Presence

I love riding my bike. I ride for fitness, and I ride hard. Quite often I ride to burn enough calories to eat some wonderful Portland food and still stay within my calorie budget for the day.

There are definitely worse reasons to ride.

I also enjoy the fact that riding forces me to be aware and focused on my surroundings. I listen to podcasts while I ride, but I can still hear everything happening around me, and my eyes are always moving. I pay attention, because most drivers do not. My brain is actively engaged with where I’m going, what’s on the ground in front of me, and especially what cars and the people inside of them are doing.

Yesterday I was on the latter end of a ride and stopped for a light. Just off a side street, a man was standing on the far sidewalk, holding a leash with a little dog attached to the distal end.

The dog was cute. It appeared to be poodle-ish, with short hair, and a worried, attentive little face. Everything about the dog’s facial expression and body language conveyed both confusion and an endearing sort of impatient patience – wondering why on earth they were still standing there despite the fact the dog was ready to move on, but not wanting to bother its alleged dog walker companion.

The man was lost in another world. Face down, hand up, smartphone glowing. Not only did he have no idea his little pet was done with its business and itching to resume locomotion, I’m not positive he remembered the dog existed at all.

Complete and utter lack of awareness.

The light turned green and I pedaled away, wondering how long that poor little dog would be trapped in place beside its statue master.

The sad thing is, we have all been that guy. Maybe none of us have stranded our pets even while standing right beside them, but surely we’ve done it to spouses and children, and the entire universe in general. The world without cannot compete for our attention with the world within the glass rectangle.

I’m a device sinner too. iOS Screen Time tells me so. It shows me how many hours per day are wrapped up in information on digital displays, and that’s not even counting my computer use.

Some of this screen gazing is for work. I use my iPhone for task management, reminders, and notes about equipment, software, and procedures. I do it on my iPhone because I can continue editing and triaging these things on my iPad later, and because my phone is always with me, and because my employer-issued Windows laptop doesn’t have anything at all like the apps I have on iOS for these types of tasks.

But I also listen to podcasts, read books, surf the web, occasionally glance at Twitter, and play games too. I spend a lot of time at home staring at iPads and iPhones.

What I decided months ago, as I told my daughter tonight on our walk, is that I am not going to look at my phone in public unless it’s for directions or I’m in a store and I have a shopping list I need to consult. That’s it. I will not walk around among other humans like a zombie, with my hand out and my head down, vainly scouring the desolate wasteland of social media for a delightful feast of brains that can never be found.

This decision is made much easier by the fact that it’s impossible to look cool while staring down at a phone, especially while ambulatory. We all look like jerks doing it, and we all judge everyone else when they do. It’s ok – we probably should. We just shouldn’t reserve all those free passes for ourselves.

Honestly, I think a lot of how reactionary we’ve become is due to smartphones, specifically because of social media and fragmented attention. I think our creativity and curiosity have suffered from the loss of time alone with our own thoughts, and even the loss of boredom. Our brains are meant to percolate ideas like a kettle boiling water, with thought bubbles popping to the surface, faster and faster.

If we fill our eyes and ears with (largely unimportant and useless) words from other people 24 hours per day, the inner life disappears. Going years without an original thought seems like a bad plan.

Physical activities like bike riding are great for focusing the mind. So is writing, drawing, programming, or any other number of geeky pursuits. We can use both focused time and quiet, unfocused time equally to help calm our minds and prevent ourselves from wasting hours and hours staring at a screen consuming things that have zero spiritual or mental nutritional value.

And now here’s my abrupt, unsatisfying Neal Stephenson-esque ending, but I’m far from done with this topic. I plan to use my computing devices in much more goal-oriented ways, and in order to do so effectively, I will catalog my efforts here.

In other words, my solution to the problem of screen time is another kind of screen time.

But don’t worry. It’ll work. I promise.