I have been caught in a drift net. Like a helpless dolphin (only not as cute) I have been stuck with my face pressed up against the net, held there by the fast flowing information pouring over me – rendering me inert. Eventually my senses dulled, and even the will to struggle was lost.
Psychology studies have shown that rats who are regularly rewarded for pressing a lever will give up on the lever as soon as the reward disappears. Interestingly, rats who are only intermittently rewarded will keep pressing the lever almost indefinitely after the rewards disappear – sometimes reaching a frenzy of frantic lever pressing – with desperate optimism that this time the reward will return.
Well just call me Dr Ratty. (Rodent I may be, but I’m a rodent with a PhD, and I’ll thank you not to forget it!)
The internet is my rat pellet reward. Email from a friend. A choice item of news on The Age website. A funny status update on a friend’s facebook profile. A quick check on the readership stats on my blog. An interesting blog somewhere else. It didn’t take much to keep me pressing that lever. The best pellets were personal – a mention on a friend’s blog (positive, of course) – or an emotional connection via email. But even these were strangely hollow and temporary, causing me to gobble the pellet, pause, smile briefly, and then go back to frantically jiggling that lever up and down, in the hope of another reward in my little ratty inbox.
It used to be that a spot of free time would see me calling a friend on the phone, going for a walk, reading an interesting (paper!) book or magazine, or getting something done around the house. Now my free time is spent largely hitting that refresh link, hoping for a new pellet.
Recently I had a birthday. I got a few birthday wishes on my wall, a few more in email, and more by sms, and not one of them left me feeling loved and connected. In startling contrast, I received one phone call from some old friends (lest I get hit, I must point out that we have been friends for some time. They are in no way old.). The call was challenging – kids were creating distractions on both ends of the line – but that immensely higher bandwidth left me with a much stronger sense of who had just called and why were are still friends. I have been just as guilty of facebook birthday greetings as the next person (in fact more so, since the next person is my husband, who doesn’t even have a facebook account – astounding, isn’t it?). And I have slowly become more depressed, more isolated, and much less connected with the people I love.
It has finally dawned on me that all these pellets were, at best, emotional junk food. At worst, that lever was the handle on my depression. So I have boldly gone cold turkey. No, I have not trashed my email accounts (it’s clearly a bad sign that they are plural) or revoked my facebook access. Instead I have a new rule – email access happens once a day, and then the browser is closed. I am allowed to access the internet to look something up, or make a specific contact with a particular urgent aim. But by and large, I am going to upgrade the bandwidth of my communications.
Need to ask a friend a question? I’m going to call them. Want to wish a friend happy birthday? No more quick scribbles on their facebook wall. I’m going to call, or maybe even drop by. Not necessarily on the day (I’m a parent, life doesn’t often go to plan), but soon. More coffee, more talking, more looking into people’s eyes and reaching into their souls. Oh, and more writing. Possibly even more blog posts, but they’ll be hit and run affairs. I’m off to pull the plug. See you!