In a book on writing, Stephen King says the only “office” feature a writer needs to begin writing is a door to close – or at least some way to wall out interruptions and noise.
Physical doors are easy enough to close, but technology has created different kinds of doors, and they are getting harder and harder for me to keep shut.
When I settle down to write, my Android phone will chirp, chime or buzz me out of my creative zone every time I get a new new email, Twitter follow, or a Facebook message informing me that someone on has “tagged” me. If I want to focus, I have to shut a “door.” That is, I have to mute my phone.
For a while, muting my phone worked well, creating a temporary paradise of solitude for writing. Normally, when I write, I am extremely focused. I can write for many hours without ever being tempted to browse online or do other things.
But a curse on my new phone called “lock screen notifications” began to change all that. On my old phone I had been able, if I wanted to know what was going on in the social media world, to just scroll down. That meant I could choose to see information when I was mentally prepared to see and respond to it.
But lock screen notifications meant that if I turned on my phone to play music while writing, I was instantly bombarded with social media information in the form of boxes I could either “click” on or swipe away.
While looking at them, I would forget that I had only turned on my phone so that I could play relaxing music while writing. They were like unopened boxes with mysterious objects inside. They said, “Hey, lookie, you have a new email. What could it be? A book contract? A genie granting you three wishes? A press of your finger, and you can know.”
Before long I would find myself stumbling around on my Twitter or Facebook page in a daze, wondering what I was doing there. A half hour later I would remember that my original purpose had been to write.
Having a social media summary of tweets, “likes,” or direct messages appear as soon as I turn on an electronic device sounds harmless enough. But the visual splatter was devastating to my concentration. A couple of days ago I did research to find out how to switch off lock screen notifications, and my mind has been clearer ever since.
I want to know what is going on in the social media world, but in my own time. In snail mail terms, it is the difference between taking a morning stroll to the mailbox to check the mail and having letters hurled at my face before I even step outside the door.
Despite my complaints, I have never been much of a Luddite. It is only recently that I have found myself sometimes wanting to escape technology. Despite the many benefits of the devices I use, they have gained more control over my life than I think they should have.
Take Facebook. Because of an update I desperately wished I had never consented to, Facebook seized control of my message system so that if I was tagged or a random person made a comment, I would get a visually urgent red alert on my message app, forcing me to click on a link that routed me to Facebook. If I failed to comply, the nagging red alert icon would remained leeched to my message app. I would sometimes get so many junk notifications that the clean-up was time-consuming drudgery.
So last weekend I deleted my Facebook app from my phone. I wish I had done it long ago. The visual “silence” has been wonderful. The internet used to grant me the exciting ability to access information immediately while asking for little in return. But the information is no longer content to let me find it; it is now coming to me whether I ask for it or not. It never knocks or asks for permission to enter, which makes me think I need more than a door to close. I need deadbolt locks and a pit bull.
The more my mental space is invaded, the more I yearn for simplicity. I long to read awkwardly heavy hardback books; take long thoughtful lakeside walks; read poetry that defies immediate comprehension, and follow the advice of Ray Bradbury, “Stuff your eyes with wonder…See the world.”
By the way, Ray Bradbury wrote an almost prophetic short story called “The Murderer,” where, instead of smart phones, everyone wears radio wrist watches that blare constant music and serve as telephones so that interruptions are constant and no one ever has a moment alone with their thoughts. It would be missing the point to assume that the problem with this dystopia is too much literal noise. Noise can be visual if it interrupts thoughts and shatters concentration.
Lock screen notifications seem to be a symptom of a bigger problem: a culture that seeks to divert and amuse at every moment, drawing concentration away from more focused activities.
From restaurants to medical offices, televisions appear everywhere. When, on the phone, a company puts me on hold, tinny-sounding music blares into my ears in order to spare me from a terrible moment of hearing silence, even though the music is not the kind I like and makes my experience more annoying.
The ability of technology to annoy me seems to be growing. When I first got my iPhone, years ago, I saw it as a magical and powerful device that allowed me to access information with a touch of my finger; play video games while waiting at the DMV; go online anywhere. I loved it so much I started carrying it around with me everywhere I went. I am now trying to put some distance between myself and my “smart phone.”
What used to only grant power now seems bent on opening doors at times I would rather close them, and I foresee further fights ahead. As someone who treasures activities that require privacy and concentration, I will sacrifice my phone if it is the only way to preserve my ability to close the door.