The Numbing Agent

Life has a lot of boring and uncomfortable moments. Waiting in line, tossing and turning in bed at night, and random existential angst inevitably come around.

You can numb away these bits of awkwardness. Plop out your phone, check what’s happing on Twitter, look at selfies on Instagram. There’s never any need to be bored, nor have a minute of unstructured downtime. And if you do need an actual breather, there’s an app for that.

I’ve come to cherish snatches of boredom as essential for my well-being. The current science1 extols the bored, lazy and daydreamy state of the default mode network. It makes sense. Everything needs rest and the constant stimulation that being always connected brings is a supernormal stimulus. Getting a micro-sabbath is only part of the picture, though.

Awkward moments of anxiety are a vaccine against full-blown negative emotions. If I have to sit and wait for my food without the balm of Instagram, I have to deal with the annoyance of how long it’s taking. I have to figure out how to handle the random memory of a difficult conversation from the day before. None of this is life shattering, but it also can’t be ignored or suppressed. I deal with it. My “emotional immune system” trains itself on relatively innocuous viruses so it can handle real problems when they come along.

The numbing balm of connectivity is both preventing us from learning to deal with small and unavoidable anxieties while also stopping us from fixing things within our power to change. We put up with pointless and rambling Zoom meetings (always scheduled for precisely an hour), because we can numb the annoyance by browsing Facebook in the background. If we couldn’t actually do that, there would be enough collective dissatisfaction to force meetings to become brief and informative. For that matter, the de facto house arrest of millions of people also wouldn’t have been an option without a steady stream of Netflix, delivery apps and fear mongering media.

Further reading

It’s hard to pick two fundamentally different authors. That’s why I recommend reading both How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell and Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism.

Cal Newport offers an austere, almost monastic, vision. He’s pragmatic and functional: cut out everything and then only add in what brings you some genuine value.

Jenny Odell provides a more interesting read that meanders through philosophy, feels partly like a memoir and has a more realistic view of humanity. We can’t cut out everything, but being more engaged locally, trying to encounter the world in front of us and treating our phones as tools is a step in the right direction.

None of this is about running to the hills or being a 21st-century Luddite. I still continue to enjoy tinkering with my gadgets, love video calls with friends and relatives on the other side of the world, and putzing around on the indie web. But I can turn it off.

  1. I merely note this, as I’m sure it will be outdated sooner rather than later: Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime and Wikipedia: Default Mode Network