Away from the rectangles


Tune out, turn off, drop out. How tough do you find it to switch off from the myriad modes of communication, distraction, delight and infuriation that our magnificent modern world has to offer? Do you suffer from a terminal fear of missing out (FOMO)? Why do you think that might be?

My ever-eloquent friend Heather Bussing proffered a fantastic phrase for switching off from the world of 24/7 connectivity the other week:

“Time away from the rectangles.”

Heather and I were comparing notes on our respective experiences of disconnecting from the social media world (mine: an enforced week 100% offline following my recent house-move, due to my Internet provider-to-be messing up dates for the new broadband connection; Heather’s: a conscious and admirable decision on her part to “go out and play” more, prompting her to pose the ever-apt rhetorical question on play: “Why did grown ups stop?” Well, why indeed?).

And you know what? My week offline proved a real tonic. The world didn’t end. It seemed (but correct me if I’m wrong, please!) that I’d hardly missed out on anything. I was fully refreshed and raring to tweet again.

So why do we feel the fear of missing out? Why is there even sometimes guilt at the thought of disconnection from the eternally-connected world?

The noise, the babble, the twitter becomes addictive. We have the potential now for instantaneous connection to almost any event in the world. The levelling effect of social media means we might be only a few keystrokes/screen touches away from conversing with almost anyone, anywhere.

But this connectivity can also create feelings of distressing impotence, argues Stefan Stern in a great Guardian piece on the urge to disconnect that tends to rise up in August.

This particular August, there is no shortage of grim news out there in the world. The pace of further grim developments would only seem to be accelerating. The rectangles keep us fully up-to-date on the grimness. Stern says:

“This is a paradox of early 21st-century life. We seem to be better connected and better informed than ever before. And yet as individuals we can feel almost powerless to do anything about the impossibly difficult situations that are constantly viewable on our amazing array of gadgets.”

Stern thinks that right now, many of us are probably a lot more run down than we realise:

“Exhaustion, whether physical or emotional, is a natural consequence of the past few years of economic turbulence.”

He has a point. It might be time to consider some time away from the rectangles.

If you can’t afford the luxury of an extended break from connectivity, social media, and the world in general, my friend Raksha Khilosia suggests a short exercise you can try today:

“Try sitting in silence for 5-10 minutes a day, perhaps first thing in the morning. Shut out all of your thoughts, turn off all of your electronics and avoid having anyone else around you. Close your eyes and sit in silence. Once you manage to shut out the thoughts, you will make some amazing discoveries within your own mind and you will feel lighter and happier. Silence is golden as they say.”

We’ve all of us earnt a little time away from the rectangles, I think.

Don’t be afraid to switch off.

UPDATE 1 (Monday 11 August 2014): A continuum, not a constant
My friend from Texas, Christopher DeMers, has published a lovely new blog post, entitled Bliss, in which he muses on “the rhythms of life,” and observes that “there is a time to pull back” in all things.

Christopher’s post is about the pace of life in a vibrant college town while the students are away on their summer break, about the world of work, and indeed about life itself.

The following lines are as applicable to our relationship with social media as they are to the world (or, indeed, as they are to any aspect of our life in which we might need to seek balance):

“Work is a continuum not a constant. Recognize there is a time to pull back as well. Deliver that project after weeks of long hours and absent friends? Its time to reconnect with the people in your life and remind yourself what social means. Wrestle a tough assignment to the ground or repair that damaged customer relationship? Time to celebrate and leave the office early a few times doing some things just for you. […] There are times to push hard and times to pull back valuing the other aspects of our lives.”

This in turn puts me in John Lennon’s sharp words on what it means to “watch the wheels”:

“Watching the wheels? The whole universe is a wheel, right? Wheels go round and round. They’re my own wheels, mainly. But, you know, watching meself is like watching everybody else. And I watch meself through my child, too. Then, in a way, nothing is real, if you break the word down. As the Hindus or Buddhists say, it’s an illusion, meaning all matter is floating atoms, right? It’s Rashomon. We all see it, but the agreed-upon illusion is what we live in. And the hardest thing is facing yourself. It’s easier to shout ‘Revolution’ and ‘Power to the people’ than it is to look at yourself and try to find out what’s real inside you and what isn’t, when you’re pulling the wool over your own eyes. That’s the hardest one.”

When’s the last time you took the time to watch the wheels?

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