I wonder, for instance: when was the last time I looked at my phone from this far away? Not literally, but figuratively — to figure, relatively and honestly, how paramount it’s become in my experience.
It started a couple months ago on a Sunday in December, when my cousin Caety told me she’d deleted the Instagram and Facebook apps from her phone. She wasn’t getting off social media altogether, just putting some distance between herself and that habit.
The next day, I deleted Facebook and Instagram from my phone, too. Now, I bet I spend 90 percent less time on social media.
The act of deleting those apps, while tactically effective, also signified a larger, metaphorical step back, a deep breath, an expanding of vista in order to discern what this practice of social media has added to or detracted from myself.
I noticed myself wanting to go run back toward a deep dive into Facebook or a quick glide through Instagram. But instead of immediately and naturally succumbing to that tendency as I had before, I began to try using those temptation-heavy moments as a reminder to weigh down into the world currently unfolding all around me.
Distancing myself and no longer taking the habit for granted, the drive stopped scaring or nagging me so much. I felt less attached to social media, and therefore less concerned during the times I did check my feeds.
But on a recent Sunday, an old, familiar, and most unwelcome feeling reared anew in me. A now alien feeling, but one I knew all too well from back when — if I’m being generous — I spent an average of two hours a day engaging social media. It was a feeling of desperation, that a moment too momentous not to share is slipping away; the feeling that a moment is worth nothing unless documented and disseminated.
I had just closed “Gulliver’s Travels” and placed it atop one of the twin trunks of books growing out of my bedside chair. Out the window, snow battered and sleeted, swung by wind with a fortitude that seemed downright malicious. Inside, my two dogs and cat lay sprawled out and smooth-furred across the saffron span of Pendleton wool, dreaming twitchily, paws and tails and whiskers touching. The feeling of watching the power of a wild winter storm from a safe, warm and dry place, surrounded by those you love, washed over me.
For a moment, I basked in a suspension that felt like forever.
But my exquisite intermission, momentary insight, was popped and shattered, suddenly pierced by the urgent needle of anxiety. This was so precious, so perfect, and so serene. Such a scene wasn’t enough for just me to appreciate; everyone I knew needed to witness this peaceful sanctuary. I reached for my phone, which was not to be found on bed nor bedside chair. Oh, it’s in the kitchen, I’ll just go …
And that was when I caught the feeling. Slowly but surely, I’d let myself creep in so close again that social media blocked my view of the blaring irony that distance makes painfully, garishly clear: leaving the moment to ensure capturing the moment in fact sacrifices the moment. I stayed put on my bed, petting my dogs and shaking my head at my ready tendency to trade this actual moment for a mere token of it.
How willing I am to lose happiness — that fleeting greeting of the real feeling! — in trying to catch it.
Walt Whitman writes in “Specimen Days,” a collection of his prose fragments, letters and diary entries, that “the notion started in me that I was having a happy hour. (Though perhaps my best moments I never jot down; when they come I cannot afford to break the charm by inditing memoranda. I just abandon myself to the mood, and let it float on, carrying me in its placid extasy.)”
When I “indite memoranda” (whether by snapping photos and video, or jotting down lines), I “break the charm” of the glorious spell of the mood of the moment itself. Whitman, being Whitman, hits the nail on the head: Our best moments are those happening right before us, those that we rightly have given ourselves to, to float within, fully.
A site called brainpickings features a 2012 article titled “Aldous Huxley on Freedom, Propaganda, and the Future of Technology: A Rare and Prophetic 1958 Interview by Mike Wallace.”
In the 56-year-old recording, Huxley declares, “What I feel very strongly is that we mustn’t be caught by surprise by our own advancing technology. This has happened again and again in history. Technology has advanced, and this changes social conditions, and suddenly people have found themselves in a situation which they didn’t foresee, and doing all sorts of things they didn’t really want to do.”
The rapidity and authority with which cellphones and social media have assumed prevalence and precedence in my life surprises (alarms!) me when I stop their crazy momentum in my life to really look at what’s going on.
Indeed, I find myself spending my time in ways I never really meant to. At some point, I must wonder what I’m missing through such incessant distraction.
Huxley intones in the interview, “It’s extremely important, here and now, to start thinking about these problems — not to let ourselves be taken by surprise by the new advances of technology … We can foresee, and we can do a great deal to forestall. After all, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”
I can’t be effectively vigilant of the effect these technologies take upon me — these digital symbols of the material and ephemeral moment — without stepping back from where my nose so often is buried to see them clearly and fully. Only then can I see the moment and the representation of it are two vastly different things.