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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Vollaro

Calling 2003…Can I Have My Brain Back?

We cross thresholds in life, and we know not what they are.

I remember a time when I did not watch TV for two and a half years. I lived for live music and dinner parties with friends and trips to New York City and Philadelphia and reading books. I would take long walks on the bike and runners path that skirts the shoreline of the Delaware River on the New Jersey side between Frenchtown and Stockton, composing stories in my head. Hours of this, complex narratives with dialogue. I was writing every day. Working on projects. A life of the mind. I life lived in my body and hands and feet.

I remember long phone conversations with friends that lasted sometimes more than a hour. I remember being with friends in the fleshworld for long stretches of time. A stroll along the river followed by an espresso at the coffee shop down the street from where I lived.

Life was different then. Life was better.

Yes, I was single then and that fact alone explains some of the difference. In 2003, I married and moved to Georgia to begin a graduate program. I bought a house. My wife and I had a child. I settled into a career as a college professor. Today, my responsibilities and obligations are greater than they were then. And yes, married men can be occasionally wistful for their long-ago singledom. But this is not the threshold I crossed.

I was once a consumer and connoisseur of long-form experiences. And even though I worked long hours, I could easily switch into a languid, open-ended version of myself. My attention span alllowed for it, encouraged it even. There was work and not-work, and not-work was different somehow. More productive maybe? But also less disciplined? Is that even possible? How can both of these seemingly contradictory assessments be true?

I remember that I was never bored.

I was raised to believe that boredom was an entirely avoidable state. If you experienced boredom, it was your own fault. It was a just a small step below a character flaw to even admit that you were bored. Spoiled rich girls were bored. Potheads were bored. If you felt even a twinge of boredom, you could always find something to do, something to occupy your mind.

But at some point in the last twenty years, boredom crept into my mental and emotional ecosystem and created a permanent base camp. I could feel it beginning to linger in the edges of my mind around 2006, a new itch to constantly flip the channel. For the first four decades of my life, which stretch from the mid-60s to the early 2000s, I could sustain a thought or an activity long enough to lose myself in it, and this quality of absorbed mindlessness (some call it "flow") kept boredom at bay. My mother used to compliment me by saying that "you know how to entertain yourself" which was another way of saying that I could lose myself in whatever it was I was doing.

What, exactly, was the Rubicon I had crossed, and when had I crossed it? What has happened to my brain?

I don't know exactly, but it has something to do with the proliferation of screens and screen-based experiences in my life. At first it was computers everywhere, then laptops, cell phones, the iPhone, and finally, the iPad. And accompanying this march of seductively designed devices was an entire universe of applications. The interactivity of these devices, connecting them first to the internet and then social media. These technologies retrained my brain, making me expect more novelty and more stimulation in shorter bursts of time. The ease of hyperlinking, scrolling, and clicking redefined my mental space, producing the illusion of a bottomless well of novelty, the ease of moving from one thing to the next—effortless, private, and without consequence.

The screen offers a special kind of solace. It is the readily available, reach-out-and-grab-it escape from the rough-and-tumble, sometimes awkward, sometimes physically demanding, and always unpredictable vicissitudes of life. To engage a screen is to put your flesh life temporarily on hold—the life we evolved to live, with our brains and bodies finely attuned, working together to solve problems and overcome obstacles and build things.

In the 70s, there were three television channels and you could list the available genres of entertainment and content on the back of a business card. Newspapers and magazines published daily schedules for television shows that fit on a page or two. list of genres would expand slightly but the variety of content within these categories would explode.

Entertainment melts into other functions.

We’re not cyborgs as much as we are monkeys chained to the wall in Plato’s allegory of the cave.

To use tools.

When the iPad was first introduced in 2012, I remember debating with a friend about how it would be used. Would people use it as a tool to create content, or as an elaborate utensil, to consume it. I predicted that eventually the iPad would mainly be used to consume media. But more than a decade later, I see something else in the iPad that I could not have imagined then. There is a seductive quality to the device that makes it more than another tool or even a magical facilitator of my desires. It calls out to me, demands my attention. If it were a siren (and I think it may be), the refrain of its intoxicating song would be "it's OK to be alone with me."

To be near a screen, watching it or touching it or even staring at it over your shoulder from across a crowded restaurant, is to partially drop out of the stream of life as humans have living it for hundreds of thousands of years. No technology has disrupted the basic architecture of human social interactions more. The only other one that even comes close is the automobile.

I am no Luddite. I embrace new technology. I try to figure out how it can make my life more vibrant and meaningful. But increasingly, I find myself living in a techno-utopian dystopia where new tech is being engineered with addictive qualities and then force-fed to me. The problem is not the tech itself but the halo of neoliberal magical thinking that surrounds it, which is always pushing the idea that speed, efficiency, ease of access, and ease of use are ultimate goods.

But then I go to the record store, which is doing a booming business these days, and I see many young people thumbing through the racks of albums--actual albums, this 1960s-era tech that had been supposedly thrice bulldozed over by newer, better music technologies, the latest being "streaming" music. When viewed from the inside of our device-crazed digital "revolution," this new interest in vinyl feels like a counter-revolution of sorts, and maybe it is. To take a record off the shelf where you have carefully stored it, lovingly remove it from the sleeve, slot it into place, turn on the turntable, position the needle perfectly and then lower it to wait for that initial crackle--all of these steps a joyfully satisfying ritual of physicality that sets the table for an experience of music rather than the careless mainlining of it into your brain--this is what I crave in technology. I want tech in my life that enhances experience rather than pointlessly removing obstacles I never asked to be removed. I want the tech revolution that lights up the creative center of my brain rather than the one that assumes I would prefer to consume gigabytes of entertainment for hours on end.

If I want to light up the creative center of my brain, I will go upstairs, open my record player top, and choose a record. If I want to tune out, I will fire up my iPad.

Maybe it's not a time machine I seek, but a better class of machines.


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