I had a terrible argument with my partner the other day about why she was using her phone at 11 a.m. on Saturday when I was trying to embark on a relaxing weekend with her? Of course the main problem, which I didn't see until later, wasn't that my partner was phone snubbing me, but rather I was encountering and projecting the core difficulty of digital detox—figuring out what it is you actually want if not scrolling.
The obvious answer to why it is hard to see others using squandering their attention into machines when you are trying to recapture yours is, of course, addiction. As Catherine Price describes this scenario in How to Break Up With Your Phone, it's "like a former smoker who's now repulsed by the idea of smoking." As a former smoker I understand the analogy all too well. During my first quitting in the first days I had to walk (sometimes run) away from watching others light up, it was undeniably visceral. In the scenario all your effort to overcome the addiction is placed in direct conflict with the addictive act, creating a storm of tension. So what can be done with this embodied knot of anger, besides lashing out at others?
Price's advice is to turn inwards, to "use other people's checking to check your checking." In my reflections on this problem I found that I was actually at a loss of what to do in these moments, unable to answer what it was that I wanted. That my checking was serving as a substitute for answering the persistent internal questioning of what I wanted to do in the moment. Relax and read a magazine? Am I hungry? Go for a walk? What about those side projects that have been queueing in my todo-list? Take intitiative to self-actualize? Intentionally stare out window? What do I want to do with my life? And though it may seem to jump drastically from minor phone check to existentialism, I don't think it's overstated. That is the main charge against the attention-economy, after all, that it is a distraction. I posit that too often the distration is from that elusive enigma of knowing your inner desires.
Figure 1. How difficult it is to think about your inner state versus how much you think about it.
That soul-searching "what do l really want?" has always been a crisis of a question. People used to deal with this all the time, but our technological moment is such that the amount the question confronts us, if we choose it, is vanishingly small, virtually optional. In times past I recall microbrainstorming it, not just minor coffee-waits, but also in groggy weekend mornings, chipping at it 3 minutes at-a-time. If you assume that the more this question is meditated on, the move it resolves, then another dynamic comes into play. For the most part we are caught in a cycle and stuck in the early stages of pondering our desires. In this stage asking "What do I want" is anxiety-producing, leading to evermore distraction-seeking. I've become out-of-shape at knowing myself.
When I turn off my phone and see my partner or strangers on BART consumed in their screens, any annoyance I feel is misplaced. What I believe is happeningg is that I am suddenly thrust into a difficult question that I'm unpracticed at answering — what do I want right now. If I knew exactly how I wanted to direct my attention, then what reason would I have to be upset at all the instagram-checking going on around me. Given that ultimately this is problem of exercising knowing myself, here is what my strategy and new year's resolution for these "revolted by checking" moments. I want to say to myself "what's happening is that I'm not sure what to do, and my environment is not assisting me. It's a challenge but its not a crisis. Take a moment, what do I really want?"