Finite games

All human activity is such an exercise (can one resist the word “ritual”?) in squaring the circle. We first produce the world by symbolic work and then take up residence in the world we have produced.

Alas, there is magic in our self deceptions.

(James Carey)

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about time. Time as we know it was invented.

When clocks became widely used around the mid-1600s and into the Industrial Revolution, they changed the way we think about almost everything; work, play, rest, even the morality of time. It’s certainly changed the way the workplace operates.

“By the fourteenth century, the common understanding of what time was had changed; it became a grid against which work was measured, rather than the work itself being the measure.

Clock towers funded by local merchant guilds were erected throughout Europe. These same merchants placed human skulls on their desks as memento mori, to remind themselves that they should make quick use of their time.

Photo by David von Diemar

The proliferation of domestic clocks and pocket watches that coincided with the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the late eighteenth century allowed for a similar attitude toward time to spread among the middle class.

Time came to be widely seen as a finite property to be budgeted and spent, much like money. And these new time-telling devices allowed a worker’s time to be chopped up into uniform units that could be bought and sold.

Factories started to require workers to punch the time clock upon entering and leaving.

The change was moral as well as technological. One began to speak of spending time rather than just passing it, and also of wasting time, killing time, saving time, losing time, racing against time, and so forth.

Over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, an episodic style of working was increasingly treated as a social problem.

Methodist preachers exhorted “the husbandry of time”; time management became the essence of morality. The poor were blamed for spending their time recklessly, for being as irresponsible with their time as they were with their money.” (David Graeber)

Today most of us feel the effects of this race against the clock. We are busy, stressed, optimized, sleep-deprived and anxious. We are high achievers. Yet despite this, we hardly feel like we’re good enough, useful enough, meaningful enough.

People have never had more time than we have today. The same hours have always been there. And arguably people have always struggled with some of these things. So what is different?

Previously in history, lots of people’s problems were brought on or exacerbated by outside forces; wars, food shortages, plagues, high mortality rates and the like. Today, in the age of anxiety, the number one cause of death in the U.S. is heart disease.

We’ve always been good at being bad to one another. But I’m not sure we’ve ever been so good at being hard on ourselves.

We could probably blame this on lots of factors. Our culture of comparison and hard-driving ambition doesn’t reward people who choose contemplation and quiet.

It demands visibility, quick gains and a willingness to do what it takes to get to the top. The worst sin in the world today is to be an average person.

To really get to the top, what does that take, besides 10,000 hours? It means telling yourself a story, and doing everything in your life to reinforce that story.

Whatever I do in life isn’t good enough unless I’m the best. Unless I’m constantly moving upward, I’m nothing. Unless I’m the fittest, best-looking, thinnest, highest-earning person here I’ve failed. I’m in competition with everyone in this room.

That narrative changes the way we interact with other people. They’re not peers. They’re tools, or in the way.

We’re telling ourselves a story from a scarcity mindset we’ve created. It might be real, but it’s not what we think it is. We have limited time and energy because we say we do.

There’s not a magic 25th hour in the day. But no one is making you go to yoga class. If your life sucks because you’re over-scheduled, do something about it. Don’t go to that obligatory party with people you don’t even like. Do you really need to enroll your kids in six after-school activities?

We schedule things in our lives to improve ourselves, and for fun. But at some point those things just start to make us mad. They’re one more chore. So stop doing them.

That’s easier said than done, but saying you ‘have to do this or that,’ especially if it’s something you hate doing, is squaring the circle. Ninety percent of the time it’s not necessary, it’s just something you’ve always done.

We should rethink the way we use our time; at work, after work and every time in between. Time is the only thing we can never get back.


Interview with an introvert

Recently a friend asked me to be an interview subject for a class of college students. While the idea of being interviewed generally makes me break out in a cold sweat, for some reason I did it anyway.

I’m glad I did, because like any series of challenging questions, these interviews have forced me to confront my why. Why I believe what I do, why I think what I think and where I want my life to go.

Being asked this on a regular basis means I can’t avoid the question. I’d prefer to live a more comfortable and unexamined life a lot of the time. But facing these questions is good for me. I’m very comfortable speaking about my stances and issue-centered thoughts; not as much about myself.

This is a question I was asked recently and I thought I’d share my answer.

What do you want to do with your life?

Somebody once told me the definition of hell: “On your last day on earth, the person you became will meet the person you could have become.”

Photo by Davide Cantelli

Last year I went to a concert, a fairly expensive one. I was there with friends and my partner, and we had traveled hundreds of miles to see a favorite artist. We had great seats. I noticed almost everyone there watched most of the show through their phone camera.

What kind of an experience is that? We seem to have experiences now mostly in order to prove to other people that we have had experiences.

Where is the time to think, to reflect, to even process that the experience has happened?

How can we expect to die different people when we don’t fully live?

At a funeral last month I listened as friends and relatives stood up and shared memories of the man we were there to remember.

They told stories of someone who took people camping, brought treats to the bedside of someone who was sick, loaned out a truck when it was needed and baked a mean set of pies.

Not a particularly headline-worthy life, but someone who would be remembered with love as long as those friends and relatives were alive to treasure the memories.

Naturally this made me think of what I value and want for my life. None of it includes something I can document on a screen, except possibly my photos and the writing I do here.

Those count because little bits of me are in them. The rest mostly feels like running on a treadmill. It technically counts as activity, but I never really get anyplace useful or interesting.

As I look back on even my recent experiences, none of those screen moments stand out, unless they involved a good conversation with long-distance friends.

Often in the past 10 years I’ve defined a bit too much of my likability, my wit or even the way I look by the interactions I have online. Slowly but surely, I’ve been creating a life that looks good outside, but is often neglected inside.

Like a fancy downtown coffee shop with all the latest accouterments, it is very instagram-worthy. But is anyone inside having good conversation? Or do we look good to avoid feeling?

I say this only about my own experience; I can’t speak for others. But on some level, I don’t like what my life has become.

This probably sounds like a standard-grade rant against technology, which isn’t an accurate reflection of my stance. I love what technology has brought to our world. I do think we could balance it a little more with time to reflect, slow down and think about who we want to be. Then we will know what we want.

Personally I’m still deciding exactly what I want my life to look like, but I love having the mental and physical space to consider it and enjoy when I am living.

I like to think I can look back and appreciate the little things and interactions that have made it worthwhile, even if I never do anything headline-worthy.

If I never create much (I already know pies won’t make it in) but have folks at my funeral who remember I cared; if I can say I have been fully present in my own imperfect, messy life, that will be worth it.

Lonely in a crowd

Notes from a social media addict:

It wasn’t until the fifth day offline that I noticed a difference. I was sitting in the mall waiting for a friend and I realized I was one of the only people not using my phone. The others who weren’t were very busy. I saw an older man at another table also not using a phone. We briefly traded glances – it seemed like we were the only two people there. I believe I could have gotten up and danced naked through the mall and no one would have noticed. That’s how intent everyone was on their business. No one looked around. No one made eye contact.

In the fifteen minutes I sat there, I saw three people stop and watch the piano player, who was making beautiful music in the middle of the plaza. The intricate holiday displays and lights could have been dust for all the notice taken of them. Maybe I’m doing these folks an injustice – they could have seen them. But no one stopped to take them in, or paused for even a second to savor it; the weather, the day, the people around them. Everyone rushed or stared at devices.

When I see a beautiful picture or an interesting article, I immediately feel an urge to share it. I love to have discussions about things that matter to me, and hearing other points of view is one of the better things in life. But if I’m being honest, that’s not the reason I do most of my social media sharing.

Leo Babauta, one of my favorite writers who authors the blog Zen Habits and has written several books, has a great post about social sharing that addresses this dilemma. He urges us to question the need to share our photos and thoughts.  Why is this moment not enough, without the need to share? Do I just want to brag, or is there a good-hearted motivation there too? What am I so afraid of, that I can’t refrain from sharing?

The last one gets me the most. What am I so afraid of? What are we afraid of, that we can’t just be? Does everything have to be curated, hashtagged, made funny for an audience, posed, properly lighted, quipped and finished with a lesson? What if it doesn’t neatly end? What if no one laughs or likes? Does it still matter? Do I still matter?

If you ask anyone what their greatest fear or their greatest hope is, they’ll give a lot of different answers. But they’ll likely all be a variation on the following – people don’t want to be forgotten. We want to be loved, respected, remembered; to be seen. To do something that matters with people who matter. To be truly known is a rare gift. In such a connected world with more ways to talk to each other than we’ve ever had, many of us are deeply lonely.

Social media offers us that connection. Kind of. A crowd of our peers talking to each other in a virtual room is fun, but it isn’t always what we need, because so often, no one is talking with us. Instead, we talk at and over one another. No one has come to see us, to ask how we’re doing, to visit and pass the time with no performative outcome in mind other than knowing the heart of another person.

It offers a legacy of likes, that immediate validation we’re all seeking, if we’re honest with ourselves. That we’re seen, we matter, someone is listening. In the 2 a.m. moments when we’re not sure if we’re enough, we can scroll through a feed and be reassured.

It’s not accurate to say “the friendships I have in person are good, and the friendships I have online are bad or insufficient.”

The friendships I have online are good, but often they provide the illusion of being more than they are. Having them makes me feel good. I think I know my friends better than I actually do, and that feeling prevents me from doing more. From seeking them out, from calling them or from setting up a private chat, or from inviting them for coffee or a drink after work. From doing the messy, riskier work of being in-real-life friends. The connection we have is just enough to sustain me, but not enough to fulfill me.

Like so many others, I often feel lonely in a crowd. Sitting in the mall, just the older man and I, I could have been on an island instead of in a sea of my fellow humans. I could have turned to Facebook to see what my friends were doing, but in that moment of clarity, I know it wouldn’t have helped.

I couldn’t have told any of them the things I was struggling with that day, the reasons I feel most days like I am not enough, the fears I have at 2 a.m., the times I try to avoid mirrors – these are not things I can tell most of my social media friends. And if I can, I won’t tell them there. So in the end, what is it for?

The attention we give to social media, and the creativity, the thoughts and connections we might have made with the downtime we won’t have, the books we won’t read, things we won’t see passing the window of the bus because we’re too busy staring at a phone or a computer – who is to say what the sum of these things are? They can never be numbered, and it’s impossible to try to count them, but they matter.

I know they do, because I can remember my life before social media and after. Without a doubt it is different. In many ways it is more enjoyable. But some things are gone. 

I have been on a speeding train seeing a lot more things, but the train is going so fast I don’t have time to think about anything I’ve seen, or get off and walk through the neighborhoods, or wonder what is there. I have traveled further but not seen much of it.

For every minute I put into halfway things, that’s a minute I’m not putting into something else. We only have so much time and attention. It’s the one thing that’s truly ours, and it’s more limited than we’d like to believe. We’re giving it away; daily, weekly, in tiny, forgettable pieces we can never get back. Not to a person or a dog or a hobby or even a job – just to a website. That probably sounds too dramatic. How we spend our days is how we spend our lives though, isn’t it? Annie Dillard nails it.

This isn’t the kind of thing that matters over one day or one week or one year. It matters over the course of a life. Do we really want to look back and realize we spent fifty minutes of our time each day on Facebook alone? That’s more than 18,000 minutes per  year, and about 1/16 of our waking hours. That’s not counting time we spend on Reddit, Google, Wikipedia, YouTube or other popular sites.

These sites are tools. They are inherently neither good nor bad. I don’t mind their construction or the things I do while using them. I love sharing pictures and ideas, catching up with friends, discussing social and political issues and hearing new points of view. I love the availability to learn, to access online courses and find facts about history, to view photos from around the world and talk to people from other countries – the global connectivity the internet provides us is, in my opinion, a good thing.

They are tools, but they are Twinkie tools. They are engineered to be delicious and addictive. What bothers me is that they are often set up specifically to play to our psychological vulnerabilities.

In a recent article in The Guardian, Silicon Valley developers, many who helped make some of the most successful social media sites and products, expressed concern about where they’re headed and how they affect our attention span. This piece is one of dozens I’ve read expressing similar concerns.

“Justin Rosenstein, who also helped create Gchat during a stint at Google, and now leads a San Francisco-based company that improves office productivity, appears most concerned about the psychological effects on people who, research shows, touch, swipe or tap their phone 2,617 times a day.

There is growing concern that as well as addicting users, technology is contributing toward so-called “continuous partial attention”, severely limiting people’s ability to focus, and possibly lowering IQ. One recent study showed that the mere presence of smartphones damages cognitive capacity – even when the device is turned off. “Everyone is distracted,” Rosenstein says. “All of the time.”

“One reason I think it is particularly important for us to talk about this now is that we may be the last generation that can remember life before,” Rosenstein says. It may or may not be relevant that Rosenstein, Pearlman and most of the tech insiders questioning today’s attention economy are in their 30s, members of the last generation that can remember a world in which telephones were plugged into walls.

It is revealing that many of these younger technologists are weaning themselves off their own products, sending their children to elite Silicon Valley schools where iPhones, iPads and even laptops are banned. They appear to be abiding by a Biggie Smalls lyric from their own youth about the perils of dealing crack cocaine: never get high on your own supply.”

The idea of likes and social approval – it’s a brilliant use of psychology. We need to be social and perform, and we need approval and validation from our peers. That cocktail keeps us coming back for more and more.  I feel enough of that on a daily basis without creating it.

Many people have made their fortunes off the idea that we are, at heart, unsure of ourselves. That idea is much older than social media, but it’s reached new heights, mostly without our notice.

Think if you were describing this phenomenon to an alien race who had no familiarity with the concept. Today, just by reaching into our pockets, we can feel on top of the world, liked, funny, sexy, intelligent or sought after, or we can feel the exact opposite. That power is all in the hands of our friends or followers, people we may not even know or have seen for years.

Everything we click on in this tool gives unknown people every possible facet of information about us, our likes and dislikes, what we buy, where we’ve visited, who we befriend and are partnered with, and anything else they’d like to know.

These people sell this data to other people who are also unknown to do with what they will. Sound like a good deal? The alien race would probably say no.

All those things matter – the distraction, the selling of our data, the psychological manipulation – it’s what we’ve traded to talk to one another in a way that’s fast, fun and ultimately a bit empty, like junk food.

But that isn’t my biggest takeaway from my social media fasts (this is my second in two years, and increasingly I’m feeling a need to distance myself from it altogether.)


The biggest takeaway is how lonely I still feel in a crowd of my peers – more peers than I’ve ever had before. I talk more, engage more, know more and discuss more, and somehow it is less. I am eating more, but never satisfied. Something is wrong with that picture. 

What do you think? Do you remember the time before social media? Was it different?


Better Off: How logging out for 10 days helped me tune in to life

A few weeks ago, as I wrote about in a previous post, I went on a 10-day social media fast, inspired by Christina Crook’s book The Joy of Missing Out. I promised I’d chronicle my thoughts on this experience. I’m don’t believe they’re incredibly unique, but in our increasingly wired and connected world, purposefully tuning out is something we’re doing less and less. And if we are doing it, it’s a thing. We announce it on Facebook, replace profile pictures, blog about it and make sure to notify our friends. If we’re not on, the narrative goes, surely our close friends will believe something terrible has happened to us.


One of the biggest things I noticed when I went offline was how untrue this was. Unless your business is in media and communications, if you log off for a while, most people don’t notice. They will likely notice if you don’t return their email, or if you manage a Facebook business page and ignore them. But in your personal life, you’re probably not as big a deal online as you think you are. I know I wasn’t. So get on with your life. The world will keep turning if you don’t upload that picture. Really, it will.

Online, we curate and create our own little worlds. We’re captains of our digital ships, and many of us create entire personas that are far from who we actually are. We form and nurture connections online via these personas. This can be an incredibly positive thing, especially for folks who may not have things in common with many around them. Online, we can join support groups, access disease-specific health information and make friends around the world. I’ve done all these things, and I’m a better person for having done them. But over-digitization can also be a hindrance to building in-person relationships. Crook posits that the Internet and other technology tools have become a way to replace things that don’t necessarily need replacing.

During the time I was off, I struck up conversations with many folks, several of them perfect strangers, about my online fast. Most of them thought it was a positive thing to do, and expressed a desire to do it themselves. “I’d definitely get off Facebook,” most of them said, “Except I use it to connect with my family.”

This is valid, right? Who can argue with that? Seeing pictures of my friends’ kids and my family is one of the joys of social media for me. Except…what did we do before 2004, when Facebook was invented? How did we experience hikes and beautiful places around the world before Instagram accounts and Flickr?

We read about them. We looked things up. We traveled, of course, and the sole purpose of said travel wasn’t to take envy-inducing pictures and selfies. If we wanted to check on our families, we called them and asked them how they were. We wrote letters. Remember letters? That thing you wrote to a specific person, with no thought to how funny or hashtageriffic or SEO-searchable it would be? It was just for them. It wasn’t about performing, or updating, or sharing the shiniest best you. It was, I believe, a more honest form of communication that we’re missing now. Of course, we didn’t often bare all in our letters and calls and visits. We still put on brave faces and pretended. But there was less opportunity to do so, and more importantly, more opportunity for someone else to notice if we felt down, or off, and say something about it. To invite us over. To give us a call.

We notice this lack of community and relationship today, but we don’t know quite how to get it back. I would argue it’s not as difficult as we’d like to think. It doesn’t necessarily involve massive amounts of government investment or psychological study or panels of experts, although those things are not bad. But why do those things while we know that every day, there are many who go days without speaking to another person in any meaningful way? We are replacing things that don’t need to be replaced.

When I was offline, the biggest thing I noticed, as I noted in a previous post, was how much more time I had. Words are my thing, but I’m having a hard time explaining this one. My thoughts and time just flowed differently. More slowly. Less frenetically, and more deliberately. I slept better. Crook’s book described one person who went offline for a whole year, completely, no email for work or anything, and described it afterward as though her brain actually functioned differently – perhaps the way ours did before the internet. She noticed a longer attention span, for example, and the ability to focus more deeply on projects at hand.

I noticed this even in the few short days I was off. I texted friends, and made calls. I read a lot. I journaled. Online journaling isn’t the same –recent studies in graphology and neurology prove how beneficial writing is for memory, vocabulary and the learning process. Sometimes I just did nothing. I didn’t stay awake late at night, stressing over online arguments, or how my comments and photos had been perceived. I didn’t look at the clock and realize I’d spent 35 minutes scrolling through a newsfeed of someone’s photos who I haven’t actually seen in 10 years. I had lots of time for me. I’m an introvert, but I’d argue the internet, such as it is, is not always a source of restful recharging time introverts need, because social media so often puts us in a mode of performance anxiety. Neither is it a true outlet for extroverts, because it attempts to substitute personal relationships for digital ones.

Can there be deep friendships formed and kept up online? Absolutely. I have several. The Internet itself is not inherently bad, and I didn’t come to that conclusion during my fast. Rather, I agreed with Crook’s conclusion – the Internet is a tool. It’s an amazing, engaging tool that has fundamentally reshaped our thinking. Not just what we think about, but the actual way we think and the way we see the world. It should not become our world, and for some people, that’s what it is becoming. This is not a good trend. Many beautiful, tangible and intangible things exist in the physical world that cannot be completely replaced in the digital one.

I’ve decided to limit my time online – I’m not sure how this is going to look, exactly, but ideally I’d like to get on about once a day. I’ve deleted apps from my phone and am considering deleting a couple of social media accounts – probably not Facebook, as it’s basically digital opium, but I was surprised at how little I really ‘needed’ to be there when I decided not to be. I love to use it to plan events, read news and engage with friends, but I can do all that without Facebook. So can you, if you want. Marketing has ultimately succeeded when it convinces us we need whatever it is selling, but realistically, we need very few things.

Here are a few other digital detox ideas for anyone interested:

  • Social media-free weekends
  • Log off one day per week
  • Delete apps from phone – try to keep fewer than 20. How many do you actually use on a daily basis?
  • Put your phone in a difficult place to reach when you get home. Are you a doctor on call? If not, you probably don’t need to check it every five minutes.
  • If you’re bringing your phone to a social gathering because you don’t want to be there, try this – instead, don’t go.
  • Call someone. Just try it. Or if you hate the phone, invite them for coffee or a drink.
  • Multitasking – we’re trying to make it a thing, and it’s not a great way to learn. Listening to a podcast with 15 browser windows open while checking your notifications is not going to help you focus on any of them. What’s the likelihood you’ll remember what you did in 10 minutes, or gain anything from each task? Pick one.
  • View the Internet as a tool. Before you log on, decide what you’re going to do, do it, then get off and go do something else.



Life, unedited

It’s only the third day of my social media fast, and the biggest thing I’ve noticed is how much time I have. (Yes, I know this post is probably auto-posting to Facebook or Twitter because it’s enabled on my blog, but I’m not checking it, so it doesn’t count. I’m not fasting from the Internet entirely, because work. And my newspaper subscriptions! And…okay, I’ve faced the fact that I have an addiction.)

But I digress. Back to the thing about having more time. I never thought of myself as a compulsive Facebook checker, but I post a few times a day, say four, on average. Guess how many that adds up to over the course of a year – 1,465. That’s a lot of mental and physical energy, and that’s just on Facebook. It does not include time logged on Instagram, Twitter, email or Pinterest. I’m practically a Luddite among my friends because I refuse to join Snapchat.

This whole thing started when I began reading Christina Crook’s The Joy of  Missing Out, which I highly recommend. It’s a brilliant commentary on our culture of communication, socialization, interpersonal relationships and how the Internet and social media have fundamentally changed how we communicate.

Crook argues the Internet itself, rather than any content, is the biggest part of this change. “We’re too busy being dazzled or disturbed by the programming to notice what’s going on inside our heads. It’s how we use it that matters, we tell ourselves. The implication, comforting in its hubris, is that we’re in control. What both enthusiast and skeptic miss is that in the long run a medium’s content matters less than the medium itself influencing how we think and act.”

MIT professor and linguist Noam Chomsky makes much the same argument in his many books and papers about the role of the media in modern culture, arguing that its role in setting the public’s agenda (agenda, in his definition, being not just what we talk about but the choices we pick from for our conversation) is both pivotal and often overlooked. Most of us don’t question things like Facebook algorithms or who owns what paper when we log on to our newsfeeds. It doesn’t occur to many of us that we are being influenced. But Crook takes the argument further, positing that we, rather than mass media organizations, are doing the biggest damage to our own psyches.

After all, companies can only sell what we are willing to buy.

Much can be debated about the role of social responsibility and media companies in this conversation, and that’s a topic I see coming in a future post. I also want to make clear that Crook doesn’t take the position of denigrating technology – as a remote writer, she uses it often for work, as well as to communicate with her family, who live in countries throughout the world. However, she encourages us to examine its role in our lives, and how much it has mastered our time and talents at the expense of other pursuits and relationships.

Personally, I can feel an enormous impact after being offline, such as it is, for just a few days. (Can we take a moment to appreciate the fact that Social Media Fasting and Hereafter Reflecting is such an incredibly yuppie thing to do? Just for a second? I’m now going to forsake all consumption and blog from a yurt. I’m going to write to Christian Lander and see if he’ll give me an entry in his newest book for this, if there’s not one there already.)

All cliches aside, and there are many, I haven’t had this much uninterrupted time to think since college, when I first got on social media. To put this in perspective, that was 10 years ago. In the past few days, I’ve had the time to read a lot more, have long conversations with friends, and most importantly, just sit around and think. I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed that until it wasn’t there. Not that I didn’t think before, of course, but in what Crook labels our ‘performance anxiety culture,’ so often my thinking isn’t just for me. It’s for someone else – what will so and so think of this and how should I word it on Twitter? How can I respond to her on Facebook? What’s a catchy title for that post or Pinterest board? Will the way I word this article offend a reader, or will it get more clicks, or both? I hadn’t realized how exhausting this was until I stopped for a minute.

I don’t know where this is going to take me – I highly doubt I’m going to log off for good. But I’ve also welcomed the return of my own thoughts and the time to read and write and just be, without pressure to repackage and reproduce the moments for public consumption. In that, even if nothing changes, this has so far been worthwhile. But I think something will.