A typical day for me starts out with me turning off the alarm on my smartphone and immediately taking the opportunity to check all my texts, instant messages, emails, status updates... you get the picture. Every like, every personal message, every post on my feed is a dopamine rush -- all the fun of interacting with friends without having to actually, you know, be anywhere near them.
That's how I start my day, and from there it doesn't get a lot better. Waiting for a bus -- check Facebook. Riding the bus up to campus -- I wonder what's on Reddit? Going to the beach -- time to send everyone I know a Snapchat!
I know I'm not alone in this. The vast majority of my generation is hooked up to a great big internet advertising machine, designed to keep us tethered to it as much as possible. It's like we each carry around our addiction every day in our pockets, our own little junkie kit. Android, iOS, Windows -- it's all the same, really; we're all hooked into our own little world of which we are the sole curator. I know it's a tired cliché at this point, but the truth is, we're so involved in "connecting" that we seem to neglect really connecting -- and while it's all digital and intangible, it has far-reaching, pervasive effects in the real world (that's the stuff you see when you put your phone away). Truth is, I think social media is ruining pretty much everything.
I don't remember it ever existing, but I'd like to believe that there was a time when people relished in open, civil discourse. A time when people discussed ideas with relish, and people on either side of the discussion, regardless of what it was about, treated each other with the respect we deserve as humans. I want to believe this is the case because I believe in the best part of human nature: our ability to band together as equals, regardless of our petty differences, united by the fact that we're all impossibly unlikely creatures, living together on this tiny little speck of dust in a sunbeam, surrounded by an inhospitable void that extends for eternity, and all we really have is each other.
You wouldn't know that we were capable of that if you only knew us through the internet, though. Vitriol pours forth from the internet like that elevator scene in The Shining. We all judge each other's self worth based on the tiny fractions of our personality that we show to the online world, and we shame each other over the most petty of perceived missteps. We feel we have the freedom to say the things we could never say in real life, because it feels safer behind a screen. We remove the people we disagree with from our online lives, as if ignoring them will make them go away - when really, all we're doing is saving ourselves from the important, painful, challenging task of questioning our beliefs, and admitting to ourselves our own wrongness. We're becoming worse people; less rounded, more self-righteous, less understanding, more angry. The worst part is, we're doing it to ourselves; Facebook and Twitter may have given us the tools, but in the crazy Lord of the Flies world we live in, they're just the island. Studies have shown definitively that increased time spent on social media is correlated with higher rates of depression, yet we still live an ever-increasing segment of our lives online. Each of us is becoming more and more responsible for our own faults, and less and less willing to change them.
But our social heroin addictions don't just feed our basest instincts -- they distracts us from our finest moments, too. I can't recount how many times I've gone to a concert and seen multitudes of people holding up their phones, shooting video to send to their friends. You're probably guilty of it yourself -- I certainly am. As if our lives are all so important that everyone else needs to see exactly how much fun we're having. Do we really need video and photographic evidence that we were there, at that moment in time? Aren't our own memories good enough? How can you say you saw something amazing if you only ever saw it through your phone camera? (No, yes, and you can't.) If there was one thing I would say to my entire generation, it would be this: stop worrying about documenting your life and start living in it.
On Valentines' Day several years ago, my (now ex) girlfriend and I had planned to watch the sunset on the cliffs of Santa Cruz, looking out over the ocean. As we were leaving my house, I stopped and turned to her. "Let's leave our phones here," I said, and we did. As we looked out over the sea at the sun dipping below the horizon, I contemplated the fragility of memory. We never really remember an event truthfully; our original memories are always colored by our mood at the time, and by what we want or expect to see. As time goes on, memories change, because all we ever remember of an event is the last time we remembered it. I thought of how romantic it might be to see a school of dolphins breaching in the distance, and now that image is part of my memory of that afternoon as well, though I know it never happened. I'm glad I didn't bring my phone with me that day. I was fully present in the place and the moment, in a way that I find increasingly difficult to achieve these days. So what if I don't have pictures? I have my memories, and that's all I need. I think we're all capable of choosing to disconnect, to live the way life should be lived. Maybe there's hope for us yet.