I’ve been thinking all week about external validation, beyond the likes and blog comments and more into (what I used to believe was) my non-digital life. Most days I struggle to walk away from my keyboard. After all, that’s where my livelihood (such as it currently is) resides—writing, school, job applications. To counteract all of this screen time, I’ve been trying to push away and spend at least an hour each day running. I was on the massage table the other day, telling my massage therapist about my last blog, recounting for her how I thought that running so much these past two months had significantly calmed my annoying physical symptoms of the past year. I told her how good it was for me to spend that hour each day away from the computer screen and out of my head. Then I mentioned in that offhanded manner that so often carries the weight of truth that I run with my iPhone because my phone is where my Nike app lives along with my running music and my Fitbit app.
“So, you’re not really getting away from the external validation,” she noted.
“I don’t answer the phone and I don’t check my blog stats when I run,” I said, a little miffed, before adding, “Usually.” Slowly I began to see her point.
As I run through the miles, my iPhone via the Nike app, tells me how far I’ve run and at what pace. My Fitbit vibrates when I hit 10,000 steps for the day (generally by the time I’m done with my daily run). I listen to a playlist of music and when Florence and the Machine comes on with Dog Days, I know that I’m nearing the two mile mark and that about 20 minutes—give or take half a minute—have gone by. I know then I have about 30 minutes left. I know the first of the Lady Gaga songs come on around mile four, and I know that if I’m still running when The Band starts playing that I’m closing in on mile five. I know if I’m running better than I did the day before. Hell, I even know if I’m running better (or worse) than the average of my last seven runs. On good days when I’ve finished running and before I stretch, I’ll even post my run results to Facebook with a comment along the lines of “nailed it bitches!”
“What would happen if you ran without your phone?” the massage therapist asked me and then answered her own question. “You’d be able to hear the birds.”
“I’d just hear myself huffing and wheezing,” I countered. “And I’d lose miles. My averages would plummet.” As soon as I uttered those words I knew I had a problem, or, in the parlance of the mindful and aware, I knew I had something I might want to pay attention to, something to look at.
She laughed when I said I’d lose miles. Absurd, right? Of course I wouldn’t be losing the miles—my body, my health would still benefit, clearly. But would I be able to tolerate not documenting my progress? Would I be able to derive the same pleasure from running if I couldn’t compare today’s run with yesterday’s? And how would it be to run without music? Would I be faster or slower? Could I stand to listen to just my own heavy breathing? I’m not sure I can. I’m not even sure if I want to, but I’m interested in taking a closer look at the whys of the situation. I’m interested in noticing.
I’m interested in noticing because when I pay attention, I can begin to make more conscious choices about this one life I’ve been allotted. On the surface these choices seem trivial: whether I run with or without music, with or without digital feedback on my performance, with or without compiling and parsing each mile. But are they really insignificant or are they indicative of a larger problem? Even as I type this piece I can’t refrain from flipping back to the Internet, to Facebook, to my email. I cannot focus just on this bit of writing for any sustained period. I don’t know if my monkey mind is getting worse or I’m just noticing it more, but I’m beginning to worry that I’m not paying close enough attention in other areas of my life, that being easily distracted could be taking a toll on my relationship and my career (or lack thereof), on my desire to be a writer. Is this inability to focus on just one thing at a time without soliciting feedback and validation getting in my way?
For one of the psychology classes I’m taking this quarter, I had to read about and then write a page and a half paper on BF Skinner—I had to pick out my favorite theory of his, write a paragraph on said theory and then find a related online source to write about that had to do with my favorite Skinner theory. I started this exercise thinking I wasn’t a big fan of Skinner—I think (or used to think) that behaviorism was reductionist and limiting. After all, behavior modification techniques did not work at all when I tried to use them on my kids. My kids could give a flying fuck if they got a gold star on a refrigerator chart. I came out of my active parenting years with the firm belief that nature will always triumph over nurture. But, a funny thing happened on the way to writing my Skinner paper—I started connecting the dots. Duh. I remembered a book I had purchased but only partially read a few years ago, Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. I looked Mr. Carr up on youtube and listened to him read from and discuss his book at the Harvard University bookstore.
If Carr is correct (and I do believe he is), the Internet really is changing the way our brains work. My brain has been changed to actually need to push the levers at Twitter and Facebook, to peck away at my email icon. All of this screen time is rewiring my grey matter, new neural pathways are being formed based on Skinner’s Operant Conditioning theory. I have been trained to push the levers just like the lab rats. Nike and Fitbit, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, WordPress, Google are delivering enough random little doses of oxytocin to keep me coming back for more.
Now that I have this awareness, what am I to do? Initially, I’ve decided to just be aware, to simply notice (is it obvious yet that I’m taking a mindfulness class?). When do I press the levers? What distracts me? Do I feel better or worse if I stop writing and check an empty inbox? What do those Facebook likes and new Twitter followers mean to me? Does my self worth rise and fall with my stats? Why? And maybe most importantly, am I engaged in meaningful and purposeful relationships outside of these places? Am I moving forward, toward my goals for the next year, the next five years?
This afternoon I thought briefly about leaving my phone and earbuds behind when I headed out for my run. After all, I knew the run from my front door to Boulevard Park and back again is just over five miles. I don’t need iTunes to mark my distance. But, I do know that I seem to be in a running groove right now that works for me. I am aware enough to know I don’t want to fix something that’s not broken. I’m getting fit. My pants are getting looser. My body feels great. I LIKE having Macklemore, JayZ, and Rhianna in my head. Screw the birds–S & M motivates me. Today I chose to run with the technology in place. Tomorrow I may decide differently. Tonight I will decide if I want to read a book or spend my time before sleep anxiously checking online stats. I’m leaning toward the book. I’ll let you know what actually happens.