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An inventory

Simpler times: My first day of kindergarten, mid-1970s.

1978: A middle-class home, three bedrooms, two-and-a-half baths. If you were to take an inventory of electronic devices in this home, you would count the following:

  • Two landline telephones
  • A color television (a furniture piece, the screen only inches from the floor)
  • A stereo (with turntable, AM/FM radio, and eight-track player)
  • Clock radios in the bedrooms
  • A Kodak camera

That’s it. For a family of four, less than a dozen devices.

Today, an inventory of connected devices in my home (I live alone) includes the following:

  • Macbook Pra (work issued)
  • iMac
  • iPad (three)
  • iPhone
  • Roomba
  • Kindle
  • Alexa devices (one in each room, including the bathroom and basement)
  • Google devices (three; these were gifts)
  • Stereos (one in the living room and one in the den)
  • Bose speakers (wifi connected)
  • Recording gear (for the musician in me)

And the list goes on, and on, and on… more than three dozen devices…

Simplify, simplify, simplify

To counteract my reliance on technology, I’ve created a mostly tech-free room in my home, populated with only a clock and music speaker. In one corner sits a reclining chair, where I read, and in another, my IBM Selectric. My cell phone charges in another room.

Having a digital-free zone allows for focus and engagement.

Henry David Thoreau once simplified his life so that his cabin consisted merely of a desk and chairs, a bed, and some personal effects. (I recall in one instance that he threw a paperweight out the window, deeming it an unnecessary intrusion that wanted dusting!) Thoreau observed, “Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify, simplify! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail.”

The appeal of Thoreau’s sentiment is strong, but if the author struggled to simplify in the 19th century, how much greater is the struggle for us in the 21st century.

We count the details of our lives in the inventory of our connected devices, and we’ve lost count.

Passing time

I argue that we have become mere consumers of time, frittering our lives away in the meaningless details of a million videos, images, messages, and games. (I’m not convinced that “a million” is an exaggeration!) Time is finite and our devices are creating infinite ways for us to consume time in an anxious rush.

When I was a child, I was a philosopher. After morning cartoons and sometimes evening television, I would spend hours playing, imagining, and thinking. The world around me was alive with wonder and possibility. As I got older, the demands of life gained: work, social commitments… and then the internet and the internet of things.

I am still a philosopher. I still read extensively. I still meditate and pray. I still stop to watch the sky. But I am also a consumer of time like everyone else. I feel as if I am running out of time.

A lifeful life

Some years ago, I knew a teenager who had no social media accounts, no cell phone, and no computer. (He did briefly dabble in Facebook, which he accessed on a friend’s device, but he ultimately discarded his account like Thoreau’s paperweight.) He mentioned that his pleasure was sitting in a park and watching people. He would do this for an hour and then write a poem.

This young man was an outlier, to be sure: an observer and participant in life. His peers, on the other hand, were merely glancing at it, heads buried in screens, eyes glossed over in a sea of blue. The average teen spends as many as nine hours per day looking at their devices! But for this young man, life was lifeful, fully lived, not simply endured.

(One of his aspirations was to play the banjo and ride a unicycle simultaneously. Some months ago, while driving through town, I observed him riding a unicycle and playing the banjo. What a life!)

The truth is that most teens (and most adults) are simply fast-forwarding through life. Even before the digital age, I remember families that never stopped watching TV. Their kids would not come out to play, so I played alone. We have wrestled with this issue for generations, but how intense the struggle is today. This is not paradise lost, but paradise never gained.

Taking inventory of life

To be blunt: We’re not getting rid of our devices and the inventory of connected things is likely to grow. This is not a negative. From childhood, how many of us longed to live in the world of Star Trek, an integrated world of man and machine? After all, are we troglodytes? But neither should we be coppertops.

The key is time. How will we employ this finite resource? Will we consume or live? The latter requires that we necessarily create space for organic living, disconnected from the internet and social media. This is why many of us own typewriters, why many of us read printed material, and why many of us simply sit in silence.

Technology should complement, not dominate, our lives.

© 2022, Mark Adams. All rights reserved.

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