As I watch the words build without the distracting shot of adrenaline from the phone’s vibration and the laptop’s beep, I think of Pavlov, and how well we’ve been trained like dogs to retreat to our treats. I long for the blue light that sometimes flashes on my phone. Our phones have trained us to receive a dopamine burst even through a signal light. Many of our senses are covered: sound, sight, and touch. If programmers could only figure out how to deliver taste and smell, our food-centered selves would do nothing but tweet.
As I complain, though, I watch the words accumulating and do not open another desktop window.
Normally, when you desire something, that desire is hooked to a thought that says, “If I satisfy this desire, my life will improve,” or “I must satisfy this desire or else I will not be happy.” So you chase after whatever you desire in the hope that you can catch that thing and thereby either improve your life or avoid misery.
…But when I say I want a milkshake, I mean it. I honestly do want a milkshake. But I also know that drinking a milkshake won’t really fix anything. It might make me happy for a few minutes. But then it’ll be over and I’ll just have a bunch of useless calories inside me, making me fat. I’ll probably also feel kind of bloated and gross because that’s how I usually feel after drinking a milkshake. I want the milkshake. But, even though I want it — and I mean like I really, really want it — I don’t have that corresponding sense that getting what I want is the best thing that could happen.
Too often, we try to repress or deny desires, which only encourages them. It’s better to look at them directly and recognize, with whatever wisdom we’ve acquired through experience, that whether we satisfy those desires or not, very little will change. This tends to lessen their compulsive hold on us. Still, I don’t know about you, but when I’m truly interested or absorbed in something, I can easily ignore all those little temptations. If I’m easily distracted, it’s probably a sign that I’m conflicted about paying attention to whatever I’m engaged with. I know I’m of a minority opinion here, but whenever I hear the trendy complaint about how Silicon Valley has hijacked our attention spans, I think, well, it seems to me the reality of how you choose to spend your time is being laid bare before you, and the difference between how you act and how you think you should act offends your pride, so you retreat behind the bad-faith claim that your agency has been compromised by forces beyond your control. Sartre may have been an execrable little toad of a man who was wrong about damn near everything, but at least he managed to be right about one important thing. We constantly lie like this to ourselves to protect our self-image, when it would be far more dignified to accept responsibility for our actions (or the lack thereof).