We should have ample spare time and the ability to enjoy life’s moment in the absence of the noise and yet, as many have noted, we increasingly seem to fear the quiet. A pause in a conversation – in person or through digital communication – causes us anxiety. A gap in activity draws us to look for a distraction to avoid a period of inactivity. (thank you smartphones and game consoles, and streaming services for saving us) But in doing so, we have normalized allowing, or rather requiring, noise to permeate our lives and it is drowning out the lives we would want to live if we were just conscious of its existence.
Post-Facebook Instagram was one source of noise that I’ve realized has an off button, and with which I still have an unsettled relationship. Having started with the platform when it was much more about sharing pictures and pushing the limits of phone-based photography, I used it to challenge myself to take pictures and share them more frequently. It did this, and I got myself hooked on the platform to the point that it started interfering with my interactions with family and friends. Several cycles of deleting and reinstalling the app led to my taking a long break from posting.
Fast forward to today, I have become much more sporadic and selective about posting, but was still enjoying interacting with my feed, searching for new people to follow, and again realizing that I was burning time. Now the feed is littered with advertisements and Insta-book’s recommendation engine seems to have gone off the rails despite my having tried to tell it to stop showing me certain types of content. It has become harder to find interesting content, but at the same time I was getting hooked by the thrill of the hunt every time I found something interesting. Again, I deleted the app.
I’m not meaning to get down on Instagram in particular. I still enjoy interacting with the community on the platform despite the increasingly flawed experience, but I’ve again realized that these stolen moments that apps increasingly trick us into don’t just waste time, they are less signal than noise in our lives.
The thing that prompted me to write this post was not, in face Instagram, but rather the number of bookmarks of articles and websites I’d generated, the downloaded to read later pdf files I’d tucked into folders on my computer, the mass of photographs I’d accumulated, and to a lesser extent all the books, articles and podcasts that I had read or listened to
All of these things promised some value when I first interacted with them. Possibly they were relevant to an interest I had at the time, quite possibly I knew of a specific future value proposition for the image or article, often they were curiosities for later serious consideration. In the end, all of these were, to some extent, noise.
I started listening to audio books and podcasts while walking or running, and have certainly pulled value out of these sorts of media. In some cases I’ve even annotated these with the intent to return to specific passages. However, my tendency with the torrent of all this content has been, “I’ll get back to this later.” Doing so, turns something of potential value into noise. Coming back to a cryptic annotation made during a run, I can sometimes return to the thought that prompted it, but other times, the anchor is gone and the intention behind the annotation has drifted away on the current of time. Background noise.
I’ve already noted that turning off some of the sources of noise is one way to go to find a quieter, more connected life. I think the more important lesson I’ve learned is that if our actions are not mindful, they are noise. If you are at a family event and scrolling through your social feed, the overall experience is noise. If you read or listen to a book without engaging and applying what you’ve learned it is noise. If you are taking a photograph, ‘just to remember the event,” it is noise.
It is important, if you’d like to turn down the noise and hear the song of life underneath, to be increasingly mindful of what you are doing and why you are doing it. Social media is designed to hook into subconscious desires and keep us scrolling for as long as possible. This provides value to them, not to you. Being mindful when watching a movie, listening to a podcast or reading a book allows you to decide, partway through, that it is not of value and leaving it behind.
At the same time, if something does spark with you and you can see value in it, make the most of it. Implement the suggestion you read in a book or heard on a podcast – extract the value of the time you just spent. Take time to be fully present at an event you attend to create a memory rather than a social media post, or if the event sucks, leave. By being mindful, you can reclaim the time that is being siphoned off by technology designed to siphon it off. By being mindful, those interactions that provide value will provide more and greater value if you put them into action. Turning down the noise lets the subtle song of life be heard and gives you a chance to add to it.