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This article was published on July 19, 2013

Relaxation in the Age of Beautiful Noise

Relaxation in the Age of Beautiful Noise
Alex Wilhelm
Story by

Alex Wilhelm

Alex Wilhelm is a San Francisco-based writer. You can find Alex on Twitter, and on Facebook. You can reach Alex via email at [email protected] Alex Wilhelm is a San Francisco-based writer. You can find Alex on Twitter, and on Facebook. You can reach Alex via email at [email protected]

They took away our phones, man.

My colleague Ken Yeung and I were attending a pre-screening of the just-released Disney movie ‘The Lone Ranger,’ and the staff were fanatical about it not being recorded. Phones were collected, tagged, and their owner given a small ticket. Your backpack wasn’t going in either.

It’s amazing how empty your pocket feels when its usual inhabitant takes a leave of absence.

Filing into the theater, Ken and I sat next to a few friends from the area, and started the usual course of bullshit, hyperbole and catching up that precedes a main event. What was unusual however was the level of engagement. We couldn’t take breaks from the conversation as we waited for the film to start to check email, tweet, or even see what time it was as we wondered if the film was starting late.

We didn’t have a watch, however we had among us two Nike FuelBands, which it turns out have a clock function. The movie was late.

The lack of Twitter for us obsessive techs was perhaps the most irksome loss. You couldn’t tweet a particularly funny joke, or even know what the hell was going on in the world. How is Egypt? Did that Apple thing happen? What’s the latest on immigration reform?

Someone suggested that we write down the things we wanted to tweet later on paper, so we wouldn’t lose the thought. We didn’t have paper, and it was a fantastically silly idea to begin with. The lights went down, as did our collective ability to absorb information and stay connected to the world.

The film wasn’t that good.

Our dependence on digital information and technological gadgetry is chronic. During dinner. During movies. During sex: what was that ping? Focus!

As a society we have become glued to our screens. We are creating whole chapters of new etiquette to deal with the simple fact that we are increasingly ignoring each other in the physical sense to steep ourselves in pixelated representations of the very people we claim to love. Alienation by social update and ambiguous text.

This begs a simple question, with our increasingly quick digital streams of information, is it possible for us to functionally relax? Can we stop being frenetic long enough to recall what it was like to be bored? Do we want that?

The trend of second and third screens is an example of this. Who watches television with one other screen in their hand? Who does it with their smartphone and tablet — the advertiser and content producer want to know. What about just watching the damn show and focusing?

It’s not hard to draw an arc to our consumption of media. It started with families crowded around the radio to hear programs as a group. Later, we figured out how to bring film into our houses. That was great until we moved to cable, greatly expanding the variety of what we could consume. Computers went mobile and became indispensable. Phones went mobile, became ubiquitous, and now sport quad core processors and enough juice to keep your laptop connected for hours. And now tablets have become a required digital assistant.

We’re sitting under a shower of information as someone turns up the pressure. You don’t notice the increasing velocity, but if you observe two different points in time the delta is measurable.

We seem to love it. Smartphones are no longer a luxury, but a necessity. A new line item in every household. A new rule for the dinner table: put that phone away.

Dates and social events are slipping under the strain of data addiction. A new game explores the issue: at the start of dinner, all guests place their phones in a neat stack. The first person to remove their phone to check its status and lights and noises pays for the entire meal. How badly do you need it?

What we now have is the ability to be stimulated at all times in any way of our choosing, in either a social or impersonal manner. The static in our digital noise is slowly seeping through to our physical lives, blurring the line between attention and distraction.

But I just need to check that email, you think. Or send that tweet. Or read that OkCupid message you just heard about via push notification from the OkCupid app as you were standing in line trying to order coffee and Instagram the hot barista while waiting for a call so you could get an Uber and get to work without having to really look up more than twice. I understand. I’m there too.

There have always been people who want to take a slower pace through life, and those that want the opposite. The real question is that as we accelerate all our lives, is there much distinction left?

Boredom, I would argue, is a key component of relaxation. Component to functional relaxation is the ability to rest your mind until it is slack, which the resting state of boredom.

This is why people who need vacation so often seek out places where they can lay, do nothing, and often drink heavily. They want to let their mental faculty rest, slipping into a bored state so that they can recharge. Baths have this effect, or at least can, if you don’t bring two books a phone and stress with you. There is an art to relaxing.

Do we want to relax? It’s a silly question, you might think, of course we do. I do! You do! We all do! Who hates to relax?

But how do you unwind. How do find that peace so lacking from our daily, modern digitally-enhanced lives? Perhaps you watch Netflix in bed, snuggled up all warm and ready to disconnect. But where is your phone. Right there? Well that’s two screens at once. That doesn’t count.

Simple, you might say, beers with the crew! We’ll get together and relax as a troupe! It’ll be like college!

But once you get to the bar, who is paying full attention for more than five minutes at a time? No one. Instagram is probably more popular than any single person in the room.

I think that we love it, and despite our protests that we are in control of our addiction, we aren’t.

I can’t help myself, or at least not completely. I broke several times to wander off and crack jokes on Twitter. It’s part of my mental state, and I don’t think that I want to change.

Why? Our lives are simply richer when they have more in them. More what? More thought, information, smiles, and everything else that we do digitally.

The cost is that if we fail to balance at least partially we risk the complete subsumption of our physical lives into our electronic dance. That’s something that we must avoid.

Perhaps we can find a place between utter obsession, and the ability to focus on others when we are with them.

Leave your phone in your car the next time you meet a friend for lunch. Turn off TweetDeck. Don’t take a single photo all weekend. See if you can.

But the curve of our data consumption as a species has only ever moved in a single direction, and I do not see that changing. Boredom? Relaxation? Perhaps we’ve finally found a partial solution for both.


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