I recently decided to spend much less time on my phone. I felt addicted and realized how much time I spent squinting my eyes and hunching my back to read a stupid little screen, and how negatively it was affecting my emotional and intellectual life. Now, I don’t have a lot of friends, so I didn’t need to stop checking email or text obsessively. That is not a problem. What I really needed to do was stay offline and get off social media.
The social media part came easy. I had already been pretty sparse on Facebook and enjoying posting pretty photos to my Instagram account. Then about halfway through my recent trip to Italy, after a week of posting our adventures on the daily, I was suddenly exhausted at the thought of posting one more photo to Instagram. So I just… didn’t. I got the most absurd sense of freedom and lightness in deciding not to post anything.
But then there was Twitter. After coming back from Europe, I maintained my relative absence from Facebook and Instagram, but I kept coming back to Twitter. Part of it is this insane time we’re in as a country. I am deeply worried about the immigrant children in cages on the border and desperate for news that SOMEONE is doing SOMETHING. I’m worried about our democracy turning into a kleptocracy or autocracy, led by the most corrupt and willfully ignorant. I like knowing what is going on in the world. I like the people I follow and their social, political, comical, historical commentary. They make me think. They make me laugh. They give me perspective. These are all good things for the most part, and nice considering how isolated I can feel here in Hawaii.
As good as it was, I did find that I was checking Twitter on my phone too much. One evening I decided to stop checking my phone altogether, and I realized that what was driving my compulsive, twitching reach for the phone was my desire to scratch some little mental itch. Not to learn anything, not to expand my depth or breadth of knowledge, but to satisfy some part of my brain that gets excited by novelty, by a steady stream of new bits of info, like those rats that press the lever for orgasm and totally starve to death even though the lever for food is RIGHT THERE.
Having just read The Shallows, I realized how damaged my brain has already been by my being so much online. Ugh
It went beyond Twitter, as well. Every little question that would pop up in my mind needed to be answered right that second. Is it raining in Kaneohe right now? (weather.com app says no) How can you tell when you are overtraining? (ncbi.gov says “systemic inflammation and subsequent effects on the central nervous system, including depressed mood, central fatigue, and resultant neurohormonal changes”) Why does my cat rub her bum on my feet? (¯\_(ツ)_/¯) What is the best temperature for roasting chicken thighs? (The Salty Marshmallow says 400 degrees for skin-on, bone-in thighs. The Kitchn says 425 degrees for skinless, boneless thighs.) When was the Immaculate Conception made dogma? (wikipedia.org says 1854, though the belief in Mary’s sinlessness and virginity has been widely held since Late Antiquity) What is the kiki challenge? (all of the internet proves it is something stupid and dangerous that NO ONE SHOULD BE DOING)
These are not exactly “need to know” questions. I would have spent quite a lovely evening not knowing the answers to these questions. But I had to know. I had to know RIGHT THEN, even though I had no plans to go to Kaneohe or make chicken thighs for dinner or debate anyone on the history of Catholic dogma or do anything as stupid as dance alongside the open door of a moving car. It wasn’t information I wanted, it was that little dopamine reward I got from stimulating a shallow part of my brain.
The beauty about smart phones, as many have pointed out, is how egalitarian it makes access to information. It is WONDERFUL that so many people have access to truths and realities that can objectively make their lives better. (For now, let’s sidestep the problem with all the terrible and false information also available and intentionally framed to be more attractive. Grrr.) But it also makes it so we expect to have answers to all our questions immediately. And I don’t think that’s great.
In one of my graduate classes last semester, I came across the term “epistemophilia.” The love of knowledge for its own sake. It was presented in a paper arguing that we need to resist epistemophilia and embrace healthy, productive, community-building forms of ignorance. At first, I hated that idea. Isn’t ignorance the problem?! But when I thought about it more, I realized how healthy and necessary it is to embrace our inevitable ignorance and be ok with not knowing all the things we want to know.
I’ve lost the ability a little bit to just sit with my questions, to let them be and exist without an immediate answer. I’ve lost the ability to wonder and wander, slowly, intentionally or no, through my own musings about the world. I feel stressed, almost, at the thought of not having a question answered, even if it’s a really dumb, inconsequential question. Considering the kinds of questions I was asking, what is the big deal with getting answers? What good were those answers giving to my life? What were they adding? I guarantee that I have forgotten more of what I’ve looked up in those moments of boredom than I have retained, and my life changed not-at-all from 99% of what I have learned from my obsessive phoning.
So in my continuing quest to have a healthy mental life (intellectually and emotionally), I’m working on being off my phone. But that means I also need to work on embracing ignorance and unanswered questions. To see the value in not knowing. To let others know for me. To think through those surface questions a little bit more and see what deeper, personal, more interesting connections could be made if I simply gave them time. To shrug off the questions that don’t need to be answered and let them remain question marks in my brain. (The weather of a town 13 miles away from me on a regular non-hurricane Wednesday evening is truly — truly — of no consequence.)