I remember signing up for my first email address. I was a freshman in college (email@example.com, I think), and right after I got the email address I signed up for an exercise physiology listserv at the request of a professor. I was embarrassed that I was so taken with the idea of email. I checked it once or twice a day (on dial-up!), and even that frequency felt decadent. But in spite of my relatively frequent chekcing, within days the fresh new-account smell was gone and my inbox was crammed with hundreds of emails from people whose email addresses seemed threatening and strange. I felt a choking sensation. What was I missing if I didn't get to all of them? Was there some valuable nugget on the Krebs cycle in there that I needed to know for the exam, or worse, for my future career? That listserv bugged me for the rest of the semester until I finally de-listed. I'm not sure I ever learned anything from it, but in retrospect it was about a thousand times more manageable (and useful) than Facebook.
In The Nature Fix, writer Florence Williams seems to make a repeated point about the speed at which we all receive data now. Compared with the trickle of data we all took in even a couple decades ago, each of our personal data streams is now a firehose. Out in the wild, though, data comes at us slowly, at a rate that two million years of human evolution have attuned us to. Surrounded by chirping phones, incessant email alerts, and the background noise of nonstop television and radio, we're knocked out of sync. And as we bump along out of the groove that nature designed for us, we ignore those around us and make bad decisions.
The idea fits nicely with Jaron Lanier's idea of "treble" versus "bass." He uses the example of George W. Bush's Wikipedia page to illustrate this. When left to their devices, Wikipedians circa 2008 were so rapid with edits as to be destructive to the page. This is Jaron's "treble." Is this what direct democracy would look like? Lanier wonders. I dunno. I hope not. Wikipedia solved the problem by limiting the number of edits a single user could make to a page. Or, as Jaron would say it, they turned up the bass. The process worked for Wikipedia, and I bet it would work for many of us, too.
So, for your health (and for an intentional move up the Double Arrow Metabolism Wellness Index), I'm challenging you to turn down the treble in your life. I'm a notorious anti-incrementalist, so go big. Here's a suggestion: go to the settings on your phone and disable notifications for the apps that are most insistent on your attention. Better yet, delete the apps altogether. The next time you're in an elevator for a ten-second ride, resist the temptation to pull your device out of your pocket. Think instead. Think about how lucky you are to have a piece of glass with all the world's knowledge inside of it in your pocket. Then think of how lucky you are to have been born with a brain that lets you decide when and where to use it.
The next time you go to an event, like your daughter's soccer game or your son's piano recital, leave your phone at home. If you drive to the event, leave it in the car. Or better yet, if you ride your bike to the event, leave your phone in the pannier of your bike. It'll be safe there, I promise. (If you skateboard to the event, leave your phone at home. A skateboard is a terrible place to store your phone.)
If you're afraid you'll miss out on a thought while you're apart from your accessory brain, take a pen and paper with you to jot things down while you're there. Maybe someone will see you taking notes and be so taken with the idea that they'll strike up a conversation with you.
Wouldn't that be nice?