When I was a kid, we used to quote completely made up statistics to each other – “people spend two years of their lives at stop signs!” And if it wasn’t TRUE, then it was at least true, in that much of life was outside our control, spent waiting in line at the grocery store, at the bakery, bank, DMV, post office. Sitting for hours in the car on a long drive, or on a plane on a long flight. Waiting for the commercials to end.
Little pieces of our lives, here and there, the interstices before and after the main action, snipped away, lost.
When other people were around, of course, we could fill that time – at best with something uncontrollable, surprising, original. At worst, with the same empty thoughts and phrases we heard over and over.
How wonderful, now, that those moments are gone. I can pull out my smartphone and check email, my Facebook news feed, Twitter, app.net, HackerNews. I can watch videos of cats jumping into boxes, read blog posts, check stock prices or the weather, play a quick video game – for a minute or an hour. I used to listen to NPR in the car, then I switched to podcasts, now books on tape. I’m making use of that time.
And yet. I learned to juggle while standing on a bongo board during commercial breaks. I used to look forward to international flights – because once the doors closed, I was completely free of all responsibility for 12+ hours. Had I forgotten to send an email? Too bad! Had I left the stove on? Hope not! Nothing I could do about it – might as well just unwind, relax, and enjoy the ride. There used to be time when I was forced to stay in my head – when my only choice was to think. The only time of enforced non-engagement we have now is in the shower – is it any wonder that’s where we have our best ideas?
I worry that we’re stealing away the moments when we might otherwise have had a sudden insight. They’re so rare and unexpected – how would we ever know if we missed one because we weren’t paying attention? Or, if we missed all of them?
Maybe none of this matters. Maybe we’re improving our lives by adding things into the dead space where we might otherwise have had an interesting thought, observed something new, or interacted with another human being. Maybe there’s no real value to those “single serving” experiences, and engaging with small bites of meaning (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) during that time is net positive. Maybe the majority of that time was truly wasted, the intellectual equivalent of blankly sitting through the credits at the end of a sitcom.
How much do I really care about any of these time-fillers? Most of my oldest and dearest friends don’t post on Facebook, which means that I spend most of my time there reading the same three political screeds over and over, and seeing pictures of the children of acquaintances. Keeping up on Twitter is mostly like eating Cheetos – it can be fun, but you don’t look back with satisfaction and pride afterwards.
On the positive side, the books on tape have kept me sane, though I tend to bounce back and forth between non-fiction (history, biographies, management texts, etc.) and sf/fantasy (purely for entertainment value). And, of course, I think I get a lot out of some blog posts.
I haven’t watched much TV in the last twenty years, and always hated the image of someone flipping through channels, desperately trying to find something – anything – to anesthetize the mind. But this isn’t really that different, even if it’s only in one minute increments. Maybe there’s something that will capture my attention for the 30 seconds between now and when I need to pay for my groceries! In the end, it comes down to intentionality. And maybe, if I can take the same model as I’ve used for TV, and only watch when I have a specific show I want to see, then I can thread the needle and get the best of both worlds. If not, then maybe all that’s left is to start deleting apps.1
1 I played EverQuest for a while when it first came out, and became so engrossed that the only way I was able to save my sanity (and career) was to delete my character, cancel my account, delete the game from my hard drive, and give away the CD-ROM. Sometimes, cold turkey is the only way to go.2
2 Unfortunately, the CD indirectly ended up in the hands of a coworker who lost his job, moved in with his parents, ended up playing for 14 hours a day, and only occasionally making some money by selling objects on EBay. There but for the grace of God…