I’ve often thought of taking after Charles Baudelaire, engaging solely in the art of flanerie: strolling through cities, spending hours drinking cafe au lait and reading newspapers at various rustic cafes.
But then I realized that Baudelaire never would have been able to Uber home, and he likely would have found himself taking refuge in the gutters of the Champs-Elysees. And if Mama Baudelaire couldn’t receive text message updates from her son, she probably would have sent the Parisian police on a rescue mission.
Let me tell you a couple of related stories.
One morning two weeks ago, I woke up to the noise emanating from my iPhone at 8 a.m. I opened my messages, beckoned by the little red bubble indicating I had 26 unread. Texted mom and the little sister in China, made plans for dinner later and locked down a meeting time for a class project.
I closed my messages and opened my email, terrified by the little red bubble indicating I had 117 unread. I scrolled around for a little, found six emails of note. I responded to them all, manually writing in “Sent from my iPhone” at the bottom so the recipients knew I was being pithy for a reason.
Ten minutes and several attempted snapchats later, I got out of bed.
Then, the very next day, I woke up to the sun peeking through my window shades at 10 a.m. I got out of bed.
I went downstairs, made myself some coffee and stared out at a beautiful, sunny, quintessentially California sky.
Two hours later, I ventured outside. I had the good fortune of being in Tahoe, so I went skiing. After that, I went out to dinner with my friends. We came back home, opened a couple of bottles of wine. We chatted for so long that I still have images of each of our faces from that setting — mental images.
Is one of these stories better than the other? We certainly romanticize the latter. Especially when Americans spend more than half of their leisure time staring at some sort of screen, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics study. And when 67 percent of cellphone owners find themselves checking their devices for messages and alerts even when they haven’t actually gone off, according to a recent Pew Research study.
The standard narrative conjures images of a mute society hopelessly seeking connection via virtual keystrokes and Tinder swipes. A generation that walks face down, soulless eyes illuminated only by the electronic glow from that ever-present screen.
So then, why not take after Baudelaire? Journalist Paul Miller did, unplugging himself from the Internet for a full year in an effort to break free “from a sense of ubiquitous connection and endless information.”
At the end of his yearlong journey, however, Miller yearned for the opportunity to get reconnected. Those initial months he spent free from “the pressures of the Internet” turned into a life characterized by crushing boredom and lethargy. His longing for connectedness had less to do with an addiction and more to do with a desire for modern normalcy.
Life tends to feel better as an “and” instead of an “or”.
The moments we spend managing notification overload provide the contrast required to enjoy a sunny afternoon by the lake with a pile of skipping stones. The days we spend without our phones remind us of the immense benefits they provide us when at our fingertips.
We should strive to match the times when we consume the world at a technologically warped speed with the times that we spend doing little more than being alive.
Neither of the above stories is better than the other, because the modern existence should consist of both.
Nish Budhraja is a contributor to the Weekender. Contact him at [email protected]