Keep the ‘Doing’ in Doing Things

Is it possible to reclaim a sense of unbroken time?

In our digital age, “putting a record on” has become almost completely divorced from any physical action. Image Credit: Kinga Krzeminska/Getty Images

I was reading the replies to a question on Twitter once: something like, “What do you miss about being a kid?” And one striking answer was (paraphrasing), “Having a long, unbroken experience of time.” It was a commentary on the ubiquity of the internet and particularly the smartphone—how it alters your perception of time by constantly pinging you, ever-present to distract you or to interrupt a conversation with a Google search. This person missed performing singular tasks, such as simply going for a walk or reading a book or playing a video game, and being absolutely certain that nothing else would intrude, save a genuine emergency.

I got a smartphone late—only when I went off to grad school—and in the beginning I didn’t use it much. So I was able to retain some of those experiences longer than a lot of people my age. But once something is an option, it’s never the same again. Choosing to turn off the phone or put it on silent and hide it in a drawer is not the same thing as simply not having it.

This is where I think libertarianism misses something real about human nature: Having a choice alters the nature of the thing. Let’s say, as I argue here, that we should seriously make an effort to reduce our connectivity and our mental reliance on digital devices. Many would answer, “Well, then do it.” But it isn’t really possible to return to a world with an unbroken, deep experience of time. It is only possible to choose to return to it here and there, always struggling against the weight of the prevailing default state and of your own acculturation to it. You can’t be Amish alone.

Slow Tech vs. Smartphones

That struggle, nonetheless, is something I try to engage in. I remember that old, slow perception of time wistfully. Waiting a month for the homeschool group to meet; waiting a week to rent a video game at Blockbuster; reading a book and reaching that point where you feel like you’re really in the author’s fictional world. Having to do something to do something: actually go to the store, actually go find the VHS tape, actually pick up the phone. I almost marvel at my focus and attention span in those days, to the extent that I can still recall it. I marvel at my patience. We didn’t miss not having a screen to check nervously every five minutes, and we didn’t know we wanted it.

A couple of years ago, I bought a Sony cassette recorder—the same model I had once owned and sadly sold off—and opened up a blank tape I’d found in a thrift store. Like I used to do as a kid—back then, with a gargantuan silver boombox my dad had picked up in the early ’90s—I just played around with it. That feeling of being deeply absorbed in something unimportant was so familiar to me, yet nearly forgotten. The time passes quickly, but in a very engaged, alive way. It is striking to think that this was once normal.

When the tape is recorded, the only way to play it back (at least on the legacy technology) is to play it the way it was recorded. Even fast-forward and rewind are tactile, physical processes. The process and the means by which it is carried out are connected, in such a way that anybody can understand what is happening. And without that process, its contents are closed off. You have to actually do the thing.

A CD player can skip ahead by track, which attenuates that connection. A digital file can simply be dragged from point to point with a mouse, severing it completely. Amazon Alexa playing a song at your command? A few swipes of the finger ordering a pizza or calling up pornography or calling your mom? The connection between action and result is almost obliterated.

It’s hard to put all this into words—though, as you can see, I’ve tried—but there is a state of mental being anyone my age can still dimly recall that the smartphone, not only by its use but merely by its presence, annihilates.

It is disturbing how easily and half-consciously one can make time seem to pass by staring at a smartphone and doing nothing in particular: nervously flitting from email to Slack to one browser to another browser to work to social media, doing a lot of fast-paced nothing, as if the internet itself is a sort of nervous, poorly focused, disembodied intelligence. Which—the only difference being our bodies—is what it seems to turn us into. It takes particular effort now to be who we once were unselfconsciously; to become engaged in something slow, something that still demands you do the thing. But maybe that’s what we need to do now more than ever.

Benefits of Boundaries

In the pre-digital and especially pre-smartphone era, there was a certain intended or imposed order in the way we consumed stuff: the order of songs on a record or tape, the order of levels in a video game (okay, that’s digital, but not in the colloquial sense). If you wanted the songs in your own order, you had to cut your own mixtape. If you wanted to play the video game, you had to find the cartridge, blow the contacts and boot it up. There was no internet and no pocket computer to call up anything you could imagine. There was an unselfconscious ritual in all this that was not any less real or formative for being unselfconscious. Friction, borders, guardrails, limits are ways of thinking of it. Those are not always bad things.

One reason why I appreciate Catholicism so deeply is its ritualism and physicality. You could sum it up, putting aside its particular theological content, like this: You have to actually do the thing. Protestants, I think, would say that Jesus already did the thing. But at the end of the day, the idea that you have to actually go to Mass, actually step inside that confessional, actually observe Lenten fasts and Advent simplicity? It’s comforting. There’s no shortcut to any of it. Do Catholics fail all the time to live it out? Of course. But in some ways, the sin isn’t committing the sin, but thinking you’re not committing it—not in crossing the border, but in thinking there shouldn’t be one. It is striking how much Catholicism resembles the pre-internet world: how analog it all is.

Recently my wife and I visited Montreal’s famous Notre Dame basilica. After we paid a fee to enter the church as tourists (Mass is free, but no wandering or photography is permitted then) we saw a virtual candle rack: Pay with a credit card, or even a smartphone app, and watch the electronic “candle” light up for a pre-ordained number of minutes. This bothered me more than the entry fee—this notion that the ritual and physicality of the thing are not integral to it but optional. Can you light a candle in a metaphysical sense—or any sense—without lighting a candle? Is it like some ersatz version of transubstantiation, where the form of the act is separable from its substance? Or are you doing something different—whatever that thing may be?

Likewise, can you “videotape” something, or “dial a number,” or “put on a record” without actually doing those things? Can you read a book or take a walk or focus, when the landscape in which those activities take place is altered by constant connectivity, and the expectation of it? The digital, smartphone era has perhaps changed not only the form, but also the substance, of almost everything we do.

This is how I think about the inherent “ritual” or tactile element of putting on a record or typing something out on a typewriter or other “analog” activities that have become sort of trendy these days, often for aesthetic reasons. I think their appeal is much, much deeper, even if most of us only sense it through a glass darkly.

The smartphone, and digital life broadly, are about taking down barriers and smoothing out frictions; about plucking the thingness out of things; about taking the doing out of doing things. Its logical, though perhaps not actual, endpoint—via a thankfully still-fictional brain-implant chip—is to make it literally so that you don’t have to do anything to do anything. Your mere thought shall be a command.

That would be progress, in a raw technological sense; certainly, it would be novelty, and it might even have some usefulness. But it would deny our embodiedness, which is to say, our humanity. You really can’t “be Amish” alone, and maybe you don’t need to be. But you can always try.


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