Today I was standing in a checkout queue at a large department store. The queue seemed miles long, so I was trying to use that time for a little mindfulness – becoming aware of the passage of air across my skin, the feeling of my feet in my sandals, and the breath going in and out of my body. Before long I became aware that I was, in fact, aware of none of these things, but mindlessly absorbed in the blaring continuous roll of ads leaping out of the television screens all around us.
I took a deep breath, tore my gaze away from the screens and tried to refocus, but I kept getting dragged back to the ads again. So I tried to make eye contact with my fellow inmat^ I mean queuers, but they were all ensnared by the screen too. There seemed to be no escape from the cleverly manipulative power of those huge plasma screens.
And here I am, on a gloriously sunny day, sitting my my darkened study ensnared by yet another screen. The seductive liquid crystal glow of my laptop holds me trapped, from actively working through to mindlessly browsing the endless web.
Sometimes I feel as though I’m running on ice
Paying the price too long
Kind of get the feeling that I’m running on ice
Where did my life go wrong
Billy Joel – Running on Ice
Bob Brown recently referred to technology as “some manufactured reality which has taken the human brain and is racing off with it in captivity.” In the same speech he told a story of being on a flight over some breathtaking view of natural beauty, with his blind open so that he could see it. Every other blind in the cabin was down, and every other passenger was transfixed by their in-flight entertainment – oblivious to the out-flight entertainment right outside the windows. In short order Bob was asked to please put his blind down, as it meant people couldn’t see their screens properly. Oh! The horror of not being able to see your screen!
This manufactured reality is awfully compelling. When I am angry, sad or frustrated, or when I am wildly happy about something, or just have a quirky thought, I have a strong urge to post about it on facebook, where I will likely receive a lot of validation from what is, in general, a lovely and supportive community. But I used to call someone. Or visit someone. Or, gosh, wait an hour or two for my gratification. And when I am done posting, I don’t get up and walk away, to play with the kids or work in the garden. I check the weather page, and the ABC news site, and a few blogs I follow. I browse twitter, and before I know it the internet has eaten my day again.
I know it. I hate it. I fight against it. Yet every day I am complicit in allowing the internet to consume my soul.
The trouble is that it’s not just the laptop in the study any more. It’s not even just my phone. The screens are everywhere – in the supermarket and the department stores. At the petrol pump and on the public transport. In the cafes and the restaurants – now this I find truly bizarre! Why, at a cafe, would I want my attention distracted from my companions, my food and my chai latte by a screen that is carefully calculated to imprison my attention and hold it captive forever?
They say this highway’s going my way
But I don’t know where it’s taking me
It’s a bad waste, a sad case, a rat race
It’s breaking me
Billy Joel – Running on Ice
All the tiny gaps in your day that used to be filled by quiet contemplation and a little spontaneous breathing are now being sold for profit. And the profit is not yours or mine.
Those pauses for breath are as important for re-ravelling our souls as sleep. They are moments when we can soothe the ragged edges that stress carves out of us, and pause to regroup for the next frenzied onslaught of life. Now, more than ever, it’s crucial to build those spaces back into our lives. Which is why I’m going outside to water my veggies.