Used within reasonable limits, of course, these devices also offer us new graces. But we are not using them within reasonable limits. They are the masters; we are not. They are built to addict us, as the social psychologist Adam Alter’s new book “Irresistible” points out — and to madden us, distract us, arouse us and deceive us. We primp and perform for them as for a lover; we surrender our privacy to their demands; we wait on tenterhooks for every “like.” The smartphone is in the saddle, and it rides mankind.
Which is why we need a social and political movement — digital temperance, if you will — to take back some control.
I know, I know…how else could you be reading this, except on a device?
So, of course, I want you here and I want your attention (hey, over here!) and I want you to keep coming back for more.
But I agree with him that life spent only attached to a screen is a miserable existence:
American car accident rates are much higher now than a few years ago, due to drivers texting while behind the wheel.
People walk into the street, into objects and into other human beings because they refuse to pay attention to where they are in the real world, aka meatspace.
For all the connection it brings, staying tech-tethered also distances us from the people and experiences all around us.
It may be a sign of my generation, or my friends, but when I’m with someone in a social setting, like dinner or coffee or just a chat, we aren’t looking at our phones.
On a recent week’s vacation, breaking my normal routines, I stayed off my phone and computer — and took photos, read books and magazines (on paper), ate, slept, shopped, walked, exercised, talked to friends.
Do I care if everyone else “likes” my life?
If I like it, I’m fine.
Do you take technology sabbaths and turn off or put away all your digital devices?
A year before, like many addicts, I had sensed a personal crash coming. For a decade and a half, I’d been a web obsessive, publishing blog posts multiple times a day, seven days a week, and ultimately corralling a team that curated the web every 20 minutes during peak hours. Each morning began with a full immersion in the stream of internet consciousness and news, jumping from site to site, tweet to tweet, breaking news story to hottest take, scanning countless images and videos, catching up with multiple memes. Throughout the day, I’d cough up an insight or an argument or a joke about what had just occurred or what was happening right now. And at times, as events took over, I’d spend weeks manically grabbing every tiny scrap of a developing story in order to fuse them into a narrative in real time. I was in an unending dialogue with readers who were caviling, praising, booing, correcting. My brain had never been so occupied so insistently by so many different subjects and in so public a way for so long.
“The digital era gives us everything to own, but nothing to touch” — Stephen Witt, writing in the Financial Times
Do you own a collection of vinyl, aka records aka LP’s — short for long-playing?
I do, but hadn’t been able to listen to it for a long time after ditching my college-era sound system more than a decade ago. They sat, forlornly ignored, in a pile in the hall closet, and I longed to hear them: Genesis, lute music, koto music, Juluka, Joe Jackson, Rickie Lee Jones. All of it!
For Christmas this year, my husband finally bought us a turntable and all the digital stuff needed to listen to my music again and I’m so happy!
But it’s also been an odd and sometimes deeply poignant experience, because my vinyl, which I haven’t added to since the 1980s, is a mini time capsule. Listening to it whisks me back to my 20s and the jumble of complicated feelings — intense, professional ambition, wanderlust, moving within six years from Toronto-Paris-Toronto-Montreal-New Hampshire, unrequited love — I felt throughout most of that decade.
When I put on Hejira, Joni Mitchell’s 1976 classic, a gift from someone, I’m back in my second year of university, living alone in a tiny, ground-floor studio apartment in a not-very-good-neighborhood of Toronto. I’m scared, broke, starting to freelance for national publications, even as a sophomore attending a very demanding school full-time. I have an answering service.
I eat a lot of tunafish and can still remember all the clothing I then owned, as there was so little of it. Her songs of one-night stands echoed my life at the time, flailing about romantically and wondering when I’d ever feel safe.
I discovered the terrific South African band Juluka and have never tired since of their anthemic music. I went to see Johnny Clegg performing near me about two years ago and danced non-stop through the whole show.
Listening to the legendary French chanteuse Barbara brings me back to the house lent to me by a friend there at the end of my Paris-based journalism fellowship, and where I savored her eclectic music collection. I had never heard of this singer, and love this live double album.
One of my favorites is American guitarist Leo Kottke, who I interviewed many years ago. His voice is a bit of a foghorn, but his music is timeless.
And Canadian Bruce Cockburn (pronounced Co-burn), who morphed from gentle folkie to rocker and is still performing and touring 40 years into his career. I love his early work, like Salt, Sun and Time — and the first track, All the Diamonds (2:41), makes me cry every time.
If you live in Colorado, he’s playing two dates there later this month.
I’ve been a huge Genesis fan since high school — prog-rock anyone? If you’ve never heard their double album, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, give it a try. Many people have since heard of Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel, both of whom were initial members of this seminal group. It’s an astounding set of music, based on a story about Rael, a Puerto Rican kid living in New York City. Voted one of the best prog-rock albums ever by Rolling Stone and NME.
Anyone remember Kate Bush? Apparently thousands of people, as she performed 22 shows in London in 2014 — and her last ones had been in 1979. If you haven’t heard her music, check it out. I love Running Up That Hill — which was chosen for inclusion in the closing music of the 2012 Olympics in London.
And Joan Armatrading, another British singer, who recently played the music hall in my town.
It’s a totally different physical experience playing vinyl again after years of cassettes, CDs and downloads. Only cassettes, like LPs, had actual sides, and you had to participate in turning them over, as I now have to do again. I love the rituals of turning on the turntable, sweeping the grooves smooth and gently lifting and dropping the needle.
Some people actually enjoy it, but this year — thanks to the strongest El Nino in decades — many flights are proving to be much bumpier than anyone ideally prefers. Like, screaming, throwing up, we’re-all-gonna-die bumpy.
Flights are increasingly being diverted to airports where the plane can actually land safely, as a recent instance in Canada where it went to an entirely different province. Or passengers and crew are injured and the flight diverts to the nearest airport and hospital that can accommodate it.
I’ve been flying around the world for 40+ years, on tiny aircraft (the Arctic, Caribbean, Nicaragua) and 777s and A320s, but (thank heaven!) have not ever had a really terrifying flight.
I do live in fear of one and yet I live to travel. Bit of a dilemma!
I figured others were noticing this pattern, certainly anyone who flies often.
I pitched the idea to The New York Times, for whom I’ve been writing for years.
I love the accompanying illustration with it (please go look!) by Randall Enos, a local artist exactly my age, whose work has accompanied other stories of mine in the paper. How on earth do you illustrate something invisible?
I was so thrilled with what he produced I called him at 9:00 in the morning to thank him — he was already up caring for his six horses. “I’m a horse janitor,” he said.
There are many different kinds of turbulence, with the most problematic to predict and to avoid being clear air turbulence (which is very difficult to detect using conventional radar). Much of it is typically experienced at cruising altitude.
In the last few months, at least three commercial flights, two on American Airlines and one on Air Canada, have experienced severe turbulence that resulted in injuries to those on board. In two instances, the flights were diverted to nearby airports so the injured could receive treatment.
Aviation professionals classify turbulence from light to extreme, a form they say is very rare. The challenge of reporting turbulence, several pilots said, is that the reports themselves are subjective.
While in flight, pilots file Pilot Reports (Pireps) to alert airline dispatchers and other pilots en route of any turbulence they’ve encountered; what one pilot considers mild might feel moderate to another.
This was by far the toughest story I’ve written in a long time!
I’ve never studied physics or aeronautics or flown a plane myself. Because so many people fly, even those who hate and fear it, I knew it would be well-read. I also knew that aviation professionals would likely read it so see if I got my facts right.
It’s not a simple, quick story, which also made reporting and writing it so satisfying. I like a challenge.
But I also live in terror of making a mistake!
I started by reading basic news reports to find out how widespread the problem is and what’s being done about it.
I wanted to speak to someone who’d been on a really bad flight to describe it firsthand. I found him by seeing him quoted in a Canadian news story, checked him out on LinkedIn and then had to persuade his assistant and his public relations agency to speak to me about it.
This was one of those stories where my network really came through for me, without which I simply couldn’t have done a decent job on a complex topic.
I asked an aviation writer, a woman I’ve never met, if she could recommend a source/expert, and she did, immediately — a pilot with decades of experience now teaching aeronautics. He proved invaluable throughout the lengthy process or producing this story, which took weeks of interviews and revisions and cuts.
I also spoke to four working pilots and a flight attendant — all working long-haul routes on 777s and their like. I wanted people in the air now, not retirees, and that meant I couldn’t name them.
That meant the Times refused to allow me to use their helpful insights and comments, at least not in quotes.
I spoke to several meteorologists to try and parse the many kinds of turbulence — some of which seem banal to pilots, if not to us shaken-up and scared passengers!
My goal was to both soothe nervous flyers as much as possible while making clear how essential it is to buckle your seatbelt!
I learned a lot and was so frustrated I couldn’t include more detail and quotes. But that’s journalism, kids!
We always work within some sort of restraint, whether time, length or access to sources.
A powerful piece from the Washington Post about why being “productive” is such a punitive way to measure our human value:
I see it a lot when I interview people and talk about vacation. They talk about how they are wound up and checking emails and sitting on the beach with their laptops. And their fear is: If I really stopped and let myself relax, I would crater. Because the truth is I’m exhausted, I’m disconnected from my partner, I don’t feel super connected to my kids right now.
It’s like those moving walkways at the airport — you’ve got to really pay attention when you get off them, because it’s disorienting. And when you’re standing still, you become very acutely aware of how you feel and what’s going on in your surroundings. A lot of our lives are getting away from us while we’re on that walkway.
There are several cultural expectations in the U.S., even after living here for decades after leaving Canada, I’ll never agree with or adhere to.
One is the notion, an outgrowth of a nation with shockingly little government regulation or oversight of the workplace, no paid maternal leave, no mandated vacation days, that work is the single most important way for all of us to spend all of our time.
Every day, in every way, we are exhorted to workworkworkworkworkwork fasterfastefasterfaster and the hell with a personal life that includes family, friends, self-care, volunteer work, meditation, travel.
Why, all that time you want to spend binge-watching Netflix or patting your puppy or making pancakes with your kids? That doesn’t boost the GDP! How dare you?
Of course, a thin and fragile social safety net — hello, cause and effect! — makes working your ass off a necessity for all but the wealthy. The single largest cause of personal bankruptcy in the U.S. is medical bills; we now pay (yes, really) $1,500 a month for our health insurance, meaning we have to earn at least $18,000 after-tax dollars before any other cost.
For two full-time freelancers in a struggling industry, that’s enough to make me go back to bed.
One reason I’ve stayed freelance is the ability to control the use of my time, when and where and how often and for how long I work. I started work the other day at 8:10 a.m. (early for me) and had already written and filed a story by 10:30 a.m. I took the afternoon off to enjoy a day in Manhattan.
Some people need to work 1o or more hours a day — they have multiple children to support and/or a non-working spouse and/or earn low wages and/or live in a high-cost area. But beyond basic economic need, tethering your life to the profit-making demands of others rarely produces much joy for those of us expected to answer them.
Americans love to mock Europeans – those five weeks of vacation! That free health care! Those subsidized university educations! – as though the endless toil and debt required to earn the money to pay for all of that were somehow so much more virtuous.
When it’s really just exhausting.
Having lived in Canada, France, Mexico and England gave me a perspective many Americans lack.
Time off recharges and restores us to full mental, physical and emotional health.
You can work hard — and play hard.
It’s possible to be a deeply valuable human being without adding any economic value.
Working freelance means we’re choosing a life with less financial security but all the pressures faced while collecting a salary.
The major difference is our ability to say no.
To not leap to answer an email at 11:00 pm or 1:00 a.m. or on a Sunday morning when we’re getting ready to attend church.
Yes, it might cost us some lost income.
But it gives us a life we deeply value.
Do you feel — or succumb to — this kind of pressure to be productive?
When you fly from London to Tokyo, you go into the Arctic and it’s a night flight. You leave London in the afternoon and you get to Tokyo in the morning. So it’s a night flight. But the sun never goes down because in those higher latitudes it doesn’t go down at all during the summer. So you fly into that area where it’s continuous sunlight, and by the time you’re flying out of that area, it’s morning where you are. But sometimes you turn south a bit and the sun will set. Then when you climb, you get higher — just a few thousand feet can make the sun rise again because you’re still getting that higher vantage point over the top of the Earth. And so, you can get three or four in the flight. It really makes you question what exactly is a day. It’s sunrise to sunset, or is it?
His book is lovely and lyrical and completely captures so many of the fleeting, private feelings that aviation inspires.
Like this passage:
“It’s four days later. I’m at home, standing sleepily by the sink. The water runs over the soles of my sneakers, sweeping the African dust brightly over the stainless steel. I have to say it in my head, practically to spell it out, ‘This is the red of the soil under the South African tree, from the morning I saw the weavers and their nests.’ I think of the term earth, both soil and planet; this earth could not have expected to meet this water, here.”
The only child of a couple that lived to travel the world I’ve been flying from an early age, my first solo trip from Toronto to Antigua, age seven.
I love the expression “turning left” — i.e. into the first class cabin — a place I’ve yet to experience. I’ve enjoyed business class a few times.
I’m enough of a geek that I often stay to the very end when disembarking just to say hello to the pilots and sneak a peek into the cockpit or ask a question. I once noticed retro-fitted winglets on one aircraft, mentioned them to the pilot, who lit up with pride and pleasure that anyone had even noticed.
When flying home to Toronto from Westchester, NY, I end up in propeller planes so small — maybe 10 seats per side — I call them the cigar tube.
Other memorable flights I’ve taken:
— Flying into Nairobi, the city suddenly appearing out of nowhere like a handful of Legos tossed into dust, Isak Dinesen’s Ngong Hills nearby
— Flying out of Charles de Gaulle, in Paris, and its weird space-age tube-enclosed escalators
— My longest flight, 15 hours, from Los Angeles to Sydney
–– A crazy flight into Cuzco, aboard Faucett, that made like a sewing machine needle, up and down through cloud cover, seeking that airport’s only runway between the Andes. Shriek!
–– An astonishingly luxurious trip aboard a 767 aboard Open Skies, flying from JFK to Orly, fitted normally for 300 passengers, that held about 80 people. The seats were so wide I could tuck my legs beneath me sideways. Heaven!
— The flight from Managua to Bilwi (coastal town) where they weighed every passenger because the plane was so small
— Flying from Caracas to Los Roques in a plane where every bit of writing was Cyrillic, a former Russian aircraft
— Heading north from Kujuuaq, Quebec to Salluit, Quebec, a town of 500 people near the Arctic Circle, landing on a small, narrow landing strip of — what else? — ice
— Smuggling my hamster Pickles underneath my coat in a specially-made box from Toronto to Edinburgh for the summer (before the use of security checks and Xray machines)
Tell us about some of your most memorable flights!
Wander the halls of Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters and ask random employees in a black T-shirt with a little blue bird and they will give you a different answer, too. I’ve heard people tell me it’s a place for real-time communication, a second screen for television, a live-events vertical, a place for brands to connect with people and a media communications platform.
The conflicting vision about Twitter may be the company’s biggest flaw and may explain why Twitter has failed to grow beyond its 300 million users (compared with Facebook’s 1.4 billion).
It may also explain why the social media platform hasn’t changed much in nearly a decade.
It’s utterly insane that you still need to put a period before a person’s Twitter handle, such as “.@twitter,” if you want everyone to see it. Could you imagine Facebook doing that? Twitter still uses “favorite” instead of the more universal “like.” And Twitter still expects people to use Boolean search commands.
As a user experience, the product is still a drip-drip-drip stream of seemingly random tweets. It feels like a deranged video game, where players are blindfolded and win only if they accidentally come across a good tweet among a mudslide of drivel.
I started using Twitter — extremely reluctantly — about a year ago. I usually tweet five to 15 times a day when I have time, and I probably re-tweet 55 percent of the time, although less than I once did.
I have a love-hate relationship with it. I hate feeling like I’m spitting into the wind; as Sree Sreenivasan — who tweets as @sree — and who is the digital officer for the Metropolitan Museum in New York told my blogging students this year: Expect to be ignored!
Now that’s encouraging…
What I have come to enjoy most about Twitter are the weekly Twitterchats that create community, allow me to be as playful and/or as serious as I wish — knowing that each tweet is public and permanent — and connect me quickly and easily with some fun and interesting peers.
Every Wednesday night at 8:00 pm ET is #wjchat, which focuses each week on a topic of interest to journalists. Those who show up range from 30-year award-winning veterans like me to radio and digital journos worldwide to young, naive students who mostly lurk.
One of the best things about taking vacation — and the longer, the better — is shedding some bad habits (ideally!) while savoring the pleasures and challenges of a new or different environment.
So much easier to do when I’m not triggered by the same old patterns into the same tired behaviors.
I’ve been working alone at home in an apartment in the suburbs of New York for nine years. It’s lonely!
Hence a growing reliance upon social media for interaction that doesn’t require me to get dressed, get into a car, drive somewhere and….enjoy my life.
It’s become, as they say, thin gruel.
It’s too easy, too time-consuming and, most of all, increasingly frustrating because it doesn’t, at least for me, deepen intimacy, which is one of my joys in life.
Habits do make life easier; we don’t have to stop and think through why we’re making a specific decision. We just do it.
It was a great break for a week in Ireland to rent a cottage with no wifi or cellphone access. I didn’t miss it a bit! Badly burned by a huge data-usage bill from social media use when in Canada, I left my phone at home in New York this time. Jose dropped and broke his.
Instead we read, slept, took photos, drew, went for walks, talked at length to one another. Connected, with friends and with nature and with ourselves.
When we did have access to wifi by going to a nearby pub, we limited it to an hour or so a day to catch up on email, (some of it for work as we’re both freelance), and social media.
But it provoked some self-reflection on my part to realize how much time I’ve been wasting on “connecting” with others through social media, not face to face.
In fact, social media offers an easy way to procrastinate. It does almost nothing for my income. It rarely makes me much happier.
What new and healthier habit can I — must I — now create to replace it?
Another habitual behavior of mine, is a default position of feeling anxious. It’s wearying and no fun and it’s been a habit of thought for decades. It comes from a very real place — when you work freelance, your income is precarious!
But it’s also exhausting.
As one wise friend says, “Don’t borrow trouble.”
My media habits need a shake-up as well, so I recently signed up (yes, on Twitter) to follow a French magazine and a Spanish newspaper, both to find story ideas and to expand my worldview far beyond the terribly limited one offered by American media.
On vacation, between jet lag and different light, we were up both much later and much earlier than usual — the summer sky was full light by 4:30 a.m. and remained light until 11:30. I took some of my best photos, walking barefoot on gravel in my nightgown, at 6:00 a.m., catching the light on dew in thick spiderwebs, a sight I never see at home because I never get up that early.
And yet I saw one just like it the other day on our front lawn. Why not start getting up early here?
I need to broaden my horizons at home, not only when traveling.
Like…when I have a free day, I’d normally stick at home or head into Manhattan.
Last night I behaved as though I were still on vacation — i.e. adventurous enough to try something I’d never done at home before. (Why is that?)
I went to our commuter train station and bought a ticket heading north an hour to a renowned concert venue to hear Cherish The Ladies, a terrific all-female band playing traditional Irish music.
It required a taxi to and from the station and a change of trains — would any of that be possible at 11:00 after the show? Fingers crossed!
Instead, I said hello to the pianist we’d met in Dungloe in a pub; she dedicated a song to me from the stage and mentioned my town and a dancer with them drove me home — as he turned out to be a next door neighbor.
Talk about positive reinforcement for breaking a habit!
Now it’s gotten to a weird place where I feel not only uncomfortable spending money but I had to go into a mall to buy a baby present in a mall recently, and I felt almost sick in there because I was surrounded by ads. I felt overstimulated from being inside the mall. I don’t like the energy in there.
I felt this way in the Dublin airport when we were leaving to return to New York, surrounded by shops selling liquor and cosmetics and clothing and electronics….too much stuff! Overwhelmed, and grateful for the things I already own, I bought nothing — maybe a pre-flight first for me.
Being mindful about what we do, how often and why takes some serious reflection.
It can be painful, and some of our habits, of thought and behavior, can be deeply rooted in emotions we don’t especially want to face or change.
In addition to the broader survey data, researchers did deeper interviews with 23 millennials in three different locations around the country. Those interviews revealed a reluctance among some interviewees to pay for news online.
“I don’t think you should pay for news,” Eric, a 22-year-old Chicagoan, said. “That’s something everybody should be informed in. Like, you’re going to charge me for information that’s going on around the world?” And then there’s 19-year-old Sam from San Francisco: “I really wouldn’t pay for any type of news because as a citizen it’s my right to know the news.”
A sample of 23 is small and not, per se, worth commenting on, but the larger report is well worth a read if you’re at all interested in the current production and consumption of news; as a career journalist, I am!
It’s no secret that journalism is in deep trouble a period of disruption as digital media have claimed readers and advertising dollars from print, whether newspapers or magazines.
In the year 2008, 24,000 journalists lost their jobs, (I lost mine in 2006), and many of them left the industry for good, fleeing to new careers if they could find one.
In nine days, my husband leaves his workplace of 30 years, The New York Times. He has loved it and is leaving by choice, having accepted a buyout package that will never again be as generous, and one we need to secure our retirement.
He’s had an amazing run — including photographing two Olympics, (Atlanta and Calgary), three Presidents, multiple Superbowls and the end of the Bosnian war before working another 15 years as a picture editor inside the newsroom.
While he is retiring from the Times, he’s now seeking a new full-time position as it’s another decade before full-time retirement is an affordable option for us.
As two journos who’ve been doing this work since we were undergrads at college, (he in New Mexico, I in Toronto), we know what it still takes to produce quality journalism:
Software developers and designers
Time (to find and develop deeply reported stories)
A skilled team of tough editors — copy editors, section editors, masthead editors, photo editors
Madness. (Cheap, affordable, looks great to the bean-counters.)
One of the sad truths about technology is that it offers the misleading illusion of ease — i.e. ready access = skill.
Thousands of people now style themselves as writers and photographers simply because they can hit “publish” on their home keyboard or snap some cellphone pix and upload them to Instagram.
It’s a fallacy, and one that journalism doesn’t help by keeping its production line, and the costs of hiring and retaining quality, essentially invisible to its consumers.
I think most of us realize that the steak we eat or the car we drive or the table we sit at are all products of a long production line of design, growth, production, manufacturing and distribution. We know they are businesses whose role is to earn profit.
Not so much for the naive/ignorant who think “news” is something that magically just appears on their Twitter feed or Facebook pages.
This is why news organizations should shift to a mobile-first approach immediately. This doesn’t mean we ignore the desktop, but prioritize mobile over it — make mobile the default everything. When brainstorming a new product, start with a phone or tablet design and work backwards to the desktop. Set performance goals based on mobile performance over desktop. Conduct research that emphasizes mobile over desktop behavior. Put mobile numbers at the top of analytics reports. Compare competitive performance on mobile numbers first, desktop second. We need to immerse ourselves in devices and become a student of the industry…
Above all, we need to invest and experiment like never before. Whatever you’re spending now, triple it.
“When the Web was new, many of us went online with creativity and energy,” says Regina McCombs, who teaches mobile at Poynter. “Now, faced with even bigger potential and pitfalls for developing — or losing — our audience, most of us are getting by with as little investment as we can. That’s scary.”
Voters, readers, viewers, listeners, the curious and engaged — in order to learn what’s happening in the world, whether in our town or 12 times zones distant — still need smart, tough, skilled, disengaged, (i.e. as objective as possible), trained and ethical reporters with boots on the ground.
The sourcing requirements for print outlets can be so stringent that I often joke a print writer must quote a professional astronomer before claiming that the sun will rise in the morning. Yet online, authors are commonly allowed—and even expected—to exert their own authority. And even when they cannot claim to be experts, many bloggers use their inexperience as a way to write from the perspective of a novice.
Again, this comes down to speed. Online writing has such different sourcing standards than print because it’s much easier to hyperlink to source material instead of explicitly attributing and fact-checking information.
The bold face above is mine — this is exactly my point.
I have zero interest in the “perspective of a novice”, for fucks’ sake.
On Isis? On the economy? On climate change?
And fact-checking? Yes, I want that, too. (Many of my magazine pieces are still subject to independent fact-checking.)
“Free” or cheap news doesn’t mean, or guarantee, excellent.
Attention is a resource; a person has only so much of it. And yet we’ve auctioned off more and more of our public space to private commercial interests, with their constant demands on us to look at the products on display or simply absorb some bit of corporate messaging. Lately, our self-appointed disrupters have opened up a new frontier of capitalism, complete with its own frontier ethic: to boldly dig up and monetize every bit of private head space by appropriating our collective attention. In the process, we’ve sacrificed silence — the condition of not being addressed. And just as clean air makes it possible to breathe, silence makes it possible to think.
What if we saw attention in the same way that we saw air or water, as a valuable resource that we hold in common? Perhaps, if we could envision an “attentional commons,” then we could figure out how to protect it.
The sad state of this commons is on display everywhere.
In the summer of 2011, just before Jose and I got married, he took me off to an eight-day silent Buddhist retreat.
My friends, knowing how chatty I am, figured that would be essentially impossible.
But the greatest gift of the retreat was not having to pay attention.
We were told, all 75 of us from around the world assembled in an upstate New York monastery, that if someone looked at us, we did not have to look at them, smile at them or even acknowledge their presence at all.
We were not there for that.
It was the greatest freedom I’d ever felt.
As I wrote then:
I just don’t want to know half the things that total strangers feel somehow compelled to tell me.
(How about you?)
Many times I’ve been chided here for being “unfriendly”, and in so doing breaking the social rules everyone else follows so obediently, when it’s never been my personal goal to be friendly. I choose my friends and intimates very carefully. I don’t need or want everyone to like me. The idea, in fact, somewhat horrifies me.
A journalist since college, I’m professionally skilled at creating brief and powerful intimacy. I love that it requires me to win the confidence of strangers, of all ages and kinds, from convicted felons to elected officials (sometimes in the same person!) But it does mean I spend an inordinate amount of time making sure they feel comfortable with me, and will share with me as much as possible in the limited amount of time we have, whether by email, phone or face to face.
To not interact, to not have to manage my facial expressions or smile to cheer someone up who appears down or reassure them I am not down myself, is a release.
By the end, we were deeply reluctant to return to the incessant noise and chatter of Western life. Jose and I went to a local restaurant, and sat at the bar…where we were bombarded visually and auditorily, by three huge television screens.
It was weird and disorienting and exhausting.
When did silence become such a terrifying concept?
Do you treasure silence and disconnection as much as I do?