Should You Divest from Your Digital World, Before It's Too Late?
Updated: Apr 30
Why we need to silence the obsessive online chatter and start making our own noise again.
Photo by Max Cavallari.
There are six other patrons in this trendy corner coffee shop with me at the moment, and not a one is unattached from some sort of electronic device, including a couple at the rear of the room. One guy has his little white ear buds in and is casually swiping through images on his shiny iPhone, and I can’t help but be reminded of the umbilical cord, which acts as a conduit between the mother and her unborn child, a literal life support that in its absence would no longer sustain that mother’s developing fetus. I wonder how long that man in the coffee shop would last if I swiped those little white ear buds from him and smashed his shiny iPhone to the ground. Not long, I imagine.
Even the two young girls behind the counter are constrained to their smartphones, each likely peeking at the evidently irresistible selfies of their schoolmates or reading nonsensical status updates that fail to register any real substance, or appropriate grammar for that matter. Kids these days practically “speak” in code online, abbreviating words that were never meant to be abbreviated, resorting to overzealous acronyms, or altogether substituting words or whole sentences with a simple emoji. It seems rather exhausting if you ask me.
I actually forgot my phone in the car, but I only noticed this about 20 minutes into my dark roast coffee, when I went to reach for it to check the time. If any of these consumed consumers were ever to notice me they might think that I was the odd one, sitting here in a coffee shop sipping on coffee without a phone or a laptop or even a tablet in sight. The humanity!
I contemplate whether I should actually run out and grab my phone from the car, in case the friend I am meeting here is texting me to let me know he’s going to be late, which he is. Oh well, I’m in no rush. Before I can finalize a decision, my friend walks in. He removes his own buds from his ears and pushes a button on his touchscreen before stuffing it into one of the front pockets of his khaki chinos.
“Hey man, sorry I’m late, I had to run back home to grab my ear buds.”
“No worries…hey, I totally would’ve ran back too,” I said to him with a sarcasm so subdued that only I could decipher it. He goes to the counter to order a coffee, but not before pulling out his phone again, after a whole six seconds of separation. He even pays for the coffee using an app he downloaded onto his phone, which he continues to probe as one of the baristas attends to his espresso macchiato “with skim and cinnamon.”
A full 30 minutes after I arrive, my friend finally sits his khaki ass down at the table with me, his phone gently placed on the tabletop in front of him, cracked screen up. He takes a final inspection of his Instagram notifications before he asks me how long I’ve been waiting.
“Not long,” I lie.
He at least offers to buy me a second coffee, which I accept, and then we spend the next hour conversing mostly about some “goof” he follows on Facebook, the “rejects” from the alt-right Twitter accounts he likes to follow for whatever reason (he’s a Liberal), and about why I recently shut down most of my own social media pages. At one point he literally asks me, “How do you live like that!”
“Just dandy,” I answer.
Although you might think otherwise based on this one recount, my friend actually isn’t a total social media whore like most of this latest generation seem to be. He reads actual books, he hikes through places that have bears and mountain lions, and he attends plays and stand-up shows usually with left-leaning political biases at their core. However, that damn phone of his is never out of reach at any given moment, ready to reply to a text or survey his endless stream of notifications at will.
The unnerving part of it all is that my friend is sort of the average Joe when it comes to today’s way of life, and in fact he’s not even all that bad when compared to any number of the walking dead you see in the streets or riding the bus or sitting in a coffee shop. I mean, look at the threads of any of the popular online platforms and you’ll quickly notice that some of your own connections are undoubtedly addicted to the medium. They have all but amalgamated with these machines, becoming almost comatose to the world beyond their fingertips, and desensitized to a reality outside of an online conglomerate that feeds its disciples with memes, GIFs, selfies, and brief stories of torment and hostility. The machine rages war with our own perspectives, beliefs, and actualities, bending and twisting them without our consent or knowing.
The machine resolves to distract us from the people at our dinner tables and classrooms, pulling us into its artificial realm of indiscriminate issues and ideas beyond our control. It steals our time and our personalized thoughts, it obliterates our sense of calm and contentment, and it even levels our ability to focus and maintain stimulus for a steady amount of time. How did we let this happen? How much worse will it get?
I think back to my outing with my friend in the coffee shop, and remember how quiet it had been before he arrived. However, it was not a pleasant kind of quiet, but rather an almost eerie sort. Our own voices are being obstructed to allow for the frenzy of online chatter that in many cases bares almost no societal substance whatsoever. The noise of our everyday being is generated by innumerable ads and political talking points, prejudiced tirades and coerced condemnations of people not like us.
It’s time we started making our own noise again.
Earlier this year, I decided to disable my Facebook account, at least for the foreseeable future. Then I shut down my Instagram account, my LinkedIn account, one of my two Twitter profiles, my about.me page, and even the Pinterest page that stood vacant for the last few years. I also disabled all notifications from the apps on my smartphone (or removed some apps altogether), silenced invasive ads whenever possible, opted for limited data access, and vowed never to understand what the fuck Snapchat is.
Why? Because I had reached a plateau. I felt overwhelmed by the depressing feeds and polarizing commentary I had come to obsess over, as the urge to scroll and refresh had distended into something almost defiant and unquenchable. My drive to diverge from the everyday to the digital discord so prevalent today was intensively distracting, so much so that I found myself popping into my Facebook feed every fucking 10 or 20 minutes. My ability to maintain focus was rapidly dwindling along with my tolerance for other people, including those who I actually convened with at work, at home, and out in public. Observing the dumbing down of society online, as well as the tribulations of the obsessively offended, or the intolerable ignorance of the enraged arrogant, felt like the walls were closing in.
I finally, perhaps a tad reluctantly, realized that I needed to be my own interventionist, because everyone else around me was circumventing their own media mayhem. I needed to pull the plug, so to speak. In the aftermath, I have undeniably noticed differences in my real world, some more subtle than others, but all auspicious and encouraging to say the least.
My attention is elsewhere nowadays, usually on friends and family, planning another trip to South America, enjoying YouTube videos with some actual educational or motivational merit, or maintaining a blog that serves as my own personal voice, one that you don’t have to listen to if you don’t want to.
My days are usually filled with a profound sense of calm and a subtle sensation of purpose all of a sudden, a purpose that I am in complete control of. I am more aware, more determined, more focused, more mindful. I am less stressed, less busy, less obligated, less unfulfilled.
I am not suggesting that disconnecting from the digital chaos so commonplace these days deserves all the credit - after all, I still have a Twitter account and a blog (both of which are utilized for positive and critical engagement), and I continue to use YouTube as well. However, I am suggesting that you need to find balance, whatever works best for you. For some people that’s going to be hard to dictate, for they need to first muffle and suppress what they’ve been tuned into for so long, and that can be difficult to commandeer or even to separate. Unplugging yourself from the machine (or at least partially) is daunting for some, downright debilitating for others, but it’s a necessity if what you seek is substance, truth, and purpose.
Don’t get me wrong, I understand that not all social media fits into the same box and that there are plenty of people out there who subscribe only to the benefits of Facebook et al. But with that said, how sustainable is their constructive arrangement in a worldwide web hellbent on anger, fear, and division? Their time may be up soon enough.
What do you have to lose? A few “friends” that you’ve actually never even met in person or haven’t seen since elementary school, perhaps. Or maybe the persistent updates of celebrities who live well beyond our means and whose images are more important to their careers than anything they actually produce. The answer to this question is likely “nothing that actually matters.” What you need to ask yourself now is “what matters to me?”