I went to my usual haunt this Saturday morning - a cafe just up the main road. I, with some fine non-fiction; my son with Harry Potter #1 - which he’s finally picked up on his own after I read it to him at the too-young age of 6. We settled in for a leisurely hour with eggs and pancakes, we read our books, we talked, we laughed, we watched the other people going in and out. I resisted as best I could the urge to check my phone, but of course I couldn’t. I checked on a work item, I texted my wife, I looked up a podcast.
I am not even close to the phone-eschewing perfection I often herald. But I try. One of the more useful things about keeping your eyes open and off a phone at a cafe is the power of observation it affords. You get to watch someone else sit down while they wait for their food, pull out their phone and start scrolling TikTok or IG or FB or whatever. And what you’ll see is a heap of utter crap. It will be easy for you to identify because it’s someone else’s crap. YOUR feed is, of course, a breath of realistic fresh air - a spotless window into the most interesting, undervalued, and fascinating parts of the world. You subscribe to the right things, use it at the right times, like the right things, and know what’s going on just like the docile unit of humanity you are. You know all of this because of the little rush of dopamine and affirmation you get every time you load the infinite content that’s been magically curated just for you.
The power of seeing someone else’s feed - abstractly, from afar - is that it makes you realize what a Faustian bargain this thing really it is. It’s designed to enrapture, not to help. A tool is always there when you need it. But this thing is designed to be there all the time, whether you need it or not. It’s meant to take up all of your extra attention, infringe on some of the attention that’s not extra, and make you want it all the time.
But you already knew that right? It’s 2023 and more and more people are waking up to this idea that maybe these social media attention machines are kind of in the way of living a good life. The people waking up first are those with the least available attention - highly important people, other grown adults and, especially, parents. There’s two groups - both of which have lots of available attention - racing to wake up last and it’s up in the air which group will be more devastated. I’m not sure which is more frustrating - watching a kid in a beautiful place (like the beach) glued to their phone or watching a geriatric do the same thing. Both are depressing as hell.
Stealing all of your extra attention is one of the hidden costs of social media. It’s not just that you use your phone scrolling wildly for an hour or 2 or 8 every day. It’s that you do this in little spurts - 30 second while you’re going pee, 2 minutes while you’re pumping gas, five minutes while there’s nothing going on in your son’s baseball game or while you’re waiting for your pickup order. it’s all the in-between time. It takes away all the in-between time. You look at your phone as a reaction to boredom. Not only does this crowd out the chance for serendipity, it takes up all the time you used to have for yourself.
Since I can remember, people have talked about having important ideas in the shower. Or maybe just some extra time for themselves. To sing, to think, or just to relax. Maybe all three. There’s a reason that the idea of having a eureka moment in the shower is a trope: it’s because it’s true. When you’re in the shower you aren’t doing anything else. Your mind wanders, you have some time and your brain seems to follow less active pathways and meander down long ignored memories until BAM— something new clicks and you realize how to solve that problem you’ve been noodling about.
The shower hasn’t been hijacked by social media yet, mostly because people still have an aversion to suds whether their phone is waterproof or not. And your hands are kind of taken up doing other things while you’re showering. You know, if you’re doing it right.
Shower thoughts are a reminder for all of us to do more things that make us forget about our phone. Leave it in a different room. Put it out of reach. Especially if there are people around, just put some extra friction in between you and the act of picking it up.
And if you have some time to yourself - find something to do with your hands. Chop wood, mow the lawn, Jesus - GO FOR A WALK - unencumbered with devices in your pocket or buds in your ears. Breathe deep, ponder the foliage, and let your mind rewire and make the connections it’s so desperate to find.
And maybe you’ll find yourself again, in the middle of the world.