A year ago I decided on a new rule: no more Television, Netflix or Film and limited news. I have (imperfectly) applied it since and been delighted with the result but why? It has taken me a year to work to find it: Entertainment was my form of escapism from the real world. I mis-used some technology as an escape from my surroundings and a distraction from thinking, accepting and challenging who I was.
The impact of technology is often focused on our lives at work but it has transformed our lives at home. I am continuously amazed by the fact we have devices that magically turn our smelly clothes into a fresh and fruity fragrants; meticulously scrub off all the grubby glops from our dishes and sing to us whenever we want. The washing machine has arguably done more for women’s place in society than most legislation.
However, some recent technologies like computers have opened up huge computational power as well as fantastic time-wasting opportunities. The promised productivity boost never materialised and instead mainly provide entertainment, but at what cost?
The Attraction of Screens
Screens have a gravitational pull that I have always been susceptible to. During lectures, work and toilet breaks, my hand would impulsively reach for my phone to desperately search for some new notification like a junkie in search of a ‘technological’ hit. The pleasure was always fleeting. The television was no different, providing instant gratification and accelerating life forward by an hour (or two) but leaving me unsatisfied. Even reading the news was similar, I would scour the pages of BBC, NY Times or CyclingNews to devour any new and vaguely interesting article. I was searching for something but could not find it.
But so what? Just like with social media, screens enable us to engage with much more information and people than before, what is the problem?
Larger than your Life
When we engage with entertainment, we disengage from someone or something else. Often, it is those around us. At dinner tables bringing out a phone is commonplace and in elevators, it seems necessary – people are terrified of interacting with each other or even making eye contact. People disengage with the immediate world around in search for a more interesting one. Why speak to the person in front of you when you can chat to their more interesting version online? We use technology to learn about the lives of celebrities, follow their pursuits and watch their trials and tribulations. Beyonce can now become your friend. Why listen to local news when you can read global news and engage as a true global citizen? The small-town problems pale in the significance of matters of climate change and refugee crises. Fight for world justice!
This is primary America, one of freeways, jet flights, TV and movie spectaculars. People here go through their lives oblivious to what is immediately around them. The media has convinced them what is around them is unimportant. And that is why they are lonely. In secondary America, the towns, the countryside – hardly any people and hardly any loneliness. – Robert Pirsig in Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
The problem is that when (or if) you go offline, the big world of important global news, people and entertainment stops, and you are left with your small, unimportant and local world. Entertainment paints us to be important and part of a bigger world than our own. The reality is different, we are insignificant to everyone but those around us. The Economist just wrote a piece on the hit British show ‘Love Island’, writing “People like “Love Island” because it looks like a Britain in which most people live, and one that is not seen enough”. Nothing like trash television makes us forget better how pathetic we are but at the end of the day, we are left with our own reality. Similarly, the urgency of global news ignores the fact that we do not have access to a global platform but we do have a local one. Change starts small and local.
In this way, entertainment has contributed to the growing ‘loneliness epidemic’ where one can be surrounded by people and yet completely alone.
More worrying, we often use technology to disengage with ourselves. This is what made screens so attractive to me. Returning from work, I would justify TV by saying I need to ‘relax’. However, if that was my true intention, the best answer (for me) would be to have a nap, play some sport or meditate. I didn’t ‘want’ to relax, I wanted to watch TV to avoid something, and screen entertainment was the perfect way to do so. Everyone agrees trash television is trash, and yet people still watch it? During the entertainment, I could forget but only to lament afterwards having wasted the time and to be ashamed by my lack of self-discipline. I felt pathetic and this only added to my reluctance to spend an evening stuck with myself and without a screen. In this sense, it could be an addictive trap.
What was this ‘something’ that I avoided? It varied but it was always unsettling. Sometimes sadness, sometimes frustration and often just impatience. In essence, something I wanted to distract myself from. When I turned on the television, I turned off myself. As Louis C.K. says in this clip, “People are willing to risk taking a life, and ruining their own, ’cause they don’t want to be alone for a second.” A particularly pertinent comment given his behaviour.
When I implemented my ‘TV veto’, I found time for this self-reflection and quickly attributed these ills to the technology. The distraction seemed inherent to the technology, unlike books. I refined my thinking further: books forced engagement by requiring the reader to paint their own world, informed by the author, rather than the author paint it on the television. Further, you could pause a book to think unlike with TV. Entertainment was passive, a discussion (often in my head) was active.
The Nature of Technology
This logic was faulty, thought-provoking documentaries can be active and 50-shades of grey could be passive. I had misunderstood technology. I considered technology development as a force for good or evil in society when it is neither. Technology is neutral.
The discovery of fire, as a technology, enabled human geographic dispersal, cultural innovations, and changes to diet and behaviour. However, in the hands of a pyromaniac, it was catastrophic. Similarly, when Oppenheimer helped invent the Atomic Bomb, he introduced the technology that could lead to complete destruction (thanks to someone like Donald Trump) or peace through Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). It is us, the users, that determine its use for better or worse.
A Tentative Conclusion
Technology can act as both an enabler and a distractor and as we reach greater technology, we reach greater capacity for either. So I was the real culprit, the abuser of technology, and this prompted the veto to chain myself to reality. I am not opposed to technology, just my use of some of it for entertainment.
With limited self-discipline, I use the ‘StayFocused’ extension on Chrome to limit my youtube, BBC, NYTimes and cyclingnews to a cumulative 20 minutes a day (although incognito can be used!) and avoid any television or Netflix. For the phone, I chose ‘greyscale’ option which completely destroyed the attraction of the phone. Electronics are not allowed in my bedroom, preferring my trusty manul alarm clock, and f.lux removes the awakening blue light.
When I get the ‘itch’ for TV or my phone, I ask myself why I am ‘itching’ and instead spend my time sitting, thinking and observing. This can be painful and occasionally, I hope the day is shorter. But, on balance, I spend more time engaging with my surroundings and thinking, accepting and challenging who I am. I think I am better for it, others may think otherwise…
Is there any room for entertainment just for its own sake? Am I missing something important by avoiding it? Comment below!
 Hans Rosling TED talk on the Magic Washing Machine
 Tyler Cowen podcast with Ezra Klein on technological productivity impact
Relevant posts – Interested to hear more about my attempts at self-discipline and self-improvement or maybe how ‘finding myself’? Check out these pieces: Self-Discipline: keeping your worst-self in check, Self-Improvement: the pursuit of a better self, ‘I Found Myself Travelling’
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