was really irritated—not only with him, but with myself.

I mean, really. Here we are, two intelligent adults with masters degrees, and we were both completely lost going back to the hotel we’d driven to and from–twice, mind you, because we’d gone out for fireworks. Why were we so clueless? Because we had turned off our brains and become automatons, turning right and left when the Magic Box told us to do so.

The next day, heading into Grand Rapids proper, Siri made us cross six lanes and a double-white line to take an exit that was clearly illegal, and then couldn’t find the way back onto 131. I’d had it. “You and I,” I told Christian, “are perfectly capable of finding our way around with a map. Everything in this town is within six blocks of this hotel. We do. Not. Need. The. GPS.” For the rest of the week—at least when I was with the family—we navigated by the seat of our pants. I looked at the buildings and got them straight in my head, and I took us between them to cut off walk time for the kids. Sometimes I got the wrong street. But we could always, always figure it out.

I tried for two days to figure out why this whole helpless-as-a-baby dependence on a GPS bugs me so much. Am I just being crotchety? Stuck in the mud?

The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that the more heavily you rely on the Magic Box, the less in touch with the world you are. You lose your sense of place in the world: east, west, upriver, downriver, a sense of “the hotel is in that general direction” and “it should take about five minutes to get back to where I started.” You end up following skywalks for half a mile when you could walk one tenth of a mile outside.

We don’t look at maps anymore, so we don’t really get a layout of a place or a route in our minds. We just turn right and left on command, because the stupid apps make it such a Thing to try to see the big picture. We lose that sense of short distance versus long distance, the ability to say, “Oh, there’s a road that runs next to Lake Michigan, roughly parallel to the interstate. We have time. Let’s just see where it goes. We’ll find a way to get back on the interstate somewhere up the line.”

The more you depend on your phone for ev.er.y.thing, the less you trust yourself to figure things out on your own. And then you just stop paying attention to the world around you. We are, collectively, badly out of touch with nature, because the Magic Box is the world where we really live.

Photo by Tim Harding, via Flickr

There was a blackbird nesting behind the convention center in Grand Rapids that kept dive-bombing people; the joke is still running among those of us who attended the NPM convention. It’s such a novelty, because in this one instance, nature refused to be ignored.

There’s something really empowering about going to a new place and getting the lay of the land, figuring it out, making it familiar. Being able to have a conversation with someone and they say, “Do you know where CitySen is? Just up the street from there.” And you can visualize it in your mind and be able to get there purely on the strength of your own spatial intelligence.

The smart phones are great tools. But they’re tools. I want to challenge everyone to turn the thing off periodically and use your own God given sense to find your way from point A to point B…if for no other reason than to remind yourself that you still know how.