Sharing Is Caring

The challenge of mindfulness in an era of digital plenty

Like most Baby Boomers who jumped on the technology train early, my parents always shared a PC. It sat in a separate room of the house, a wheezing, boxy thing with one of those click-clack keyboards you could hear from the kitchen. That computer marked the daily flow of our household: early in the morning it would be Dad firing off another opinion piece to the newspaper and long after we’d gone to sleep, my mother’s daintier digits typing long requests to hotels in India or Italy as she planned family holidays months, sometimes years in advance.

The concept of sharing any piece of technology seems like a curious artifact today. I carry a personal computer in my pocket in the form of a smartphone, and have further iterations at work and sitting on the couch at home. My digital life is splayed across various screens, each of them exclusively my own. I need not ask permission to Google the weather, watch the presidential debate on Facebook Live or even bookmark pornography, should I see fit.

That’s quite radical when you think about it. Only a decade or so ago, Dad and I saved documents to the same desktop and my brothers and I foraged for Nintendo 64 cheat codes using the same search engine, manned by an amenable butler named Jeeves. If someone was using the computer, we had to wait. The same applied to the endless struggle between dial-up Internet and the home phone.

Splitting a screen with others required a certain sense of self-regulation, but more than that, it demanded us to think creatively about how we used our time online. There was a very real threat that an adult with actual, grown-up things to do could kick you off at any time. My prepubescent life was characterised by a now-antiquated pattern of online interruption; I will never know if the person on the other end of those half-finished ICQ conversations was actually a 19 year-old female from California.

When we think of Internet usage or screens in general today, it’s often in passive terms. We let newsfeeds, content, imagery and short form video wash over us in a sea of blue light, engaging only with those that activate the Buzzfeed sticker quadrants of our brain. That’s fundamentally different to the active ways in which we used to experience the Internet, and the way I was raised to think about my relationship to a computer.

The prevalence of solo screens, allowing us to stay connected for as long as we like, has corresponded with a growing interest in digital mindfulness. Though tech alarmists argue that we are rapidly approaching peak screen, the truth is we’re not even close. Eventually, Snapchat’s spectacles will materialise, VR film will go mainstream and Magic Leap will finally show investors what they’ve been doing with their truckloads of investor money. With this next wave of digital immersion, and the high likelihood of screens becoming an intrinsic part of our physical bodies, it’s fair that the tech community is increasingly worried that we may never be able to switch off.

Proponents of mindfulness theory talk to the idea of being able to clear our thoughts and disconnect from the world, which at first glance seems utterly ridiculous when you’re talking about the Internet. Some of most popular forms of digital mindfulness to date have been the ones that advocate powering down and looking up. The most popular among these echo classic addiction recovery models (StayFocusd, which locks you out of time-wasting websites of your choosing), spirituality practises (Grateful, an app that asks you to stop and take stock of your day and Ommwriter, a meditation-inspired word processor for the attention-deficient) and religion (Digital Shabbat, does what it says on the tin) as a means of drying us out from the blizzard of pings and notifications.

It’s all very well to hit inbox zero, lock ourselves out of social, turn off our devices and go hiking for a day but perhaps another way of looking at mindfulness is trying to reimagine the Internet as a finite resource. Something we can’t get access to on an aeroplane or in a toilet cubicle. Something that is somehow out of our control, because Mum’s standing in the doorway and she wants to check her email.

We already have the toolkit for a more balanced approach to bright screens and fast information. It’s just that we’ve spent the past fifteen years unlearning it, rapidly accelerating toward an instant-grat culture that our younger selves could never have imagined. When I was thirteen, it took over half an hour to download a single song from Napster. You’d better believe that I listened to 128kbps CD rip of Limp Bizkit’s Mission Impossible II theme song (sorry: entire world) with far more attentiveness than I did the last Frank Ocean record, which I could access in seconds.

The more mindful among us[1] have learned that life is something not to be taken for granted. They can often be found taking pause and giving thanks for what seems to outsiders to be inconsequential. It could be an extra five minutes on MSN Messenger with your boyfriend. Or a terrible nu-metal track. Or even a really brilliantly executed OK GO video. Envisaging our online lives as precious is a way of replicating the shared screen experience the majority of us no longer have.

For contrast, we should look to the continents that have yet to arrive online in a big way. Large cross-sections of Africa and India will be logging on to high-speed Internet for the first time in the coming decade, replicating our past experience right before our eyes. It will be interesting to note how the world’s poorest and most remote people treat this newfound access, whether they see it as a gift, a curse or just start retweeting Kanye memes like the rest of us. It is possible that nations of colour, with rich cultural, tribal and societal traditions of engagement, will treat the Internet more mindfully, despite the likelihood they’ll be accessing it primarily on personal devices.

Somewhere along the line, the Internet’s utility for the West changed. It stopped being the candlelight we all read by and became more like electricity. As we stopped sharing computers, in a some small way, we stopped caring. We’d never leave a candle burning in the house unattended, but we often walk out the door forgetting to switch the lights off. Humans still develop, process and have incredible access to knowledge, one of the original aims of computers and the World Wide Web. But for some reason, it feels a bit different, a bit less purposeful.

It might seem like lightyears, but it wasn’t so long ago that when I called my friend’s house and she was online, the phone would erupt in a white-hot volcano of beeping and static. It’s one of the fundamental collective memories that splits Gen Y in half, separating those that remember having to make a choice between forms of communication and those that find the entire concept hilarious. In the span of one generation, we have gone from wrestling over a Logitech mouse to uploading video directly from our sunglasses, but there is something to take from our recent past, when accessing the Internet — and computers — was an event, something to look forward to.

As computers cease to become peripherals and quickly enmesh themselves into the fabric of what makes us us, the sensation of having to wait our turn, or allocate time for usage will no longer exist. Sharing is not something we are going to get back, at least not in the physical, object-based sense of the word. But we can work on the caring part. The active pursuit of self-building, of making something happen rather than letting it happen to us, is still within reach.

In 1995, when I shared a home computer with four other people, the active verb for perusing the web was ‘surfing.’ Sure, it’s completely passe now, but maybe Jean Armour Polly was onto something with the metaphor. After all, when you’re out there on a board, the ocean is endless, and on a good day, so are the breaks. Seasoned surfers might will often pass on entire set of waves in pursuit of the one that makes their day. It’s an approach we could take to heart in an age where computers are everywhere, and we’re swimming in an Internet we can’t even see anymore.

You’ve got five minutes before your Dad needs to use the computer to email his boss.

Better make this wave a good one.

— -

Jonno Seidler is a writer from Sydney, Australia. He has been published in Rolling Stone, Monocle and The Guardian and has written a set of short stories about our online lives for Seizure Journal.

[1] We have all seen these people on Instagram. They have fantastic choice in yoga pants.