On Being Present

Blackberry Photograph

‘I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair

That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.

Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not. ‘

Excerpt from Seamus Heaney’s ‘Blackberry-Picking’.

On a recent holiday, my iPhone died an abrupt death. While other phones chirped and squeaked into life as we waited at the baggage carousel, mine refused to turn on. When it finally did  flicker to life, I had few precious minutes to check my emails before it faded to unresponsive black. Staring at the now piece-of-junk in my hands, my thoughts turned from ‘what’s wrong with my phone!’ to ‘what’s wrong with me?’ There I was, on a sun-soaked balcony in a little Spanish town crying out to be explored, the beauty of its Old Town laid out before me like feast but instead of looking out or up, I was tethered to a fancy plastic box.

My predicament isn’t unique. It’s the subject of countless editorials, articles, probably even a Ted Talk.  Anybody given to the slightest bit of introspection has probably found themselves wondering about our fascination with and addiction to technology. Because it is an addiction, this compulsion to be plugged in at all times, to converse or ‘connect’ with people we wouldn’t recognize in the street,  the creeping suspicion that our lives don’t matter unless we are sharing them at all times in 140 characters or less.

After about twenty-four hours, I forgot about my phone and everything that goes with it. Time slowed down. My brain rewired itself. I recorded things the old fashioned way, with words and photos I would actually get developed. Sometimes, the only recording I did was in my mind. It was enough.

The passing of Seamus Heaney was a gut-punch. His poetry illuminated the sublime in the so-called ‘everyday’. By being present to notice the little things, Heaney created work that brought and will forever bring joy and hope to so many. As Kurt Vonnegut beautifully put it, ‘enjoy the little things in life for one day you’ll look back and realise they were the big things.’

 There is magic in the simple act of paying attention.

In the mad dash to digitize our lives as we live them, are we actually enjoying them? Are we noticing what really matters? Or are we locking ourselves into a cycle of perpetual distraction, half-living, always vaguely anxious, too busy recording our memories to live them fully?

We’re not going to stop having this discussion anytime soon but if you’d like some food for thought on the matter, We Live In Public is a fascinating documentary on Internet pioneer Josh Harris, who was convinced the way forward for the Internet was mass sharing and recording of our lives. Good call, Josh. Zan McQuade’s essay ‘Has the job of remembering been outsourced to the Internet?’ raises interesting questions about collective memory and how we store our personal histories.

One last thing…

When you write (with the phone and Internet off, naturally) you indulge in some pretty antisocial habits: daydreaming, weird timekeeping, drinking alarming amounts of tea or wine, depending on the day or the deadline. So, it is really nice to get a little recognition in the real world for your endeavors. On that note, I’m delighted to be on a shortlist of ten writers for the Penguin/RTÉ Guide Short Story Competition 2013 and also, I’m delighted to be on the long list for the 2013 Over The Edge New Writer Award. Scribble, scribble, scribble. When the writing force is strong within you, that’s all a gal can do.

Tweet Nice: Why Showdowns on Social Media are no Fun for Anyone

screaming-woman

 

This morning I read a really wise piece from mashable.com entitled Social Media-Based Public Shaming Has Gotten Out of Control

The writer (Todd Wasserman) does a good job of getting to the crux of why social media shaming makes so many of us feel uncomfortable, namely because it often sidesteps properly addressing an issue in the real world and instead opts for an online tête-à-tête, the fall out from which can be really unpleasant for all concerned.

When I first joined Twitter, I remember being transfixed by the tweet-fights that would pop up in my timeline occasionally. I couldn’t believe that some people would argue so publicly and viciously with strangers or even their peers. It made entertaining reading for a little while but the novelty soon wore off. I wondered, ‘how can you adequately debate anything in 140 characters? And why debate in the first place when  your positions are so polarized there isn’t a hope on this green Earth you’ll find common ground?’

It was also plain to see that while these arguments were happening in the digital world, they were upsetting people in the real world without achieving very much except, in some cases, providing fodder for the grind of the 24/7 news media we’re surrounded by.

When it comes to social media Twitter is my drug of choice and while I enjoy it, I’m very aware of its weaknesses, which I’m reminded of almost daily. Sometimes, though it pains me to say this because I know it plays into the mindset of social media ‘haterz’,  social media sadly becomes little more that an echo chamber of negativity and cynicism. Other times, it tips over into an ‘angry mob’ mentality that leaves me scrambling to log out, even when the subject of the rage is entirely deserving. It can feel like a group feeding frenzy – everyone trying to out do each other with their outrage – and that makes me uncomfortable and also a little confused as to how all this digital rage makes a real difference to the actual issue.

For me all these issues with social media come back to one basic rule of thumb: if you wouldn’t write it, say it or do it in the real world or to someone’s face, then don’t do it online. Consider it the Golden Rule of the Internet, along with this one aka Wheaton’s Law from Will Wheaton of Star Trek: Next Generation fame, who simply says, ‘don’t be a dick’. And what could be easier than that?

Image via curlysar on Flickr.

Mind Your Mind, Go Outside: Why Taking A Break From Social Media & Technology Matters

Me Hiking On Glacier

Before Christmas, I came across a very interesting study from the University of Kansas that suggested our creativity shoots up when we put down our phones and tablets and spend some quality time with nature.

For me, the study – the first of many in this area, no doubt – confirmed what I had already suspected: our brains need a break from the infomania culture our lives revolve around today.

By funny coincidence not long after reading the study, I went travelling in New Zealand, with my iPhone phone off and only intermittent web-access. Instead of looking down, I found myself looking up at stunning mountain ranges, at dirt tracks I was determined to hike up despite my burning lungs and achy knees. My eyes stopped hopping over things like the do on the screen, like some bizarre game of digital hopscotch and began to focus, really focus, on the words of the crime novels I like to devour on holiday, on the moments and the images I want to remember for the rest of my life. Slowly, as the days went by, the urge to check my phone, my emails, blah, blah, ebbed into a calm nothingness and for the first time in a long time, I was wholly in the one place, mind, body and spirit.

When I arrived home, I barely glanced at my phone except to turn it on. I had been limiting my online time by priority – work first, fun a dim second – but now, I’m even more ruthless. I dip in but I don’t get stuck. I enjoy the engagement of social media – but then I go outside, pick up a book or even just turn the damn thing off. And it’s funny because very often when it comes to work, the ideas I’ve been trying to formulate or the words I’m trying to find pop into my head more often than not when I’m not at my desktop but when I’m running, laughing or even just lazing in the silence with a cup of tea. In my experience, giving your mind a rest is the very thing that wakes it up. Go figure – and then go outside.

Deadly Buzz

So, my blog has been shortlisted for Best Personal Blog at the Blog Awards Ireland 2012, which is just lovely. I’m also nominated for Best Blog Post and, as it is a public vote, I would be delira and very thankful if you could kindly give me a vote here.

Thanks a million. I always said you were deadly.

Well done to all the gang at Grafton Media who are organising this year’s awards and best of luck to all those shortlisted.

You can read my nominated blog post, On Blogging, here.

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