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Where Has Time Gone: Reclaiming Our Attention and Time Amidst Media Bombardment

Image: Linh Tran (2020)

Have you ever felt your time slipping away at the end of the day? Or that you are losing grasp of valuable moments in life in exchange for ‘socialising’ on virtual platforms?

Having suffered from this digital-centric lifestyle, we often reminisce about a life without social media and desire the feeling of being present. We also want a change in lifestyle that does not forgo the benefits of digital technologies.

Cal Newport, a computer scientist at Georgetown University, offers a refreshing approach to escaping this cyclic digital consumption by becoming more conscious in technological usage: Digital Minimalism. By adopting the philosophy practiced by digital minimalists, we can positively integrate technology into our life and retain our autonomy.

It is undeniable that our time and attention is being rapidly extracted and commodified by digital conglomerates. We are all frequent customers of these companies’ products; thus, our growing dependence on technology is making us susceptible to its exploitation of our usage and consciousness.

Yet, we are voluntarily spending a sixth of our day solely seeking connections and entertainment on the Internet, accepting the numbing of our senses in return.

Overconsumption of digital media is an alarming and critical issue: users can get infatuated with the infinite façade of glamour on the Internet through their recurring eagerness to stay updated.

This is because the media industry is built on psychology, in which human behaviour’s are studied and manipulated to maximise the efficiency of technology’s design and functions. Seemingly, media platforms are constructed to lure us into interacting with their features as we pay them with our attention.

More significantly, our habitual use of social media, and digital technology in general, is rooted in the illusion of interaction manifested by social platforms. As social media is framed to be the enabler of convenient communication, we are encouraged to establish and maintain a social presence on the digital realm. The interactions which we are developing, however, do not nourish our relationships as strongly as the wealth of digital conglomerates.

Instead, while scrolling through status’ and images displaying utopian lifestyles, we are offered with a form of escapism appealing to our imaginary dreams. The monotonous practice of scrolling, liking and commenting perpetuates our ‘social presence’, making us dependent upon digital platform.

Are we aware of the ephemerality of digital experience? Do we leave it unacknowledged in return for the temporary satisfaction of staying updated?

A detrimental consequence of this cyclical consumption of media, might be the internalisation of our desire for materiality in the place of physical interactions and conversations with our loved ones. We are internally occupied with psychological contradictions. Newport calls this the ‘social media paradox’: since communication is mediated through platforms and devices, the intangibility creates an ambivalent sense of connection and loneliness, joy and sadness, excitement and anxiety that users would frequently experience.

The contradiction is further amplified through the excessive use of digital technology. When the phone is turned off and the liveliness of our online presence is diminished into a black screen, we see our reflection, our eyes strained from the blue light and our mind slowly returning to the material reality. The truth is we always crave for something more and beyond the mere online connection.

Then, how can we retrieve our consciousness, reclaim our time and find satisfaction that would sustain?

Since technology has become embedded and inseparable from our lives, rejecting it does not address and solve the problem of overconsumption. Newport’s philosophy of Digital Minimalism offers a lifestyle that reconstructs our relationship with technology to achieve greater value and satisfaction. The focus should be on minimising access.

The design of digital platforms has a sole purpose of increasing accessibility, easing and alluding us to consume unconsciously. For instance, unlike using Instagram on a smartphone, seeing the feed on a computer screen delivers an incomplete and disengaging experience. Therefore, we do not have to quit the service, but the convenience of its access. A simple approach to this change is to turn your phone into a single-use computer: identify the apps that are withdrawing your time and make an active decision to reduce or cut your usage. You will soon realise how the convenience is no longer retained on certain devices, and our automation as users is gradually recalibrated.

With the time saved from compulsive interaction, a balance lifestyle will be cultivated by neutralising digital consumption with analogous practices. Enrich the quality of your daily habits by being intentional in physical activities: converse during meal-time, notice your surroundings as you walk around (which is even better without your earphones), embark on a hobby you have been wanting to. Or simply, replace the time spent connecting and ‘interacting’ online with calling and having face-to-face conversations.

The subtle analogue cues in human interactions are what enhance our experience of talking to one another. As Sherry Turkle, a leading researcher on the subjective experience of technology, remarks:

‘Face-to-face conversation is the most human - and humanising - thing we do. Fully present to one another, we learn to listen. It’s where we develop the capacity for empathy. It’s where we experience joy of being heard, of being understood.’

When embracing the analogue aspects of our life, we will realise that the sheer glamour of the digital life is not completely worth our attention. Despite the alluring nature of digital technology, we can make the deliberate decision to change our lifestyle, building on healthy habits and routines that will sustainably improve the quality of our life and relationships.

Welcome the slower pace of living to feel your presence amongst the time coming instead of passing. Then, you will start noticing not only that you are reclaiming time, you are making it too.

For more insights check out:

Cal Newport, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, (2019)

Sherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, (2015)

Edited by Ellie Muir, Essays Editor