Be honest, how long have you been sitting there staring down at your screen? 2 minutes? 10 minutes? Longer?
Do me a quick favor: look around you and observe your surroundings as if it's the first time you're seeing this space. Soak in everything, the furniture or the foliage, the smells and sounds, the temperature and textures.
Did it feel like you just entered into a new place? It might have, especially if you had been focused intensely on your screen before looking up. Sometimes our phones can suck us into a whole new world, can't they? (And when I say phone here, I mean any device, tablet, computer, etc. Anything with a screen, really). When looking at these screens, even though we are physically present in the room, our mind is taken somewhere else through a magical portal to another place. We are in two places at once.
The Two-Timer Date
The idea of being in two places at the same time reminds me of a classicly recycled sitcom plot where the main character, usually male, "accidentally" agrees to a date with two different women, at the same time and the same place. A real nail biter. Our protagonist usually has a friend, side kick, or coach that helps him through the escapade. Yet whether it is Will Smith in Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Malcolm in Malcolm in the Middle, or Michael Scott in The Office, our dumb-lovable star is always seen exhausting himself no matter how much help he is given.
Eventually he reaches a breaking point, both physically because of his efforts to be in both places simultaneously and also mentally due to a deep conscious guilt. The charade is up and it nearly always ends badly. He is deceiving two women at once and as any man with half-a-brain knows, you can't fool even one woman, let alone two. Eventually, the truth comes out, and typically both women are no longer interested in our poor character.
(In one episode of Kenan and Kel, Kenan tries to take not two but three different girls on three separate dates at the same time in the same place. A "three-timer." Nice.)
The ironic thing about the "two-timer script" is that we actually act it out quite frequently in real life. We try courting our friends through our smartphone screens while courting our friends who are present and sitting right in front of us. We try being with the rest of the world on our social media feeds or on YouTube while being with the rest of the world literally. We try to be in two places at once, splitting our attention, our gaze, our ears, and our present moment. This, all in an attempt to create a perfect balance that scratches both itches and ensures we never have any FOMO (Fear of Missing Out).
But in the end, we end up sacrificing both the present and the distant, and unlike our favorite sitcom, there is no laugh track to redeem us. We sacrifice the attention that our far-away friends deserve by not picking up the phone and calling them to have a real one-on-one connection. Then, we sacrifice our connections in the present, never quite giving all of ourselves to the person directly in front of us. Even alone in a room, we still sacrifice when we stay connected to devices because we limit our ability to focus on the task at hand, whatever it may be. Even as I write this now, I feel it. My mind is in my device and my body is simply here acting as an avatar of sorts.
While technology has enhanced our ability to connect and to stay connected, I believe that just because you can be in two places at once doesn't mean you should.
The problem with being in two places at once, besides the reasons already listed, is also that it is exhausting. Dividing your attention while managing the real, living world around takes energy, whether you realize it or not. Go spend one-day camping, hiking, or at the beach without your phone and you will surely realize the release of energy your body will give. You will feel yourself come back to baseline after not seeing a screen for a day.
In this way, returning to baseline feels like the silence that is heard when a fan finally shuts off. If it had been running for a long enough time, then you will have become numb to the sound and never consciously realized that the fan was making a loud "white noise." But, once it stops, you realize just how loud it was.
Being in two places at once isn't just sitcom parody or magic tricks and it isn't just science fiction either, in fact, it is real science. In Quantum Mechanics, the science of "the little things that our world is made of," such as atoms and molecules, there is a theory called Superposition which states that molecules can be in two places at the same time as long as there is no "measurement" taking place. Simplifying this theory quite drastically here: Superposition is possible because particles can exist in different states at the same time because they exist in the form of waves.
Don't worry, if that scientific theory made your head spin a little bit, you are not alone. Even the Nobel Prize winning physicist Erwin Schrödinger believed this phenomenon seemed crazy. To illustrate, he conjured up a thought experiment about his cat. Yes, his cat. I know, this would have been a great place for a cat meme, but in the spirit of this subject matter, I resisted.
Anyway, Schrödinger proposed that he could put his cat into a box, along with a flask of poison that would break after an unknown period of time. The box would be made of solid walls and once the top was closed the cat would not be visible. No, this isn't some David Blaine trick where the cat turns into an apple; remember, this was just a thought experiment, a hypothetical scenario conjured up by a smart guy. So you can take it easy cat lovers, the real cats are safe.
Back to the point. In Schrödinger's proposed scenario, the poisonous flask would eventually break at some unknown time, which would, in theory, kill the cat. But, since the time of the flask break would be unknown, then it is also possible that the box could be opened before the flask had broken and before the cat was harmed.
Schrödinger then proposed that at the moment before opening the box to discover the state of the cat (alive or dead), that the cat was, in fact, both alive and dead at the same time. It is not until opening the box to see (aka "measure," in scientific terms) the cat's state of being. This properly explains the ridiculousness of the theory of Superposition, that two things can be in two different states at the same time.
Yet despite the supposed ridiculousness, some of the smartest people in the world (Scientists such as Albert Einstein) have proposed that matter, or "things" for the scientifically impaired, really can be in two separate states at the same time, regardless of how they appear to the naked eye, and regardless of how far fetched it might seem when comparing to Schrödinger's metaphorical cat.
Likewise, however, this is also true in our own relationships with electronics and with the outside world. We really can exist in two different places, one being the present physical realm and the other bouncing around the digital world through various clicks, scrolls, memes and funny cat videos.
What is astonishing about this dual existence is that we still haven't figured out that it isn't making our lives any better. Sure, our tablets, smartphones, and machines allow us to teleport to anywhere in the world and to do great things with this power, and that is quite amazing. But our use of these devices needs to be controlled, tempered, and used in moderation otherwise we are left as half-versions of ourselves, looking silly as we are trapped between the here-and-now and the galaxies of the interwebs. We are like the kid in the AT&T commercial that is proud of doing two things at once, waving his head and waving his arm at the same time (the video is at the bottom of this post, but please, for the love of God, stay focused).
I propose a new wave of technology-mindfulness. One that leaves the smartphone at home or, at the very least, out of reach for a few hours. One that turns the vibrate/ringer off, so that outside interruptions can't disrupt the connections being made right here in the moment. I propose no phones at the dinner table. I propose avoiding screens as much as possible, but then embracing them when they can add real value. I propose that we learn that there is nowhere better to be than right where we are, right now. I propose that we look up from our screens and into the world and into ourselves.
There are many ways to do this, the simplest being to exercise discipline. For those struggling with sheer will power in this area, however (you can't see me, but I am raising my own hand), there are other strategies to help. I will describe some of those strategies in my next post.