Shut Up and Listen!

One Man's Quest for Absolute Silence

To Survive Information Sickness, Board This Lifeboat

Teledysfunction imperils everyone in our culture, but a cure is available.

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Can’t separate yourself from your smartphone? Always checking for the next email? Do you keep the cell next to you at all times, even at night? Suffer a strange compulsion to read Psychology Today blogs for hours at a time? Feel weird if you’re not email-chatting, texting, tweeting, scanning texts and tweets, video-gaming, watching Youtube, Skyping, having phone sex, downloading an HBO series, listening to the radio?

Don’t relax. You’re suffering from Teledysfunction: the addiction to interconnective noise. As was demonstrated in the last post, this is a modern disease with tangible and often serious physical, emotional and psychological effects.

Modern, developed societies do not recognize the disease because the huge organizations that run our economy market online, sell smartphones, provide internet services, make video games, or are otherwise deeply invested in the wired economy; their operations are wired and 24/7; and they want their employees to be on call all the time and performing five different tasks at once. Multitasking, of course, is inefficient, but the big orgs don’t care, because most of the tasks assigned are stupid work: a form of data entry to begin with.

If employees are not working then the mega-organizations want them to be watching ads, buying smart-phones and video games, and contributing to profits as über-wired consumers.

Any rational person observing this state of affairs would see most of us as victims of a shipwreck: hapless passengers drowning in a storm of angst and useless data.

But there is a lifeboat, and it’s accessible to all of us. It’s a strong boat, easy to climb aboard, and sheltered from the storm.

The lifeboat is called switching off. It’s called, finding a balance between informational input and informational quiet that you can live with. It’s called, refusing to submit to info-tyranny, to data smog, to the socio-cultural message that tells us that if we’re not wired all the time to the latest devices then we must be out of it, passé, non-competitive: another outdated consumer item to be tossed on the slag-heap of history.

Here’s how to start. Take an hour out of your day—every day, or as close to every day as you can manage—and switch off everything in your life that can be switched off. Smart-phone, laptop, telephone, TV, MP3 player, radio. Find a quiet room to be alone in; or, find a room with family and friends who are willing to attempt the same exercise.

In this lifeboat you can do anything, as long as you are the one to do it, and as long as you don’t do it through a machine. Think, dream, talk to your family, cook meatloaf, rest, hug, play cards, make a matchstick model of the Empire State Building.

Go out and sit in a garden or park. Listen to the birds, the dogs, kids in the playground.

People who have tried this lifeboat find it very hard to stay aboard at first because of the addiction factor. Constantly soaking up information drugs part of our brain and also keeps us from focusing on longer-term questions and problems. Those longer-term questions often are terrifying: they are “life” questions such as, Am I happy? Are the people I love happy? Is there anyone left whom I love and who loves me back? Is hyper-speed data entry in a small cubicle what I really want to do till I retire?

But stick it out. Go aboard the lifeboat once a day for an hour or even a half hour. Think about things. You can fold in other activities, such as walking, running, exercise (but without the CNN feed in front of the treadmill). Calmer activities are better. I hesitate to recommend yoga or meditation because one of our cultural boxes consists of dropping resistance to techno-fascism into the “New Age” box along with “Eastern” practices such as yoga and meditation. But the truth is, any form of meditation or mindfulness is conducive to the kind of thinking teledysfunction suppresses.

What this does not mean is quitting your job, moving to Nepal, divorcing your hyper-wired wife, shunning friends who don’t agree with you, or doing anything particular with your life other than shutting off your own teledysfunction for a few hours a week.

Other forms of lifeboat will be discussed in forthcoming posts.

George Michelsen Foy, a novelist and journalist, teaches creative writing at NYU. His latest book, Zero Decibels: The Quest for Silence, is published by Scribner.

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