On Unplugging (At Least Sometimes)

Brisbane’s last walk-in video store is about to close. I can’t say I realised one was still open, but it’s not a bad time to pause and note the transience of an industry that started from nothing only 40 years ago, became a staple of suburban life, seemed irreplaceable as recently as the turn of the century and then skidded abruptly into the ditch of obsolescence.

It’ll be put down to streaming, but it’s more than that. It’s life. Yes, we stream, and we stream plenty (I’m sounding like someone with out-of-control rhinitis, but bear with me), but there’s more going on. We’re also spending time on YouTube and other infinite sources of online content, but there’s more to it than that too. It’s the arrival of a world of apps in our pockets, all on one convenient device. When the machines rise to take over, they will come in the shape of phones in our pockets, not red-eyed terminators with carnage on their minds (or cyber equivalent of minds).

I think my brain is different now because of my phone. And there’s some evidence to say I could be right.

Yes, I still watch drama on screen, the way I once did with videos and DVDs, though now it’s typically Netflix. Lots of us do. But how are we watching? Is it the way we did a decade ago? For may of us it’s not. Because our phones are always there. Apps ping to get our attention, and we respond. Something in the show we’re watching arouses our curiosity, and do we ponder it? Do we discuss it? No, we instagoogle, because we want to know now, and we can.

Are we thinking less? Have we stopped trying to remember things?

Our phones have become ‘memory partners’ and we devote less effort to remembering. We navigate around town by phone and, next time we go to the same place, we navigate there by phone again. We don’t work it out, and we don’t learn how to get there. We’ve never studied to be London cabbies, but we all have or own version of The Knowledge in our heads – tracks through our own cities, learned in pre-digital times. But phone navigation makes us less likely to learn more.

The average American checks their smartphone 80 times a day. If the average period of use each time was three minutes, that’d be four hours a day. See how quickly your day just got eaten? But we don’t realise it. People underestimate phone use by 50%.

But what if you’re growing up now, and this is the world you’ve arrived in? I’m a writer for several reasons, but a big one, surely, is that I was often allowed to be bored while I was young. I had time for my mind to wander, and hours to fill, and I developed the capacity to create stories. I was not merely a passive recipient of someone else’s stories on screen, or a game fiend, or a social media addict. I developed a partial case of each of those things after I picked up the fundamentals of storytelling. After I’d spent years in my own head. After I’d read a lot of books (on paper, with no beeping anywhere nearby).

A couple of years ago, I read a Nielsen survey that stuck with me. It looked at Australian reading habits, and its headline message was not to worry, we were reading more than ever. But dig only slightly deeper and it was clear that the pattern of reading had changed.

Of course we’re reading more. I’m totally into your Facebook posts, checking my curated newsfeed more than twenty times a day, googling every second thought that crosses my mind. (‘Burrito’? What’s the etymology of that? Could it really be ‘little burro’, ie, ‘little mule’?? Yes, yes it is!! Thank you Wikipedia. Another fabulous factoid absorbed. A burrito apparently looks like a mini version of a mule’s saddle bag.)

But back to Nielsen. When they looked at book reading, the figures were different. As I recall it, their survey five years earlier showed 55% of Australians reading at least one book per quarter, and the new survey showed this was down to under 51%. All things considered, they thought this wasn’t bad. Let’s put that another way. If we see their question as drawing a line between readers and non-readers (or lapsed readers), a million Australians shifted from the reading category to non-reading in just five years. And surely it’s only accelerating. An that was seen as not bad. Yay for books, holding on. Almost.

As an author, that’s a nightmare. I’m the video guy standing at my counter, wondering if I should shelve that Veep box-set my last customer brought in two days ago, or just save the effort and bin it. But, ultimately, it’s not about me.

Books mean something. Books do something to your brain. And this is not a point about the vessel the book comes in. There will be no segue to olde book smell here. Books can work across platforms, if you block out other inputs. It’s about the story that takes you deep, connects, makes you see and think. Watching even great TV drama (and there’s plenty of that at the moment), particularly watching it while farting around on your phone, doesn’t work your brain the same way. Reading is a more active process at a neurological level. And there’s evidence that deep reading of character-based fiction makes us better humans. Well, it makes us more empathic, because it puts us, however briefly, into the lives of others, and I’ll take that as betterment.

So, what now? I suggest a revolution in which we all drop large rocks on our phones and live like the olden days? No way. I love this century. I love my social media, my ready access to anything, my factoids. But a little balance maybe. Some screen time over a screen life.

So, here’s my plan:
– unplug often when I don’t need to be plugged in (read a book and put the phone in another room, watch awesome Netflix drama and put the phone in another room)
– wear a watch (checking the time on your phone is a slippery slope with an app orgy at the bottom of it, and we all know it)
– think before I google
– don’t live on my phone newsfeed unless I’m running a country* and really need to know all that stuff.
– add one more app to my phone to monitor my use and check my progress (Quality Time, since it’s Android – I think the Apple equivalent is Moment)

Yesterday afternoon I went on ABC Brisbane Afternoons to talk all this through with Katherine Feeney (who admitted to a multi-screening habit herself – like me she’s all over wikipedia during The Crown). I think I agreed to go back on some time to report on my progress. So, let’s see if I can get my brain back.

And how’s yours doing, by the way? Are you managing the balancing act better than I am?

*I will never be running a country, so therefore I should not live on my phone newsfeed.

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16 Responses to On Unplugging (At Least Sometimes)

  1. Ray, Lesley says:

    Brilliant piece Nick.

    From one book lover/devourer to another, Lesley
    (AKA the one who escorted you on the very weird date where you received the very strange stuffed bird!)

    Lesley Ray MBus CFRE FFIA
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    Mater Foundation
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  2. Rosemary Gall says:

    Very good article Nick. I have shared on FB, just to prove your point!

  3. nickearls says:

    Thanks Lesley. I’ll never forget that night. I saw the pigeon in my son’s room as recently as yesterday but, even without it still highly visible in my life, the night would still be memorable.

  4. Great post. I’ve been unplugged for a couple of months and it has been soooo good. Unfortunately, the real world includes FB and I’m being forced out of my self-imposed exile. I will be less consumed by it all now that I’ve been reminded of a different way of life. 🙂

    • nickearls says:

      I think ‘less consumed’ is the answer. That’s what I’m aiming for. Most of the benefits of the tech, while still remaining 90% human.

    • greenpete58 says:

      The “real world” doesn’t have to include FB, or fartphones. Only if you structure your world around them. I’ve never owned a fartphone, and I stopped FB nonsense several months ago. I still have my family and friends, I’m reading more books, and I’m LOVING it.

  5. Cherie says:

    Hot topic Nick. I’ve downloaded the app as suggested. I’m really trying to be more aware of how much of my time/life is spent on my phone, laptop and TV. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and ideas on this burdening problem of technology specifically social media.

  6. Lara Cain Gray says:

    What is it about The Crown?! I watched series one while Googling history AND talking to a friend on Facebook about what we were each Googling. I guess that’s weirdly social and educational, despite the obvious technological interventions. But yes, phone in another room is not a bad idea.

    • nickearls says:

      I think that’s the appropriate glass-half-full perspective on such Crown viewing. You interacted with a human and increased your knowledge base. That has to be good, right? Or does it insidiously lead to you eventually watching TV with only your buddies Google and Wikipedia for company (glass-half-empty slippery-slope argument)?

      Let me veer to the positive again. I think The Crown, through being a drama uncommonly deeply embedded in a well-documented factual world – though one not intimately known to most of us – natural leads the healthily curious person to look further.

      So, I’m going to say you and I are very normal, but a clever, interesting version of normal, and we just need to watch ourselves from time to time. Phone in another room on a semi-regular basis.

  7. Robin Storey says:

    It’s like our parents told us – moderation in all things. I, too, love this digital age and wouldn’t be without my smartphone, but the compulsion sneaks up on you. I get really annoyed when I find myself checking Facebook when I have a few minutes to spare – it seems so purposeless. I’ve been a lot happier since I’ve restricted myself to 30 minutes of social media a day. That’s all I need to keep up to date on the latest laughing baby videos.

  8. Willem van Opstal says:

    Hi Nick,

    I absolutely detest the so called: “Social Media”. I have renamed it: “ Anti-Social Media”, for exactly the reasons you describe. I can’t stand the addiction to mobiles; people staring at their bloody phone on trains, boats and planes, walking in the streets, while having dinner in restaurants. No apps for me, nor any of the anti-social shit. Thanks for your interesting blog. Books, i.e.’ real ones in which you have to turn pages and music are my life source. I can’t believe 51 % of Australians only read one book per quarter-no wonder there are so many flag flying racist bastards.

  9. I love the idea that you’re going to add another app to your phone to keep tabs on your app usage! And I’d like to say that things might improve if you decided to run the country!

    • nickearls says:

      I have an app that monitors irony, and it flicked briefly into the red zone with that move.

      And thanks for your vote. I’d like someone with my values, a way thicker skin and more energy to run the country. Or maybe Jacinda Ardern. We’ve already had an NZ Deputy PM…

  10. Kate says:

    Nick! Avid proponent of Moment right here and loving all the extra books I’ve read as a result. OMG have you had a chance to read Philip Pullman’s Daemon Voices (essays on storytelling) yet? It is glorious.

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