Editorial

Slightly re-sensitized: A month of under-stimulation

So, to see if I could curb my addiction, I decided to deprive myself of some distractions and electronic interactions. For the month of January I would:

  1. Not turn the radio on. I wasn’t going to flee as soon as my wife turned on a radio, but I was never going to respond to the urge to turn it on myself.
  2. Not use the computer at all on Sundays and Tuesdays (I’m at home with my son on Tuesdays so I don’t need it for work).
  3. Not use the Internet outside of work hours (9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.) on the rest of the days.
  4. Not visit any online news sites.
  5. Not use Google – that almighty gateway to info-overload – at all.

My experiment was complicated and mundane. And it starts with a complicated and mundane confession. I am disturbingly susceptible to informational over-stimulation.

I turn the computer on too often. For work, for pleasure, just because.

I check my email too often. Even though I am generally disappointed both if there is new mail (more shit to do) or not (need to go back to what I was trying to distract myself from).

I check the Globe and Mail website too often. Not because I want to inform myself about the needs of the world but just for some titillation, or diversion, or just something. Like eating when you’re not hungry (yes, I do that too).

I turn the radio on too often (mostly public broadcasting). Not usually out of healthy interest, but for an info “fix.” I’m restless inside, and not the good kind of restless. I need distraction, stimulation, anything. I need the radio on. I know this, because I can quite easily identify the times when I reach for the switch out of unhealthy need versus attentive interest.

I would turn the TV on far too often if we had one, which is one of the reasons we don’t.

By now all you amateur shrinks out there will have me pegged toward the OCD and ADD (or whatever they call it now) end of things. Well done. I confess. And I’m certainly not alone. We live in the information saturation age. Quantity trumps quality. Apple, Google and Mr. Gates virtually have our society on info intravenous.

Deprive myself
So, to see if I could curb my addiction, I decided to deprive myself of some distractions and electronic interactions. For the month of January I would:

  1. Not turn the radio on. I wasn’t going to flee as soon as my wife turned on a radio, but I was never going to respond to the urge to turn it on myself.
  2. Not use the computer at all on Sundays and Tuesdays (I’m at home with my son on Tuesdays so I don’t need it for work).
  3. Not use the Internet outside of work hours (9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.) on the rest of the days.
  4. Not visit any online news sites.
  5. Not use Google – that almighty gateway to info-overload – at all.

Like I said, the whole thing was a bit involved. It would have been tidier to just heave the radio and computer out the window. In fact, a good bit of the inspiration for my experiment came from Chico Fajardo-Helfin whose farewell-to-computerized-life email (see Geez 13, page 52) landed in my inbox last May. I hope to follow his lead some day, but I’m going to need some intermediary experiments first.

Off the wagon
Despite the rather unambitious scope of my experiment I fell off the wagon almost immediately. Without even noticing. On the first day. On January 1, I got up from the computer and went into the kitchen where I saw that it was 8:34 p.m., well after my 5:30 cutoff. I had just been online for an hour. I just plain forgot. The Internet is sneaky that way. I cut myself some slack, knowing
that failure may endear me to the readers who, in due course, will need to be informed of this slip-up.

I stayed clean until Tuesday the 20th. Again, I just plain forgot. No excuse. My wife walked in the door, saw me at the computer, and said, “Isn’t it Tuesday?” I hit “save” in the middle of the sentence I was writing and shut the little monster down. Strike two.

I did better at not turning on the radio. No missteps. In order to make sure I didn’t just revert to music in place of the radio, I limited myself to one CD a day; and stuck to it. I actually listened to the CD I put in each day.

The Google piece of the experiment probably requires explanation. Google is the ever-ready syringe for my little info addiction. Not only that, it stands at the doorway of the Internet collecting information from all who pass in and then sells the info to marketers. And I just play along. I hate that so much of what I know depends on this one company and one method. Some part of me knows that the search for knowledge should not be so easy, so abstract, so unaccountable, so subtly commercialized.

So I sent an email (at 2:57 p.m. on a Monday) to a friend who knows stuff about computers, asking for alternatives to Google-god. He wrote back, “Sadly, I don’t think you will find any open-source or non-profit alternatives, as running a search company requires a significant amount of resources and expertise … not even Microsoft really provides much search competition for Google.”

I ended up using ask.com, which functions and looks almost exactly like Google, but is even more commercialized (they kept trying to get me to choose a NASCAR “skin” for my search page) and didn’t work as well. For the month, it served as an irritating reminder of my dependence on profit-driven vultures for information. On the plus side, Google became de-normalized in my mind. I noticed every time “Google” was used in a conversation. The word itself became slightly jarring, reminding me that Google should not just be accepted as normal.

More present
It was a good month. I was more present to my son, my wife, my work and the world. Every time I got the urge to turn on the radio I simply reminded myself to be present to what was in front of me – the feel of the dishwater on my hands, the weight of my little boy sitting on my lap, the egg I was frying and the farm it came from. Being present is central to many spiritual traditions. Beauty, love and God are experienced in the present. The present moment, as it comes to us, is enough. It’s as simple as: stop and smell the roses. Distraction takes us out of the present. This can be alluring because pain and dis-ease are also experienced in the present. So we want to go somewhere else. But in leaving behind the place of discomfort and trouble we leave behind the possibility of healing, for healing also happens in the here and now.

So I spent a bit more time in the lovely, conflicted, eternal present. For me this is not essentially a matter of self-help or “personal fulfillment,” but a deeper participation in the world around me. If I can’t be present to the dishes in my hands, how can I be present to situations of need in the world. I think reduced intake of news (I still heard the basics from friends) made me more, rather than less, in tune with the world.

Interestingly, I discovered that the exercise of becoming present whenever I had the urge for distraction did not really work while at the computer. Gazing at a screen and tapping a keyboard are somehow not activities to which I can become present in the same way as eating an apple. Yes, I know that many good things happen in the world because of computers, but that does not change the fact that there is something inherently abstract and artificial about them. Thus the importance of reducing computer time overall.

In short, I find myself slightly re-sensitized to the wonder as well as the wounds in my life and in the world around me. I am slightly more able to care. Sure, I’ll backslide, and I’m still heavily computer-dependent, but I know that much of the experiment will stick. Email still holds allure, but I’ve reconnected with the allure of the present and it has a spiritual gravity that’s hard to resist.

Will Braun is the editor of Geez.

Issue 13

This article first appeared in Geez magazine Issue 13, Spring 2009, Experiments with Truth.

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