More Blank Spaces

I plugged Bishop, CA into my Google maps and pulled out of a Las Vegas Walmart parking lot. Two and a half hours later the navigation had me turning off 190 and onto a dirt road. The road passed through buildings of worn wood and dusty plastic chairs overlooking a Mojave-desert expanse. Darwin, the town sign read. Population “50 or so.”

Although I’ve driven to Bishop half a dozen times at this point—twice to move into seasonal rentals in the eastern Sierra towns of June Lake and Mammoth Lakes—I drove through Darwin, vaguely thinking, well, I don’t remember this. The thing is, though, I don’t remember much in general. At least not anymore. But more on that later.

For the time being, we were on a pot-holed riddled road, driving into canyons marred by abandoned mining endeavors and elements made harsh with the meeting of desert and mountains. The road narrowed to one lane and grew increasingly rocky.  

“I think Google maps is taking us on some super-secret shortcut,” I said to Jarred.

The countdown to Bishop dwindled to one mile and we were still on this road reminiscent of the canyon where the bicycle chase scene took place in Mad Max Fury Road. You’ve arrived at your destination, Google maps announced. The remains of a rusty car nestled into the grasses beyond the “road.” It was a good place, I figured, to bury a body. 

I tried and failed to turn around, my nerves on edge. Tail between my legs, I sat in the passenger seat and Jarred drove us back to Darwin.

Darwin. A fitting name. I, after all, had failed an evolution test. If I had looked even once at the map to examine the route I mindlessly followed, I would have kept driving on 190. Yet I put my mind into the machine. I had done so hundreds—thousands?—of times before. So why would I have any reason to question my now “instinctual” decision to use a computer over my own mental facilities?

Back on 190, safe from the imagined scavengers and serial killers lurking in the canyon walls, we laughed at my fallacy. It’s an understandable fallacy, and an especially relevant one for me at that moment since I had decided a week earlier to take a “digital detox” of sorts.

The decision began as a liminal awareness of an evolving addiction to my phone. Addiction may seem like a harsh word, as my relationship to my phone was, perhaps, socially “normal” and acceptable. Yet during the detox, I realized no other word could describe my largely unconscious phone habits.

I would be on Instagram, sucked into the rabbit hole of hyperlinks and hashtags, until I startled awake, realizing a half-hour had passed. Bored for a whole minute, I would pick up my phone and wonder what, exactly, I wanted from it. Surely a Google search for Keeshond Halloween costumes or a glance at the weather in climbing places hundreds of miles away would satiate my boredom for, well, five minutes.

I knew these media-consuming habits were potentially problematic, though I wasn’t entirely sure why or how. We know phone use can distract us from face-to-face interaction. We know social media can exaggerate loneliness, anxiety, and depression, while also negatively affecting self-image. We know these things. We talk about them, often.

The cultural changes wrought by the iPhone, Facebook, Instagram, and constant access to literally anything we’d like to look up happened seemingly overnight, (at least for those of us who grew up pre-Internet). We’re still struggling to understand how we’re reacting to the changes on physical, mental, emotional, and societal levels.

And while I didn’t understand, and many conversations took place over dinners and drinks in an attempt to better understand, I continued to engage with my phone. I had grown to trust it for all my needs: communication, developing my career, navigation, training for climbing, music, news, learning Spanish, waking up, and more.

I purchased my first computer-phone in 2015 when my eight-year-old flip phone finally gave up on me. This iPhone met an untimely death three days after I bought it. Drunk, I cannonballed into a swimming pool with it in my back pocket, thus earning one of my many Darwin awards.

When a rice bath failed to resurrect iPhone #1, I bought another and took care not to bring it within ten yards of any large body of water. And over the last four years the time I spend on my phone has been on a steady incline. I read less. If I find myself without anything to do, I pull my phone out and use these evolutionary miracles called thumbs to express basic human qualities: exploring wonder, seeking social belonging—learning and longing. 

On a professional level, I often read about the importance of building a “brand” as an author, and the need to create connections on social media, but the more I’ve tried to fabricate an online “image” for my creative work, the more I feel inauthentic doing so. To be a successful creative, it seems one must “play the game.” This game, though, often leaves me feeling disconnected from my core values.

So I was feeling these things, grappling with them, seeking a balance between my virtual experience and the real me, my real life, and the wrestling proved exhausting. Then, a couple weeks ago, I stood in line at FedEx, waiting to print off copies of my manuscript. A stand with gum, USB charges, and books faced me.

For once I wasn’t staring at my phone’s screen while waiting in line, so I saw a yellow book with the title, How to Break Up with Your Phone. I picked the book up and read the back cover. “It’s not you—it’s your phone.” Intrigued, I bought the book.

In the first few chapters, author Catherine Price lays out some unnerving research about the way phones are designed to be addictive. From the colors used to the little “hearts” and “thumbs up” gauging the popularity of one’s content, the phone itself and its apps create a dopamine loop. These designs borrow from the most habit-forming technology known: the slot machine.

I felt most unsettled, though, by the extent phone use affects memory. As I mentioned earlier, my memory is notoriously poor. I wrote it off as a genetic flaw. While this may be true to an extent, the amount of media I consumed is most likely the larger culprit.

When we fill our minds with information, our short-term memory becomes clogged. If our short-term memories are filled past capacity, less things filter through to be stored in our long-term memory. To grow old and have few memories because I was filling my short-term memory with disconnected images? The thought terrifies me.

The book also elaborated on the importance of having spaces in our day where the mind wanders freely, without images or captions or videos demanding its attention. These blank spaces offer rest for the brain. Like muscle repair, a resting mind fortifies connections, helping foster more creative and independent thought as well as deepening memory stores.

You may have known all these things already. I’m relaying my experiences and the things I learned from this book not to shame or lecture anyone, but to try and better understand this modern phenomenon shaping the world around and within us.

For a week I deleted apps from my phone and solely used it to (unsuccessfully) navigate places and keep in touch with a few people. The first three days or so I routinely picked it up and swiped to the home screen only to recall I wasn’t doing the phone thing. I’d then set it down and look around.

I remembered I used to do this looking around thing a lot back in the flip phone days. My mind wandered. A few important thoughts emerged in the blank spaces, including the realization my phone-use habits, I believe, were depriving me of the richness life, real life, has to offer.

After the vowed week came to an end, I re-downloaded the apps and opened them to discover I could easily slip back into the scrolling habits. The addictive technology is potent. “It’s not you,” Price emphasized, “it’s your phone.”

There are many things I enjoy about social media: seeing what my friends and peers are up to; sharing my own experiences and work. The advantages our phones offer are undeniable and perhaps not even advantages anymore, but necessities. Regardless, I’m still seeking a way to engage with the virtual world without letting its addictive qualities degrade the richness of reality.

I write this post with the intent of offering company to others on a similar journey of trying to create a healthier relationship to their phones. I recommend checking out Price’s book: it’s short and offers some strategies for re-routing habits formed by our phones’ addictive designs.  

Moving forward, I hope to create healthy boundaries with my phone use. In exchange, I’m inviting in more time for face-to-face connection, reading, and, maybe most importantly of all, more blank spaces for my brain to wander within.