In Defense of Ignoring Things

I know all the reasons why you shouldn’t log off. Do it anyway.

The thing about an addiction is, there are always lots of good reasons why you can’t or shouldn’t break it. Usually these reasons occur to you as if they were your own thoughts. It seems like you are just thinking them of your own volition; you do not realize that they are, themselves, part of the addiction. 

If, like me, you are addicted to your smartphone, these thoughts can be persuasive. Some of them may even be true. “There is a crisis going on in this country, I need to be informed.” “Everything is happening on Twitter—if I log off, I’m just ceding ground to the enemy.” These voices in your head sound like your own. 

The problem with the voices is not that what they do say is false. It’s that what they don’t say is so important. While you pore over your notifications in search of updates, you forget that you are not actually doing anything to avert whatever catastrophe you think is coming. The algorithm knows how to keep you groping at your phone, feeling for the vibration of new updates like tremors before a big earthquake. Even if the earthquake never comes you still stay on the ground, ear pressed to the dirt, listening. And all the while you don’t realize how long you have been on your knees. 

Because what the logic of the addiction leaves out is the baby or the lover or the work that needs your full attention, all of you, your undistracted presence. The reality of this doesn’t become apparent until you log off, which is the vicious nature of the thing: only once you break the cycle can you understand fully that you were trapped in it. You only see the demon for what it is once it’s outside of you, once its voice stops sounding like your own. 

There is indeed a crisis in this country, and you do indeed have a responsibility to help. All the things you say to yourself are true up to a point: you have to know what’s being said at the national level to get context for what’s happening and figure out how to proceed. But be honest: you also know that there is a compulsive kind and quantity of engagement which doesn’t serve your purpose at all. At a certain point it stops being about information and starts being about chasing the high. If I’m honest with myself, I reach that point far sooner and far oftener than I’d like. 

Besides which, the vast majority of the predictions, narratives, and updates that come gushing out of your phone are the spiritual equivalent of horse manure. It does no one any good—not the nation, not your family, not you—for you to have hours’ worth of horse manure smeared onto your brain daily. 

Your country needs you. But it does not need you braindead, demoralized, and queasy with manufactured fear. It needs you vigorous, alive, connected. It needs you deep in prayer and passionately in love, making breakfast for your kids or campaigning door-to-door. This means that at a certain point, no matter how persuasive the arguments are to stay scrolling, you must simply stop listening to them. You don’t have to argue with them. This is not a problem that reason can solve. It is a problem that action can solve, and the clarity that comes with action. The reason why is in the doing of the thing: you don’t have to argue yourself into it beforehand. 

I am speaking, to quote the Stoic Seneca the Younger, “like one patient lying next to another in the same hospital, speaking of an illness we both share.” This is not wisdom I dispense from on high. I know all the many ways the news can seduce you away from real life. I have been down all the dark paths a hundred times and will go down them again before this digital revolution we are going through is complete. But none of that changes the brute fact of the thing: hell is a prison whose inmates build the walls themselves. You can—you must—put the phone down.