19 Jan Rolling in the Deep
As a young adult, buying an album was such a sweet experience. I’d browse the shelves of my favorite music stores in Boston. Next, I’d head over to the tight cobblestone streets of the North End for a giant piece of pizza at Giorgio’s. Then, the entirety of my hour-long train ride home would be spent checking out the cover art, examining the liner notes, reading the lyrics, and occasionally admiring the colored vinyl before I even set it on my turntable. After that, it would usually be weeks before I made it back to the city to get something new, and in the meantime that album would get nearly continuous play. I took the whole thing in. I grew to love the songs that didn’t initially appeal to me. Sometimes my least favorite tracks eventually became my favorites.
But by the early 2000s, that all fell apart. I bought a subscription to Napster (this was after their lawsuit, when supposedly some of your money actually went to the artists) that allowed me unlimited downloads. Meanwhile, my friends began digitizing the live recordings they had made years earlier and I acquired hundreds of them. Suddenly, I had so much digital music I didn’t even know where to begin. I’d start playing an album and if it didn’t grab me right away, I’d just switch to something else. Why waste my time when there was so much I hadn’t even gotten to yet? Even with the albums I liked, I was less patient with songs I didn’t enjoy at first listen, and I’d often skip over them. Plus, I didn’t have the same appreciation for the art and lyrics because I rarely saw them.
Meanwhile, the music industry was keen to get in on this trend and in the span of a few years nearly all albums were being released for digital download on a per-song basis. No need for the patience to listen to the whole thing – you could now cherry pick your favorites based on 30 second snippets. I tell you, it ruined my relationship with recorded music. There was simply too much at once.
“Damn,” I said to myself one day. “I’ve become shallow.”
Luckily, the rest of the world was about to join me. Articles got shorter, videos got shorter, books got shorter, phone calls got shorter. Well, phone calls just disappeared. They take too much attention. If you can’t sum it up in a couple short texts you’re a narcissist. And nobody likes reassembling your long texts that come through in five out-of-order pieces. One good thing about phone calls, though, is that we can watch videos at the same time. But please, cat buffoonery video makers, try to give us the absolute money of your cat’s buffoonery in under 30 seconds. The other day I watched what was supposed to be a Best Of cat buffoonery compilation video, and there were like three seconds at the beginning of each clip where the cat wasn’t doing anything funny yet. I could have been texting during those three seconds if I knew that was going to happen! If cat buffoonery videos were on Yelp, someone should totally write a bad Yelp review about that one.
That’s not really the way we want to be, right? I’m hoping for a backlash.
I’ve written recently about what I call the Human Data Stream – the collective flow of multimedia information that rushes through our lives in the form of email, texts, videos, tweets, Skype, Facetime, photos, posts, television, and, every once in a while, an actual phone call. Over the past century or so, it’s become harder and harder to disengage from the stream. And the stream itself has gone from a little trickle to a surging river.
We demand a data stream with smaller, faster bites of information, and in return, the data stream makes us shallow. If you want to sift through a tremendous volume of information, you can only do so if you stay on the surface. Can you feel the way you ride on the surface, your energy staying up in your chest, shoulders, neck, and head, as you bounce from one thing to the next? Sometimes even when having fun, we’ve stopped dropping in.
Last week I wrote about resurrecting ritual for a number of purposes – foremost, the feeling of specialness it adds to our lives. This week, I recommend using ritual to achieve depth.
One of the reputed effects of our shift to short, text-based communications is the deterioration of our ability to interact in an authentic, spontaneous, unedited manner. Your homework assignment, if you choose to accept it, is this: Once a day, drop in.
Rather than skating on the surface, careening through a blizzard of thoughts while engaged in some task or communication, be in it completely. Consider having a good old fashioned phone conversation, during which you abstain from looking at screens, and instead give all your attention to the dear soul on the other end. Even if you can only manage to drop in for a single minute, this could be the richest minute of your day. But, if that’s the case – that a minute has become your max – notice this. We’ve given up something of great value. Luckily, in any moment we can take it back. Go deep.
Dr. Peter Borten