I’ve been trying to multi-task for most of my life.
I’m working less during this quarantine, and commuting a lot less, and yet it still feels like I don't have enough time.
It’s not that I don’t love isolation. I still do.
I just used to be better at it.
Boredom used to be our default state.
Think of what a change we Gen-Xers have lived through. We were born into a landscape of media scarcity, desperate for something to do or to look at.
I remember the excitement of snow. It meant I could sit in front of the window and stare, and try to follow the erratic path of just one flake from the zenith to the ground.
I’d do this for hours.
A board game could be the world for an hour or two. The stakes always felt so high when we were young.
I also recall being very fond of repetitive crafts. Someone gave me one of those kits where you could weave potholders from nylon loops. I set myself the goal of making 20 in a day, ten for mom and ten for grandma. I breezed past it before bedtime. Later I graduated to other gender-inappropriate hobbies like rug hooking and cross stitch.
Dungeons and Dragons was a revelation. It was like reading, but wide-open. I’d spend entire weeks absorbing manuals and adventures and dreaming of a day when I’d have friends who would play them with me. (Friends did come later, thank goodness. My mother and sister never came willingly through my campaigns.)
Some Gen-Xers might have had cable TV. We had an antenna on the roof that picked up five channels. It was a moot consideration anyway; my stepfather had exclusive TV rights. He'd open his bottle of scotch with the news, sip his way through 60 Minutes, and pass out to wrestling. One night a week we watched Dukes of Hazard and Night Rider, so that was pretty special. We took in an occasional Muppet Show. (The colors!) But if there was anything else we kids wanted to watch, forget it. We could try going to mom for a TV override order but it always caused a bottle-smashing row. It just wasn’t worth it.
I didn’t mean to go on an Andy Rooney style “back in my day” rant here. I'm just trying to portray the empty media spaces we inhabited, growing up.
The way a cassette player in the bedroom meant you could listen to the same album over and over, until you knew each note well enough to fret over the tone distortion growing in the worn out tape. The way a new stuffed animal meant drama and consternation among the stable, since you had to work out everyone’s back-story and see how they’d get along. The way an Atari computer (no Commodore for us, the Atari 1200XL was on sale at Sears) could lead to a month of programming a text adventure in BASIC with hand-drawn charts of if-then statements and for-next loops. The way an old camera and a one-roll-of-film-a-week budget meant you’d spend hours setting up a single shot.
I would get into stuff back then, man. I would go deep.
The piano was another revelation. Playing the same notes for hours, frustration baiting you until suddenly they flowed of their own accord and you didn’t need the sheet music any more. (But fitting this in before 6:00 PM, when stepfather 2.0 came home and it was time for his TV. Cosby Show, Family Ties, Perfect Strangers… Some of the shows were alright.)
I moved out on my own. I got married. We lived for years without a TV, because I couldn’t stand the clatter of it and there was nothing on that The Wife wanted to watch either.
We lived out in Eastham, an especially sandy and remote corner of Cape Cod. We lived without a car and walked or rode our bikes three miles each way to work. Somehow I found the time to fill thousands of pages with fountain pen scribbling and typewritten ideas. Collected a big stack of rejection letters and a satisfying stack of clippings from a local weekly newspaper column. ($25 a month and a by-line. Nothing to scoff at really.) Kept up the piano for a while, as a hobby, then dropped it.
It was a lovely idyll but after a few years we realized we’d never be able to buy a house of our own working at tourist-trap bakeries and coffee shops.
So: regular jobs and a little ambition; a business and bankruptcy, a house and a second house and then a foreclosure. The usual bumpy road of life.
And somewhere along the line the digital world invaded our existence. Even ours.
I loved computers, even though I came to them fairly late. I loved the idea of having a website, a digital presence. MySpace, where you could use HTML to truly make it yours. And blogs. A page with my name on it.
Being frugal if not properly poor, we settled for dial-up until the mid 2000s. You’d write your text and your code, preview it locally on your browser, and then endure the screeching and scratching of that phone connection (28K baud was the best it ever managed) and then the work was out in the world, where anyone could read it. They could leave comments. We could have a conversation. Epistolary. Instant, and at the same time, somehow, slow.
Room to think, consider, respond. Open to everyone.
Images loaded by the centimeter, so text was king.
I think that was my favorite time in digital media. I was so comfortable with scarcity that words still felt precious. The idea of watching video at this rate was ludicrous, and that suited me just fine.
I'll always be uncomfortable with video.
Broadband changed things.
Net 2.0, with dynamic pages. Being always on. The convenience was exhilarating.
It hadn’t sunk in how cloying it was going to be. How overwhelming.
I did tend to hoard. I’d digitize my CDs and then borrow stacks from friends to digitize theirs too. I’d worry about backing things up before a hard drive failed. More stacks of writable plastic media! We never made great use of Napster because we were still on dial-up in those days but when torrents came along we had cable internet so the music started to pile up. Felt a bit guilty about it but we did buy tickets to see a lot of artists we’d never have heard of if we hadn’t downloaded their music.
Later I tossed the plastic even though there were gigs of stuff I never even listened to. Another situation rendered moot because now Spotify connects us to everything ever recorded.
I’m not complaining!
I’d have killed, in my younger days, to have something like YouTube where I could watch ten different performers taking on Chopin’s Etudes, Prokofiev’s Sonatas. Back when my piano teacher would hand me the sheet music for Bach’s Preludes & Fugues and say, “pick out which one you want to try.” As if I had some way of listening to them. “Right, like I’ve got the money to go to the mall and buy records.”
So what’s not to like? I can do anything now, with a few clicks. Listen to any song. Watch any movie. Play any video game. Learn about programming or graphic design or history. Read any book.
And it feels like, whatever I choose, I’m neglecting the rest.
So I do what gurus on their productivity blogs call “activity stacking.” I listen to a podcast while I go for a run. Take in some Ben Johnston on the train. Put on a movie while cooking dinner. Throw up some YouTuber on a second monitor just to have something on in the background while editing a post and simultaneously checking my phone for messages. Now there's something called Twitch. Thousands of channels of people just playing video games and chatting. Somehow it seems less invasive than TV dramas or the news. The world is full of smart and funny people doing clever things.
It occurs to me that for people only a bit younger, this is the only world they’ve ever known.
I miss long paragraphs.
We’re told to break our writing up into chunks, now. Don’t hit the reader with a wall of text. If you demand too much of your reader, they’re going to give up on you.
It’s true. I’ve seen people on the train thumbing through posts on their phones. Flick, flick, flick. Not even a second on a single one. The scroll is never ending. And the only words that matter are “upvote” and “like”.
One writer explained his strategy like this (I’ll paraphrase, because I can’t be fussed to track down who it was): “Expecting someone to read what you’ve written is asking a lot. They’ve probably got a lot of screens going around them. They might be watching the news while they read, or pornography. And they’re only one click away from playing a video game. Your job is to keep their eyes on your text and away from the porn.”
It’s good advice, I think.
Doesn’t mean I have to like it.
I don’t enjoy chopped up, spread out text. I don’t enjoy scrolling. I don’t want click-bait slide-show list-icles that force me through 40 pages of advertising-surrounded bites to deliver what was promised in the thumbnail.
I want to go down a nice dense page at my own pace, and look back up sometimes, and absorb and remember.
This gets to the heart of my discomfort with video. It’s all chatter and no slow-down. And at the same time you can glance at the bottom of the window and see how many minutes of your life it’ll drain away. Then there are so many other videos to click on. So I watch at double speed. Or think, enough of this; it's time for that.
So that writer is right. Whenever I look at the same thing for too long, the only thing I can think about is all the stuff I’m missing. The pressure to click away is so strong. It’s impossible to settle down.
But. Today I sat down at the piano, on a whim, and two hours went by, just like that. The sun had moved and I had a bit more music in my fingers. Like, maybe two minutes of music. It felt like I’d lost a good chunk of the day, like I’d been robbed. Two hours for two minutes.
But then I thought, no, this is right. This is what concentration is.
You can’t play a video game while you’re practicing the piano. Or watch porn. Or listen to the news.
So maybe I’ve still got it. The power to think. To do just one thing, if only for a little while.
I’m not going to espouse any kind of "digital detox."
I’m not going back to dial-up or leaving my phone in the bathroom or deleting Facebook or suggesting anyone else do likewise.
But I think I’m going to be a little more conscious of how I’m using my time, even when this quarantine ends. No more multi-monitor setups. Maybe it’s okay to just sit and listen to an album for an hour, and not be working on something else at the same time. Or smoke a pipe and just stare out the window. Wash the dishes without the stereo going. Fold laundry without putting something on the TV (or on Twitch).
It takes me so long to decide what to listen to on my drive to work that I’ve taken to playing nothing at all. Amazing what you can think about in an hour, when there’s nothing on the radio.
I’ve missed boredom.
And quiet. And the chance to have a thought that is my own.
There’s a reason the digital space is called “the attention economy.” Our thoughts are worth something. Eyeballs multiplied by time. The ultimate limited resource. And for some reason we’ve been shoveling it out like it’s our responsibility to make more.
I’m grateful to this quarantine for giving me the chance to take some of it back.
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