iCan’tConcentrate

I checked my email every five minutes while I wrote this article. Even worse, I touched my phone every 30 seconds to see if I had a new message. When I reluctantly discovered zero notifications, I skipped over to Facebook. Mindlessly scrolling through my feed, I temporarily sidetracked into LinkedIn (What are my CEO friends posting about marketing automation, and do I care?), then to Twitter (What are my Facebook friends reiterating in only 280 characters?), and occasionally to my WordPress analytics (Has anyone from Senegal visited my website today?). When all of this failed to fulfill me, I texted a friend, “I’m writing a story on tech addiction, and I can’t stop checking my phone.” She texted back in two seconds flat, clearly also distracted from her work at 9:47am on a Monday.

I’m far from the only one with this problem. And I’m certainly not the only person writing about it. There are now countless books and articles (and in a twist of irony, even apps) devoted to the extremely present problem of tech addiction… a problem that prevents us from being present to ourselves.

Psychologists say that our tolerance for boredom is nearing zero. Perhaps true, but my “real” life is not boring. I actually can’t remember the last time I was legitimately bored. It may have been age 7 on vacation with my parents on the Jersey Shore after days of rain and indoor Monopoly. There’s only so much thrill a child can receive from a thimble landing on Boardwalk and Park Place. So, if I’m personally not escaping into a digital world for lack of real-world intrigue, what’s my problem? And do I have a problem? Or is this simply the evolution of our brains toward a virtual existence?

I’m one of those hold-out people, socially. For no other reason than if everyone’s jumping on the bandwagon about something, I always want my own ride. I was tormented by a middle school classmate because I refused to cuff my jeans (it was the early 90’s…). I found it easier to accept her shaming than to give in to a style I thought was ridiculous or to be a clone of everyone else. I binge-watched Lost on Netflix nearly a decade after the series concluded, because people finally stopped talking about it. I can say the exact same for Breaking Bad. And I still haven’t seen Star Wars (any of them). But talk to me about Indy movies and music, and we’ll have an inspired conversation.

Consequently, I didn’t get a smart phone until it became impossible to be a freelance media person in this world without one. And I didn’t join Facebook until December 2016, only relenting once colleagues insisted my lack of Facebook presence was thwarting efforts to share my writing with a wider audience (this exercise, however, was far more successful at reconnecting me with all high school comrades, except for the jeans cuffing queen).

I appear to be a person who would not naturally succumb to the semi-obsessive lure of smart pings and thrilling red notification dots.

And yet, I am.

And now, iCan’tConcentrate.

After twenty years in therapy for a variety of anxieties that boil down to vulnerability and abandonment issues, coupled with extreme existential angst, I can intuit that a pretty damning driving force behind my Tech OCD is simply a fear of being alone and a fear of dying. Given such fundamental anxieties that strike at the heart of humanity, this root cause is likely shared universally. And what luck! There is now a glowing device that can take all of that away… as long as I keep touching it, swiping it, and staring into it adoringly.

As with any addiction, perhaps it’s warranted to enact a tried and true 12-step approach:

“I admit that I am powerless over digital technology. That my life has become unmanageable.”

Indications that I have a serious problem:

1) When approaching a stoplight, I anxiously hope it turns red, so I can stop and check my messages.

2) Several friends list me as their “person to notify in case of emergency,” solely because I am the one who will undoubtedly answer first.

3) I’ve been on the receiving end of frantic messages, “Alison! Please let me know you’re ok!!” when I have failed to respond to a friend’s text within a few hours. Apparently, my lack of immediate response implies I may have been kidnapped or might be lying unconscious in a ditch.

4) I went on a day-long meditation retreat, and immediately checked my phone in the parking lot before leaving the ashram. Namaste Apple.

Honestly, I’m kinda bummed about all this. Ask anyone from my high school or college days (years pre-mobile and pre-smart tech), and they will confirm my lightning sharp concentration in school and all extra-curriculars. It’s how I spent four-to-six uninterrupted hours a day practicing piano as a pre-teen and teen, attaining mastery of Chopin’s cannon of work. It’s how I excelled at my college English major with a concentration in Victorian and Russian literature (aka: huge ass books, assigned without proper recognition of their weight and tiny print. Sure, I can read Anna Karenina in one week, and keep up with my four other courses, my double major, and edit the 364-page yearbook).

The consummate Rory Gilmore, I always had a book (usually three) in my bag, multitasking genres and academia, magazines and newspapers, and somehow, I still had friends, ate at least two meals a day, and only suffered insomnia when I couldn’t physically put down an enticing tome (…or when my neighbor blasted “Come On Eileen” at 3am, smacking a bouncy ball against our shared wall, but that’s a whole other thing… Sara).

As a young twenty-something in New York City, I spent a lot of time on trains, commuting back and forth to my job at a publishing house in Rockefeller Center. Living through and witnessing the events of September 11, 2001 disastrously shattered my ease and calm on the subways and commuter rail systems, locked in perpetual terror of a transit hijacking or explosion. After several weeks of debilitating panic attacks, making clear my intention to quit my job and move to the middle of a corn field, a colleague handed me the first Harry Potter book, a literary series I had not yet explored despite its then four-year worldwide super-fandom status and impending blockbuster movie (see above anti-bandwagon principle).

“Here,” she said. “You will get completely drawn into the story, and you’ll forget where you are.” She was right. Engrossed, I never lifted my eyes from the page. I was 100% there with Harry, Ron and Hermione, on platform 9 ¾ for the Hogwarts Express, rather than the potentially fatal 6 train at Grand Central Station. I credit J.K. Rowling’s literary prowess and magical world for granting me a better chill pill than Xanax and enabling my New York City media career to continue. THAT is the power of reading a good book; of uninterrupted concentration in dire circumstances. That was also a world before the smart phone and social media.

For the most part, I live a pretty low-tech life. For physical health reasons, I do not sleep with my phone on, nor do I have any devices or electronics in my bedroom. This was a feat of epic proportions for me to enact, once I finally realized my body needed rest from electromagnetic fields, particularly at night. A mere five years ago, I was still falling asleep with my mobile on my nightstand, YouTube streaming everything from Jimmy Fallon’s “Thank you notes” to cheeky Vogue interviews with Lena Dunham and Sarah Jessica Parker. My computer stayed on and connected all night, mere feet from my bed, four email accounts immediately accessible the second I woke up, even if that was at 3am. This is no longer my external life. Yet, in many ways, it is still my inner life.

I don’t live in anything resembling a smart interconnected home of the future. I can only imagine the undue longing angst that would cause me… so many more portals to check incessantly:

1) Is the fridge running out of eggs? What about now? And now? And now?

2) What’s the temperature in the living room? What about the bedroom? What about the linen closet next to the bedroom?

3) How many more days to go on the HVAC air filter? What about today? What about later today?

This morning, my mobile device told me that my screen time usage was up 22% from last week, for an average of 8 hours, 36 minutes a day. Thank you, iPhone, for your Monday morning greeting. I’m not sure how to take this. Are you mocking me? Or high-fiving me? Perhaps we could discuss your equivocal tone at our next couples counseling session. According to your data analysis, you are, apparently, my most significant and committed relationship right now.

My housemate has a print subscription to The New Yorker. This is an unbelievably daunting magazine given its weekly print run, even for those of us who don’t need to hide their phones outside, in a field, under a mossy rock, in order to read a ten-page article on the impact of migrant worker demographics on U.S. strawberry farming. I recently asked her if receiving The New Yorker was a personal challenge to maintain her focus. She replied, “It’s important to still have the ability to read.” I guess that means she’s not just flipping through the cartoons…

Experts are indicating increases in teen depression and anxiety among those who engage in social media platforms; gaming disorder has now been recognized by the World Health Organization as a diagnosable condition; social scientists and psychologists are warning about the negative correlations between our digital interaction and our real-world interaction. And while most of us can balance multiple devices, portals, screens, emails, social media accounts, and interactive apps with extreme ease and capability, we can no longer read a recipe without mentally checking out (which makes me wonder why all those food bloggers write a doctoral dissertation on their childhood crush’s He-Man lunchbox, or their toddler’s blueberry jam debacle, before getting to the actual recipe. Is anyone actually reading any of these memoirs when they just want a lemon bar?).

The phone is really just a phone. It’s what the phone represents — and all that we hide from ourselves — that’s the core issue. Our 12-step model would suggest that we “come to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” Tricky part being, these technologies are already a power greater than ourselves. Maybe in this case, we need to restore ourselves to sanity. Subscribing to The New Yorker might be a good first step.