By Hwi Yong Shin
I have no idea how long it took for the brightness of my room to finally wake me up. Feeling lethargic and disoriented I turned my head to find my roommate’s bed, sheets crumpled and bereft of said roommate. I blinked. My roommate never wakes up before me. Never. As a force of discipline I have always taken it upon myself to start my bed sometime between 7:30 to 8:00 AM while he usually wakes up by 10:00 at earliest. I craned my neck to look at an old wall clock. It was 11:30. I blinked again. What happened? Why didn’t my alarm clock wake me up? Then I groaned. Today was the day I decided to do my “Day without Technology” assignment, where I was required to live the next 24 hours of my life without computers, phones and other communication devices. My ‘alarm clock’ was an electronic app inside a Samsung Galaxy III which was currently turned off inside my desk. Without it, I was unable to discern one of the most important dimensions of my life.
One of the most defining impacts of technology has been how it changed the human perception of time. With the invention of the smartphone and electronic communication devices, time has become almost universally accurate for everyone. Every minute, of every hour of every day is constantly measured. Consequentially, modern technology has also given us the power to fill small intervals of that time with entertainment or social activity.
Though of course, the accuracy of time alone cannot compel us to fill each and every waking second with digital interaction but rather it may be the seeming lack of it that does so. The advent of modern communication devices has allowed greater access to information than ever before. During the French Revolution it was said that a rumor could travel as fast as “a horses trot”. Today, information can travel at velocities comparable to the speed of light. Constantly bombarded with information on a daily basis, perhaps we are simply trying to cope with this overwhelmingly large amount of updates and tweets. For example, the day after the assignment, I turned on my phone to see that I had missed two calls, five texts and had roughly two and a half hours of YouTube videos to catch up on.
Thus throughout the entire day, I constantly found myself reaching for the empty pocket where I typically keep my smartphone. It occurred in instances, when I found myself idle for short periods of time, such as a 12 second elevator ride or waiting in line at a store. But what kind of information can we really absorb in those few seconds where we are waiting for the usual commodities in our lives? How can any sort of narrative be communicated in that short of a time? The answer is, it cannot.
This obsessive habit is the result of two phenomena that Douglas Rushkoff, author of the book “Present Shock”, calls Overwinding and Narrative Collapse. Overwinding refers to the impulse of the modern human to try to condense experiences that require large time-scales into shorter frames of time. Our new perception of time has made us impatient for a narrative, so much that we try to cram every second of our time with narrative through the use of phones, tablets and laptops. But it is a lost cause. Instead, our impatient yearning leads us to the second phenomenon of Narrative Collapse, the loss of overarching narratives replaced with a series of fragmented ‘stories’.
Instead of receiving the stories we unconsciously desire, we can instead only receive short disjointed pieces of information without knowing what to make of these partial narratives we call entertainment. For example, let us take theater. As an art form developed since the Classical period, Aristotle argued that the theatrical narrative leads to catharsis which in turn purges negative emotion through the theatrical experience. If this is indeed the case, then we ironically may have taken a step back in the development of entertainment. A spectator in Athens during 458 BC watching the tragedy “Oresteia” will have much more to gain from the experience than the modern spectator watching a panda sneeze on YouTube. The difference is the simple lack of narrative in the latter. In this context, the Collapse of Narrative that Woodruff has described now results in the loss of catharsis. In turn, the human inability to experience catharsis leads to an apathetic audience and even the appearance of the malcontent “Internet Troll”.
So what was I to gain after having realized this during my 24 hour fasting of technology? At the end of the day, technology is simply too useful of a tool to abandon or disregard. The merits and advantages that it offers have become a crucial part of our current lifestyle. However, that doesn’t mean we should find ourselves obligated towards it. After that my Day without Technology, I took it upon myself to simply not care. I did not have to watch for every Tweet or YouTube video in my Subscribers Box nor are they my primary sources of entertainment. Every now and then, I opt to pick up a book or simply go out and explore the city. My friends now complain I don’t answer their texts as well as I used to. I just tell them I no longer have the time.