“As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.” ~Henry David Thoreau, “Economy,” Walden, 1854
Our time is our life.
Facebook, the leader in social media, reportedly consumes over eight billion minutes of time for its collected membership every single day. It is hard to imagine what that amount of time represents, so I recalculated it in terms of years—each and every day we give Facebook equates to more than 15,000 years of our collective human attention. Gaming statistics are equally disturbing, Angry Birds, one of the most popular web games of all time, has been downloaded 300 million times and is expected to hit one billion downloads. Every hour of every day, we collectively give this game 200 million minutes, or 16 years of our attention. While individually these statistics break down to 20 to 60 minutes, the equation for each of us is more complex than the math. We look to our Internet applications to fill us, to calm us, to entertain us, to connect us in a virtual world, but they somehow also leave us increasingly lonely.
Without waxing nostalgic about the days before our lives became dominated by our current technology diversions, it is worth speculating about what has been lost and replaced.
Before the mini screens, we watched television and went to movies. Prior to iPods, there were stereos and walk-men. Before posting a status online was imagined, people spent many more of their hours in face-to-face social situations watching, listening and sharing all the things we can now do on a hand-held screen. We were forced to connect in 3D because that was all there was. Work, both paid and unpaid, were contexts for relationships. We lived within a network of familiar faces that recognized us and shaped our daily routines.
Before the digital games, we played in real time, against real opponents who had a heartbeat. We planned our days around games that used our whole bodies and to which we applied our full attention. We moved real objects through space and time together. Our play had a natural rhythm with a beginning, middle and end. It was what we looked forward to on waking and became the stuff of our life memory. This kind of real play is fundamentally a different activity that truly connects, entertains and fills us, unlike the ambivalent and compulsive screen time today, which is often more a compulsion than a planned excursion. Today’s empty, time-sucking gaming does not hold a candle to the way we used to play with intention, because they are designed expressly to distract us from the real time events of our lives.
Technology and all of its bells and whistles has its place.
I have connected with people I haven’t seen in years on Facebook and met other interesting people in my field of work that I may likely have never known. I communicate with my high school student club members and I hear about birthdays. I play my sons and their friends on Words with Friends, which helps me keep my mind strong. I write and think out loud on my Apple devices. I would never argue for the disappearance of technology, but I do think we should begin considering using technology, rather than being controlled by it.
Because what is lost at the core of all the time consecrated to our various Internet addictions is the power of our attention. It is the single most significant aspect of our life force that is required for learning, for loving, for connecting to anyone or anything. Real relationships like real games are built first on our intention and are nourished by time. You can’t hurry a game or rush the development of a relationship; these threads of connection are sewn moment by moment every time we bring our whole attention to the person or activity in front of you. This is why “time stands still” when you are fully present to where you are and who you are with.
The time we have taken out of our real lives and offered up to the multibillion dollar Internet consortium of distraction is ours for the retrieval. Even sitting in silent reverie or re-learning the art of wondering will surprise you with a payback that another round of Angry Birds will never match. Recognize the golden potential of your attention as the vehicle to spending the most valuable resource you have in this life, your time. Choose wisely. Love someone in real time. It is worth at least a thousand years of Facebook time.
Editor: Lynn Hasselberger