This column is generally devoted to musings on popular culture, a weekly dumpster dive into all aspects of our mediated lives. It doesn’t often address — but maybe it should — what it feels like to experience the absence of popular culture.
In other words, what happens when you turn the screens off? Can you turn the screens off? Why would anyone want to?
Well, for the damned quiet, at least.
I’m writing this on Wednesday, March 7, the day I promised I’d remove myself for 24 hours, more or less, from the social media to which I’m increasingly addicted. The Twitter feed from which I get breaking news and minute-to-minute affronts to my sensibilities, outrages that allow me to feel good about myself. The Facebook page that serves as a performative ego-space for me and everyone I know. Also, to the extent that I can, the texts and the e-mails — the endless electronic churn.
I recently read about an app that will tell you how many hours each day you spend looking at your phone — and that the number always comes as a shock to the system. I’d tell you what it’s called but I’d have to Google it, and I told myself I wouldn’t do that today.
I did broadcast my planned moratorium at the bottom of a column I wrote a few weeks back, about wrenching ourselves away from our pernicious online actors, human or scripted, Russian or of local trollishness. I fantasized about spurring a nationwide movement — heck, let’s make it global — in which the Interwebs would go dark in mass protest and Mark Zuckerberg would buckle to his knees in the middle of buying Luxembourg.
But I’m really bad at #groovyhashtags and other social-media rallying tactics — like Groucho Marx, I’m wary of belonging to any club that would have me as a member, even the ones I start myself — so the idea never gained traction beyond a few loyal friends on Facebook.
And that’s fine. The point was always just to unhook from the digitized hive mind for a bit — from the faceless online personas that allow me to pose as the best of my intentions while assuming the worst of everyone else’s.
Let me tell you this, though: I’m halfway through my day off and already failing miserably at it.
At the moment, I’m sitting in a diner, writing this in longhand in one of those skinny reporter’s notebooks they keep in the Globe’s supply cabinet. Very noble, very old school, right?
Cue the sad trombone — bwah-wah — because, while it’s not so hard to steer clear of social media apps, it’s virtually impossible to avoid screens in general, since they’re how many of us interface with the world outside our immediate sensory perception. The first thing I did upon waking this morning was pick up my phone and check the time, my e-mail, and a text from one of my kids. I did pause to delete the phone’s Twitter and Facebook apps, proudly, as if putting on a monk’s hairshirt. Then I flipped open my laptop, put the finishing touches on a few movie reviews and sent them to my editor, notifying her by e-mail.
Nope, not at all feeling yoked to the invisible Omniverse. Look at brave Neo, breaking free of the Matrix, but only in his mind. I’d like to believe I’m not a cyborg, but the evidence is against me.
And of course there’s the high comedy of a film critic — someone paid to watch screens — griping about not having enough time in the real world. True, one reason I value movies, those two-hour slices of potential actuality, is how they refract and help codify offscreen experience. But, yes, I’ve wasted tens of thousands of hours of my life in the dark, and increasingly I wonder if that’s been wise. So, yeah, the nerve of this guy.
Those of you whose day jobs and waking hours don’t involve long stretches of staring at a screen are excused from reading this and even allowed to feel smug. But maybe you’re also encouraged to think about where and how much you do give over precious minutes of your life on earth to the demands of our electronic chimeras. What you’re willing to abstain from and what you can’t live without. The Internet makes so many things possible; it connects the world in ways that are profoundly changing us as a culture and a species — in ways we’re only faintly starting to grasp. But that’s not the same as saying it is the world.
To be honest, it’s a pretty crappy day to be out in the world; Old Man Weather is winding up to pitch a nor’easter. Should I finish my work and spend the rest of the day binge-watching “Atlanta”? No, thanks, I’m Reality Man today! Mr. Mindfulness! I’ll go to the gym instead.
Here’s what happens at the gym: I ride a stationary bike in front of a bank of five 40-inch TVs blaring the decline and fall of western civilization while I watch a video screen of point-of-view cycle tours around the world and listen to a Buddhist sermon on direct experience through a big, honking pair of headphones clamped over my ears. I feel like Alex at the end of “A Clockwork Orange.” I look like a subject in a sensory deprivation experiment. Push the bar, monkey, and get an infomercial on satori!
I’m of the mind that a newspaper columnist should generally refrain from inflicting his or her spiritual beliefs on a reader — whatever gets you through the night is all right, as the man said, and, anyway, most of my worshiping is done in the Church of Cinema. But I will allow as how this particular podcast, from a Zen temple in Toledo, Ohio, and titled “You Are Echo,” is poking at my recent doubts in useful ways and seems especially appropriate on this faux day off.
The sensei, Jay Rinsen Weik, is a pretty funny guy, for one thing, and that matters when you’re feeling the Omniverse Blues. And in this Dharma talk I’m listening to in my mediated cocoon, he reminds the listener that no matter how hard we work to be awake in this world, the pull of illusion — which to me, right now, right here, is my world of angry screens — is never not strong.
“There’s always the option of the Darth Vader move,” Weik says, a sentiment that (obviously) gets my attention. “There’s always the possibility to just slip back in.” What it takes is vigor, he says, and “the raw, bare requirement of time” spent practicing whatever focuses you on life unmediated. “There is no app for that,” he says.
I turn off the podcast. I get off the cycle. I go out into a New England day that’s gathering itself for a blow. Normally I check my Twitter feed every two minutes out of nervous habit, but, aside from reflexively reaching for my phone in brief moments of boredom, I find I don’t miss it. The roar of the mighty river that is Facebook seems very far away. I’m feeling oddly calm.
Still, in a few minutes, I’ll answer more e-mails from my boss and then probably click over to the news to read the latest disaster report. Better to know than to not know, right? This is where I live, where so many of us live now. What does it cost to move?
Tomorrow, I’ll try to go a little longer.
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