I recently noticed a worrying trend in my behaviour, driven in part by the number of electronic devices around me and the sheer wealth of media available at any given moment.
Instead of experiencing more great things, I found myself becoming less immersed in any one thing. Rather than focus and enjoyment, there was a kind of unending dullness and boredom. I had access to all of the things, yet no real interest in any of them.
This is the very definition of a first-world problem — an embarrassment of riches or scourge of plenty. I recognise it sounds ungrateful and just plain wrong. However, it’s pretty clear from looking around at others immersed in the world of technology that I’m far from alone.
The paradox of choice
I hear from people wedded to their cameras, seemingly keen to document every waking second of their lives; yet they admit to almost never returning to visit precious captured memories. Countless digital photographs are taken, uploaded and immediately discarded, in a marked contrast to the heavily curated, much loved and regularly explored photo albums of old.
Film and TV lovers have access to iTunes, Netflix, Hulu, and bulging shelves of shiny discs, yet complain there’s nothing to watch, while Spotify subscribers with access to more music than it’s possible to comprehend exists find nothing to listen to. TV shows and music nonetheless continue to be downloaded and then ignored, while PVR storage swells with a billion shows that will never be played. Elsewhere, collectors gripe about the loss of the thrill of the chase in the digital age. Retro-gamers can download in seconds every game released for a system, resulting in hard drives full of ROMs that forever remain dormant while they search for the next pile of digital detritus.
This isn’t so much about the quality of today’s media nor delivery systems, nor even the shift from the tactile to the virtual. It’s more about people being terrible at making choices regarding the near future (the psychology of an immediate tiny reward versus the long game), and forming bad habits that include a loss of focus. And in the name of progress, major players in electronics seemingly want to fracture time still further, splitting television and tablet displays into multiple-channel UIs, eradicating the means to concentrate on and immerse yourself in any one thing.
Find your focus
My response to this has been a marked attempt to focus, which requires only a minimal amount of effort and willpower, but can totally change how media is experienced. Importantly, although modern technology can so easily result in a deluge of information — a kind of mass-media background hum that saps at energy and interest — it’s also excellent at enabling curation. So instead of aimlessly flicking through television channels, I’d sooner pick from Netflix a show I’ve never seen but that I know was well-received, and dedicate myself to it until it’s done. In iTunes, I’ve returned to more often playing albums rather than firing random tracks at my ears.
Even with apps and services, my approach increasingly tends towards eradicating distraction. On OS X, I’ll use full-screen writing tools like Byword and Scrivener and quit social apps that could break my concentration; they get their own time when appropriate. On iOS, the forced full-screen nature of the display assists, and then a little determination is all that’s required to propel myself into the intoxicating digital universe of a Device 6 or a Walking Dead, rather than frittering away more moments on another mediocre match-three title. And beyond the screens, there’s a sense of allowing time to just sit and contemplate, focussed with pen and paper, mulling over new ideas.
This line of reasoning isn’t revolutionary, but it’s made a big difference to my interest in media, which was starting to wane. I’m again excited by film, music and games, when the danger was losing them all to an endless gloom. If you’re in a similar rut, choose and curate. Allow moments of boredom and use them to think, rather than filling them with garbage. Use the tools at your disposal not to surround yourself with mediocrity, but to drill down into the things you love, and then take it all in.
Technology shouldn’t turn your world into an unending grey static when it has the potential to foist the brightest, most vivid and exciting colours into your eyes like at no other time in history.