“There were people in the suction train but he held the book [the Bible] in his hands… but he read and the words fell through… He clenched the book in his fists. Trumpets blared. ‘Denham’s Dentifrice.’ Shut up, Montag thought”
-Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
Ray Bradbury wrote about a society that was so inundated by noise that no one could think. In this scene, Montag (the protagonist of Fahrenheit 451) is sitting on the bus reading and rereading the same Bible verse, but the droning advertisements from the subway radio prevent any careful study. Montag lives in a world on autopilot, a world without quiet moments.
Bradbury theorized that commercialism and convenience would bring this world into being, that we would welcome the noise, and we would welcome it because quiet is uncomfortable, thinking is painful, and unrefined thoughts are often offensive. Those predictions are startling, not because they represent the world of the near future, but because they are a reflection of what is.
I wonder what I’m missing by not seeking quiet moments. I’ve been meditating on and reading about our techno-driven consumer culture, and what I’ve discovered makes me ill. People look at their phones on average more than eighty times a day. Nomophobia (a clinical addiction to the smartphone and a fear of being without one) is altering human neurology. Social media sites are modeled after video games and video games are modeled after slot machines. Perfectly good electronics are being slowed by manufacturer updates in order to sell unnecessary annual revisions. Parents commonly spend more time shopping online than talking to their kids in a typical day.
We invited the devil into our homes, and now that he’s here, he’s proven himself too useful to be done away with.
I’m guilty of all of the unhealthy behaviors typically associated with a consumerist phone addict. I am a compulsive online shopper, I’ve tied my level of happiness to my accumulated possessions. I pour over things that I don’t need and can’t afford. When I make a purchase, I feel guilty about spending the money, and when I don’t, I feel deprived. My perceived lack of wealth and luxury makes me feel like a failure. I want to buy expensive gifts for my wife and daughter. I want to buy the latest gadgets. When I can’t, I feel like a failure. I’m encouraged by society and evolution to equate my ability to earn and accumulate wealth with my masculinity. Advertisements and shopping apps prey on this.
I’ve lived most of my life singularly motivated to acquire more wealth, and I didn’t even realize that it was making me miserable.
My desire for things is completely irrational. I know that I don’t need these things. I know that they won’t make my life happier or more meaningful. I know objectively that conversations with loved ones, shared experiences, and self improvement will bring me lasting happiness, but I feel helpless to avoid the cycle of consumerism for any meaningful period of time. I talk about how it’d be nice to play board games, watch a movie as a family, or have a thoughtful conversation, but I never actually take steps to change.
“We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. Did you ever think what those sleepers are that underlie the railroad? Each one is a man…. The rails are laid on them, and they are covered with sand, and the cars run smoothly over them. They are sound sleepers, I assure you. And every few years a new lot is laid down and run over; so that, if some have the pleasure of riding on a rail, others have the misfortune to be ridden upon.”
-Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Henry David Thoreau wrote Walden in order to force himself to live more deliberately. He felt that his life was being wasted by degrees, that the division between work and life was depressing, and that our technological progress came at the expense of our soul and independence. He turned out to be more right than even he could imagine. As we grow wealthier, our possessions require more of us.
I for one am going to take steps to recreate Thoreau’s great experiment. I’m not planning to go live in the woods, but I am planning to simplify my life as much as possible.
In practical terms, I’m going to get rid of all infinitely scrolling reading apps on my phone (Reddit, Facebook, etc). These apps are far too efficient at wasting time. I scroll through story after story that I have no interest in, and only periodically do I find something I want to look at more closely.
The things I’m consuming have no depth. They have no lasting impact, and I don’t remember them long after seeing them.
I’m whittling down my life little by little, and I’m causing it to lack meaning and weight.
I’m also deleting all video apps. For now, it’s too easy to waste time by watching a video. I don’t want to eliminate television, but I want to make a deliberate choice to watch television, and as much as is possible, I want television watching to be a communal experience. I want to remove video consumption from the realm of impulse.
I deleted all of my shopping apps and all of my deal alerts in order to limit compulsive shopping. I spend hours a week hunting for deals, and I always make purchases at a steep discount, but at such cost to my free time that it’s hardly expedient.
The home screen of my phone now only has banking apps, kindle, podcasts, NPR, and gmail. It’s utilitarian, and the time wasting apps that are available will provide me with meaningful and substantive information.
I don’t know what I’m hoping will happen as a result of this. I want to break my addiction to technology, and I want to prioritize my family above droves of strangers online. I’m hoping that I can use writing as the meditative exercise that I need to shut out the noise and retrain my mind.