But then I remember that my problem isn’t distraction, my problem is procrastination, as every editor I have ever had would readily attest. I have to fight the urge to be a digital Prufrock who measures out my life with hands of cards. But the app and the phone aren’t the problem. I am the problem.
I was very good at wasting time before iPhones, even before there was an internet. I wasted enough time playing actual cards with human beings in college that I probably could have added another major. I built model ships, tried to beat my own record for bouncing a tennis ball on a racquet, memorized National League batting statistics, went to see the same movie in the theater as many as 10 times, and always, always, always there was my best friend, television.
I don’t pretend that there aren’t serious disruptions attendant to Americans carrying their narcotizing devices in their pockets with them instead of having to go home and supplicate themselves before the glowing screen. Nor do I mean to suggest that there aren’t consequences from entertainment that can be tailored to every individual’s preferences. Media that concentrates interests and turns us inward necessarily turns us away from each other. Network television, for all its vacuousness, was a shared national experience and sometimes exposed us to ways of life other than our own, even if in caricature.
But I do mean to remind us that we had already been conquered by electronic media before we started carrying little computers in our pockets. But the devices did not create the desire for entertainment as anesthesia. We have always wanted all we could get, and we were already getting more than we needed before Steve Jobs stepped out on stage in October 2007.
The Lady of the House got an audiobook copy of Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows from the library over the summer. One morning over breakfast, she said to me, “It’s amazing how accurately you had this book pegged even though you never read it!” Well, I’m not being falsely modest when I say that it didn’t take any great insight to see the popularity of that book as just another example of a perennial truth about human nature: most people are desperate to absolve themselves of responsibility for their own lives, and other people are happy to sell them ersatz absolution. I’m not religious, but reading about Buddhism since adolescence has steeped me in the understanding that we always want to be somewhere else, with someone else, doing something else — anything other than what we’re doing right now. You either continue chasing your tail like that, or you reflect on this and start practicing different habits. Those are your options.