This was the response from my eighteen-year-old son when I asked him to leave his phone up in our hotel room while we made our way to breakfast on a recent trip. I was floored. Like many of their peers, both of my teenage boys have not known a world without connected screens and devices. While their physical bodies exist in this world, much of their lives are lived out in the digital world or what I like to think of as our “artificial realities”. The day before we ventured into our screenless breakfast, I had asked my eighteen-year-old son if he would be willing to share his screen time usage with me. For context, the data I was looking at was during a week where there was no school in session but it didn’t make the data any less alarming. My son was occupying just over eight hours a day on his mobile screen. Most of that time spent first on Snapchat, then Instagram with a dramatic decline in the remainder of the apps used.
When I asked him what prompted him to lean so heavily on these apps, his response was straightforward and direct.
“I do it when I’m bored”
I related because I’ve been there and to a certain extent still am. The power of our artificial realities is a strong one. We no longer have to walk down to the basement and power up our antiquated desktops while hunched over a screen — we’ve got the power of alternate universes, some of which we’ve created in our pockets, with us at all time. At the first sign of boredom or the need for “connectivity”, we can reach for our devices to administer the artificial dopamine hits that we’ve all become accustomed to. All the while we are ignoring the warning signs of how anxious and even depressed these alternate realities are making us. No matter how real they seem, they are still at best substitutes for the real thing, even when we are deriving real value from them. There’s a fine line between managing our alternate realities and being influenced, controlled and dependent on them.
I wanted to make some changes in my own behavior this year as I continue to keep this important issue with my sons an open conversation so I thought of a way I could easily remind myself how I can keep it real when I’m tempted by too much artificial. Maybe it can help you keep it R.E.A.L. as well.
Resist meaningless digital interactions
Engage in the real world
Anticipate triggers that lead to artificial behaviors
Live in the present
Resisting Meaningless Interactions
This is something I find myself doing more than I would like to admit. For me, it can be what I call falling down into the “scroll hole”. You open up a social platform of choice — doesn’t matter which one and you just start scrolling endlessly with no real objective or intent and before you know it, minutes and sometimes even hours can pass by and what do you have to show for it? At best maybe you’ve read a few good articles, but increasingly because of filter bubbles, you probably really haven’t expanded your perspective or worldview. At worst, you’ve just subjected yourself to the artificial realities that others want you to see — often not their true lives but their aspirational lives. And we often fall for the artificial and feel bad if our true lives don’t measure up to the artificial we’re exposing ourselves to every day. As I’ve stated before, I don’t think the answer is quitting social media, but I do think we’re going to have to re-train ourselves to take control of our artificial realities with purpose, intent, discipline, and design — all the opposite of meaningless.
Engaging In The Real World
We’re losing our ability to connect with real environments, real people, read body language and relate to the non-artificial constructs that are often times the opposite of the artificial universes we create, construct and customize to our liking. I recently read an article about a woman who rented a scooter (likely through one of those wonderful apps on her phone) and was photographed blissfully scooting through the streets with her oversize headphones on — likely streaming her favorite tunes from Spotify or Sound Cloud. The image could have almost been an advertisement for modern life with the exception of one thing… in that moment of urban mobility and digital connection, she had also been dragging her dog on the street for blocks. Her reaction upon picking up her dog — its paws and body bloodied from the trauma?
“Shit Happens Right”?
A disconnected response from a human being disengaged from the real, physical world. We have to become more vigilant in separating our physical realities from our artificial realities. When artificial realities bleed over into our physical worlds, we don’t only risk emotional disconnection but physical as well which has very real consequences. We need to look no further to the statistics around distracted driving to understand how high the stakes are here.
Everyone has different triggers that lead us to reflexively seek out our artificial reality of choice. It could be boredom, loneliness, a desire to be seen or heard or for some, anger and hate. If we are to manage our alternate realities before they manage us, we need to confront the things that lead to the kinds of meaningless behaviors that are sucking up our time or distracting us. For many of us, the act of waking up is a trigger itself as the need for artificial connection supersedes even the need for caffeine. I’m guilty of this and I suspect many of you reading may be as well. Triggers lead to habits and habits lead to patterns. Patterns are like designs or creations — they have shape and form and they aren’t easy to modify and change but it is very much possible as they aren’t set in stone. Anticipating our personal triggers puts us in a better position to modify the behaviors and patterns we seek to.
Living In The Present
This one sounds deceptively touchy-feely and vacuous but it’s actually dealing with the heart of the issues our artificial realities are creating for ourselves and society more broadly. We’re not living in the present when we have one foot in our physical reality and another in our artificial reality. We’re just not wired to co-exist in the two worlds at the same time and the artificial reality is much more forgiving of the parsed attention we give it. It is our physical relationships and realities where we self inflict damage that may be irreparable. As a society we tricked ourselves into believing that we’ve evolved from the detached father figure of the 50s with his nose buried in a newspaper, oblivious to the domestic world unfolding around him. But we’ve actually upgraded that dynamic to an epidemic of behavior where the norm is being half present in the real world while we stay “connected” to our artificial ones. We’re living in an era of weapons of “mass distraction” that interrupt the flow of our work, our conversations, our relationships and our ability to connect and truly live in the here and now vs. the artificial and always on.
There’s no shortage of concern over dynamics we find ourselves dealing with in the modern era. And while issues such as fake news and disinformation do in fact present one of the great societal threat of our time, we must also confront some of the foundational impulses that are intertwined with these important topics. Our desire to create and to an extent control our artificial realities existed before the era of social networks. It was formed in the early days of chat rooms, multiplayer video games and the iterations of virtual reality that continue to evolve but has yet to become mainstream. Yet like fake news, it is unlikely that a solution will emerge from the government, business or regulation. As the trajectory of artificial reality increases in velocity, speed, technical advancement, and mass adoption, the most potent answer will manifest in the form of self-regulation. And we’re in the early days of what this means for ourselves as individuals and society more broadly.