Meaningful Distractions

The world is changing so fast. We are truly living in the future. I’m not yet 40 years old and in my lifetime alone we’ve gone from one rotary phone per household to a cellular phone in everyone’s pocket – including children! And these aren’t merely long-distance Walkie-Talkies – they’re full-fledged powerful computers with high definition displays, multiple cameras, and built-in power sources. These prolific, relatively cheap devices put the high-end computers of my childhood to shame. Today, it’s commonly touted that many people are wearing more computing power on their wrist than NASA had in total to put people on the Moon just a few decades ago.

And all these computers and high-tech devices are connected together into what’s jadedly referred to as simply, “the Internet.” We take it as a given. It’s something we’re practically entitled to. But this marvel of complexity, ingenuity, and power is genuinely world-altering. The amount of resources at anyone’s fingertips – including even the impoverished! – at any given moment is astounding. This would be considered true magic less than a century ago and inconceivable beyond that.

My 11-year-old daughter was born in a world where the Internet has always existed. I don’t think she can fully grasp the mindset of the people in the episodes of the original Twilight Zone series we watch. She finds them quaint and almost unrelatable. But my grandma who was born in the early 1900’s saw them as futuristically implausible. Just a generation or two removed and lifestyles become meaningless and obsolete and almost confusing. My generation is the last to know a world before the Internet, and the world is quickly passing even us by.

Transferring mass amounts of data instantly around the world is essentially free today, but I remember having to pay a substantial amount for a short long-distance phone call during my childhood. Not long before that people paid a lot of money for very concise telegraph messages, or rather be content to wait weeks for information to be printed and physically delivered via an armful of paper.

Not only is information instant, ordering physical products online takes less than 24 hours from mouse-click to doorstep nowadays. And this isn’t only for the elite; one simply needs a Prime membership costing less than a single meal per month. We can have everything we could possibly want practically instantaneously. A crucial part for your broke-down car can be here today with same-day delivery, and you can get a meal brought to your doorstep within minutes while you wait! The possibilities are astonishing. And therein lies the problem…

We’re inundated with choice. We’re bathed in options. Never before have humans had the plethora of opportunity we wallow in today. Previously, our options were greatly restricted due to cost, availability, or the technology simply hadn’t been developed yet. A couple short decades ago we had a mere smattering of television channels and if we didn’t like what was on we couldn’t do a thing about it. Today it seems like a new video streaming service is launched almost weekly – each with thousands of shows, movies, cartoons, documentaries – all available at a fraction of the cost of a classic cable subscription.

The same goes with other forms of entertainment like music, video games, and books. Even our news sources went from a few trustworthy broadcast networks and newspapers to a veritable flood of online outlets documenting and commenting on every event whether it’s newsworthy or not. The amount of choices Amazon, Walmart, Netflix, Twitter, Spotify, and the like present are virtually uncountable.

Historically there have always been more opportunities available than any one person could experience in a lifetime whether it be food, stories, or travel destinations, but things are different now. The choices weren’t constantly shoved in our face, and most of the time we didn’t know there was a choice. You can’t turn around anymore without realizing the thing you just decided on also comes in ten other colors with five optional attachments.

This plethora of choice has changed us. It has assaulted our attention spans. It has jaded us to into overlooking many genuinely astounding and thought-provoking things simply because something shinier beacons us from the periphery. This was made painfully evident to me during our last family vacation to Disney World. Initially, there were a few magical moments like when we first peered down Main Street USA and stood in awe at the majesty and perfection of it all. But it quickly became overwhelming. Not only were our senses completely assaulted from every angle, we never had enough time to enjoy any particular thing!

We could have spent entire weeks or more exploring, experiencing, and appreciating every shop, ride, restaurant, and attraction – but the catch is that we could never afford it. It’s like we only get a glimpse of paradise, like we could only peak our head in the door of the party and peer through the windows as we’re ushered on by the necessity of cost efficiency. We only got a taste… (Now that I think about it, I wonder if that’s intentional?)

I would love to have just one of the restaurants or bars in my hometown, somewhere I can visit time and time again giving me the chance to really drink in and appreciate all it has to offer. That’s where true love comes from: years and years of living through the good and the bad, getting to know someone fully, and creating many memorable experiences together. Anything else is just ephemeral lust.

Enough is enough. I don’t want any more. It’s too much. There’s something to be said about the cereal aisle at the grocery store being longer than my entire house. Moderation has been left by the wayside and gluttony has taken a front seat.

It’s tempting to try to single-out a culprit, to point your finger at one particular cause or another for this needless overabundance. But as with many things in life it’s probably much more complicated than that. It would be easy to blame something like capitalism since capitalism promotes competition, and competition can be ruthless. Everyone is vying for your attention – and money – fighting for the best advertising spot while skirting the lines of legality. But capitalism isn’t “forcing” anyone to do anything, it merely provides the framework for equal opportunity. And let’s face it, whether we like it or not, humanity has yet to derive a better democratic and fair environment for innovation and free trade.

It’s a genuine conundrum because this drive for more has led to an explosion of invention, innovation, and creativity that has brought us to this period of unparalleled safety and comfort. Just because I gripe about the plethora of choices doesn’t mean I don’t take advantage and indulge sometimes. The fact that humanity is constantly pushing the boundaries of science and medicine, creating things ranging from reusable autonomous rockets to self-driving cars and gene-editing therapies is evidence that this forward momentum is a net positive trend.

But there definitely has been a society-wide shift in thinking. Where the American Dream previously consisted of a reasonable house, a healthy family, and a steady job, now resides a craving for “more, better, bigger.” We’ve become insatiable. Materialism might be closer to the true source, and this materialistic ideology is not only embraced by consumerism but perpetuated by it. It’s a scary feedback loop of want and yearning.

Human greed is an innate desire we’ve acquired through evolution. Survival of the fittest once served us well and propelled us to the top of the food chain but has now only left us devouring each other. There’s no one left to conquer but ourselves. We have inadvertently created a society where we’ve convinced ourselves that happiness lies in the next phone release, job promotion, or at the bottom of a super-sized soft drink. What most of us don’t realize is that these fleeting moments of joy are ultimately just refined sugar providing no real substance. They’re just empty calories leading to an unfulfilling diabetic death. And since progress is happening at breakneck speeds, we’re stuck constantly longing for that next fix just out of reach.

Ultimately, it comes down to us as individuals. It’s much easier to blame a system or something else out of our control since it abandons personal responsibility, but the truth is, we only have control over ourselves and our choices. Unfortunately, entire business, branches of the economy, and even academic careers have been built specifically to prey on our vulnerabilities and our susceptibility to easily give in to this innate impulse. We’re wired to prefer the path of least resistance towards instant gratification, and the marketing firms know it – they’re built upon it!

Contrary to what the product pushers would like us to believe, we actually do have a choice whether to put the phone down or not, or to Supersize or not, or to upgrade or not. Just because everyone else is jumping off the bridge into the Chasm of Distraction doesn’t mean you or I should. One solution could be to utilize this abundance of safety and free time to focus on things that matter instead of haphazard consumerism and reckless clicking. How can someone personally rebel against this militarized onslaught of temptation? Unplug. Disconnect. Uninstall. Unsubscribe. Basically, remove the choices themselves. Perhaps go back to a simpler time when the choices didn’t exist.

The “good old days” were never actually that good; we simply tend to look at things retrospectively through rose-colored glasses. Rather, they were tumultuous times filled with racism, disease, sexism, and unnecessary suffering. But perhaps we can revisit them in spirit, keeping the progress we’ve made in science, medicine, and equality but returning to an earlier mindset of simplicity. Rewinding the clock of complexity would lower the amount of disruptions we face throughout our day, relieving much of the stress we intentionally or unintentionally put ourselves through.

Removing distractions is paramount to continued good health and wellbeing. Once these unnecessary distractions are removed things can finally be given the time they deserve, not for the thing’s sake, but for our own. Simply devoting your full attention is analogous to respect and appreciation and leads to a much more fulfilling experience. Minimizing suffering and maximizing enjoyment are crucial aspects to happiness. True enjoyment is derived from meaningful experiences that have value, and that type of quality is only found though focused devotion. It’s practically impossible to focus on anything while being mesmerized by the myriad of notification dots that surround us.

I don’t propose abandoning all modern technological conveniences and living in a cave by any means. That’s not only impractical, but subverts the innate human desire to dream, create, and to provide a safer and more satisfying living environment. I’m merely suggesting that selectively choosing technologies that have the highest benefit-to-distraction ratio is a simple and easy way to dramatically reduce stress.

I signed up with a few social media platforms early on like Facebook and Twitter, but I quickly realized the benefits I experienced never came close to justify the anxiety they induced. There seemed to be too much arguing, too many strong opinions and not enough truth. And everyone seemed to be constantly comparing themselves to each other, only posting their A-game but never letting people see who they really are. It didn’t seem genuine. The people weren’t real and the issues they discussed almost never directly impacted my daily life – so why put up with it? Why add additional turmoil?

To be clear, there’s nothing inherently wrong with social media, per se. The earlier description of capitalism merely providing a framework for free trade is analogous to social media in the respect that social media simply provides an easily accessible platform for people to connect and share ideas. Theoretically, this should be a great thing! And there are many examples of benefits like giving voices to oppressed people or raising awareness of social issues. Social media is a powerful platform, but with power comes responsibility.

Fire can be used for our benefit to cook food, or our detriment to destroy. Likewise, social media can be used to share family photos with grandparents across the globe, or to maliciously manipulate the masses. While social media can pose real, global problems, the most prevalent negative effect is its use as a general time-waster. The vast majority of people simply use it to unnecessarily share pictures of their breakfast, goofy cat photos, or purposefully (or inadvertently) spread false information. I would argue that none of those things provide true value of the sort previously described as meaningful.

In the end, I can’t conceive of a fulfilling life being measured by the number of “likes” received on any given platform – especially since platforms are a dime a dozen nowadays. These fake internet points serve only to momentarily quench our ego’s thirst but are ultimately fleeting and meaningless. Turn the servers off and those digital bits are gone forever. Spending time being upset over a fake news social media post serves no meaningful purpose and only detracts from potential moments of true happiness.

So many new forms of technology ranging from fitness wearables to smart watches to Bluetooth earpieces – while attractive and innovative – only add to the onslaught of devices fighting for your attention. They’re constantly connected, monitoring your vitals, and always ready to alert you when even the most irrelevant notification appears. We’re becoming an army of distracted cyborgs. We owe it to ourselves to personally wield this new power responsibly, and if the temptation is too much to handle, we should simply remove the temptation.

Personally, I haven’t had a social media account of any kind in years and I’ve only benefited from it. I no longer have pointless, unwinnable arguments with strangers; I don’t feel threatened with unproductive competitions; my concern with the Joneses has drastically diminished. Despite being an avid runner, I even gave up my FitBit because I became too obsessed with numbers and data points. My preoccupation with my mile time was encroaching upon the pure joy and freedom I get from running simply for the sake of running. It was beginning to defeat the purpose of stress-relief. Knowing my heartrate at any given moment and knowing how many steps I’ve taken each day were not worth the anguish.

I feel free again, not unlike the care-free days of summer vacation as a kid. Well, as close as any average adult with children and a career can feel, anyway. You don’t realize how much weight you’ve been carrying until you put it down – especially when you’ve unperceptively gathered it slowly along the way. With each new subscription and each new account inevitably comes a new notification dot or email. Sure, they seem manageable at first, but they quickly add up to a life filled with anxiety and an incessant need to reply to messages, refresh likes, or check things off. The task list becomes never-ending. You may feel burdened and not even realize why. I know I did.

But what if I haven’t seen the newest episode of the hottest new show everyone’s been talking about?! I have no fear of missing out because ignorance truly is bliss. If I don’t know my favorite band I’ve never heard or book I’ve never read exists, then they don’t exist! And I’m none the wiser/sadder. Would I enjoy it? Probably. Is there something out there even better? Most definitely. There’ll always be something better. Always. Given the magnitude of the world, the number of people in it, and the number of things being created every single day, it’s impractical to devote your limited time searching for the “perfect” thing – or even believe you’ll find it. A more fulfilling experience can be attained simply by enjoying what you have in front of you.

Of course, try things out, have new experiences, and attempt new things – that’s Life! – but just remember to enjoy it as much as possible. You may not realize it at the time, but no matter how inconsequential the experience may seem, good or bad, that moment is an authentic life experience you’ll never get back. It may not be what you expected, but it’s real. That is a genuine moment in your journey that will never be repeated, and it would be a shame to tarnish it with a tiny screen screaming for your attention. You can attempt to recreate it, but it won’t be perfect, and time will have passed… as it always does.

This will all be gone, so choose wisely. Make it worth something.

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