Last week, my wife and I had the opportunity to see Hamilton live in Pittsburgh.
We had decent enough seats—ten or so rows back in the left-hand orchestra section. While the view was partially obscured (we couldn’t see the elevated balcony at stage right), we were close enough to see the actors’ facial expressions clearly.
We had an amazing time. There’s a reason that Hamilton is a worldwide phenomenon; it’s a remarkable work of art. The show is cleverly self-referential—reprising leitmotifs and coyly paying off its dramatic promises. It’s playfully historical—grounding itself in real events but freely reinterpreting them, too. And it’s strikingly original—showcasing a genre foreign to Broadway, while also paying homage to musical theater’s long history.
However, my biggest takeaway from the show had nothing to do with the onstage performance. I was more fascinated by what happened in the theater during intermission. While Emily ran to the restroom, I sat and watched the crowd.
Here’s the thing: everyone was on their phone. I mean, literally 90% of the audience spent the intermission either staring at their smartphone or cradling it in-hand. There were very few exceptions: the very old (some of whom may prefer not to own a phone) and the very young (i.e., kids who probably can’t wait for their first hand-me-down device).
We’ve gone through an incredible societal transformation in just a decade. Twelve years ago, a Broadway intermission would have felt very different. Sure, a few people might have made a phone call on their flip phone, but nobody could’ve pulled an addictive “everything” device out of their pocket.
What did the 2006 audience do during those twenty-minute breaks? Doubtless, many would’ve buried their noses in the program—perusing the cast bios or the second act’s song list. But many attendees would’ve chatted up a neighbor and reflected together on the show. The hall’s decibel level might’ve been significantly louder—many more voices adding to the cacophony (rather than silenced in rapt attention to their phones). ◾
The mind is no computer, but our consciousness still merges with our phones and tablets as seamlessly as a painter’s hand fuses with her brush or musicians vocalize through their instruments. This fusion can happen, Buddhist teaching holds, because consciousness is formless and adopts the qualities of everything it “touches.” Once we’ve immersed ourselves in our screens, they become our whole reality—and that’s why texting drivers look up with surprise when they rear-end the car in front of them.
Zen Priest Kurt Spellmeyer, explaining why he never replaced his lost phone
For Spellmeyer, smartphones extend our minds—and this poses both an opportunity and a threat. Yes, our devices augment our mental capabilities, enhancing memory and accelerating calculations. But our phones also super-charge our penchant for self-distraction. As he explains,
The nonstop novelty prevents us from uncovering the sources of our suffering. We shuttle from one screen to the next, trying to allay our nagging sense that something’s missing or not right.
If you’re anything like me, you’ve frittered away entire afternoons, mindlessly refreshing Twitter or dipping glumly into app after app. Even though you never quite feel satisfied, you keep thumbing around, semi-consciously. Spellmeyer claims that meditation can quell our appetite for distraction and prevent “screen zombie” syndrome.
For me, meditation hasn’t totally sapped screens of their allure. I still frequently drift between apps on autopilot. But I have noticed one difference: I’m more aware of losing myself, in the moment. Questions arise, like “Is this making me happier?” and “Will I regret this, later today?”
Sometimes, that’s just enough to interrupt the cycle, and I manage to set the phone down. ■
Justin Rosenstein, who helped invent the now-ubiquitous Facebook “Like” button, writes this:
“These are our lives — our precious, finite, mortal lives. If we’re not vigilant, TVs, computers, and mobile devices will guide us to spend our time and attention in ways that don’t align with our deepest desires.”
Here, Rosenstein succinctly captures what I was feeling when I picked this site’s name. “Careful tech” is about approaching our devices with more clarity, more mindfulness, and, yes, more caution. The risk is real: we’re in danger of wasting our lives.
We may even be losing our souls—those things that make us human. Tech distraction suppresses our agency, deadens our compassion, dulls our consciousness, and drowns out our sense of purpose. When we’re held captive by our gadgets, we stop pursuing noble causes and instead squirrel away our hours, chasing red badges and refreshed timelines.
“Businesses that depend on demand-generation advertising… are incentivized to do whatever it takes to get you to stare at them, from sensationalist journalism, to outrage-baiting discourse, to addictive software. That’s why they sometimes bring out the worst in humanity: they turn people into a product for advertisers to buy…. I’m hopeful we can move onto other business models—in the way that HBO & Netflix have shown is possible for television—in which content producers’ and consumers’ interests are economically aligned.”
“Free” ain’t free
A corollary to all this? “Free” software isn’t free. I’m bartering something for that $0 price tag; in many cases, I’m giving up my attention. Ad-supported software attacks my focus; over time, it makes me shallower, more anxious, and less present. This barrage makes me unhappy.
That’s one reason paid software still matters, even in 2017. In buying great software, I incentivize developers to build apps that help me feel better—instead of ones that steal my focus. I’m helping align the app ecosystem with my best interests. So maybe money can buy happiness, after all. Or, at least, it can fend away unhappiness.
Owning my attention
But I can’t wait around for the software industry to align its financial model with my best intentions. I’m on the Internet all day, every day, which gives my monkey mind plenty of opportunities to get distracted. So here are some changes I’m making now to guard my attention:
I’ve locked down my phone notifications. Those buzzes and alerts aren’t doing me any favors. One example: until today, my podcast client pinged me every time a new episode was available. That’s pointless; very rarely do I drop what I’m doing to listen to a show. There are too many apps I let interrupt me for no good reason. You might find it helpful to scroll back through your phone’s notification center, so that you can remember which apps are constantly sending reminders.
This feels scary, but I’ve even turned off Twitter notifications. I’ll no longer instantly be aware when someone retweets or replies to me, unless I’m actively using the app. This not only protects my attention, it also prevents me from obsessing about how much (or more often, how little) interest my posts drum up.
If a phone app has a reasonably-priced upgrade that disables in-app ads, I’m going to spring for it. For example, I check Weather Underground, my weather app of choice, multiple times each day. That app lets you obliterate ads for $1.99 a year. That’s a good buy.
If an app has advertising or distracting media that can’t be turned off, I’m going to delete it. I’ve already dumped Facebook, the preeminent offender here. I’ve also killed the Weather Channel app, which offers a $3.99 “no ads” option but doesn’t (as far as I know) let you turn off its ridiculous ‘video’ and ‘news’ features.
I’ve rearranged my home screen (yet again) to make productivity and focus my priorities. My most productive apps (OmniFocus, Calendar, and Drafts) get pride-of-place in the bottom dock. The first page is completely empty, as a reminder to be intentional about what apps I open. On the second page, everything gets buried into folders. And within those folders, the first folder page is dedicated only to favorite apps that improve my focus. Check out the screenshots at right.
These are small gestures, but hopefully they give me just a little bit more headspace. ■