The luxury of opting out of digital noise
Recently, Ottessa Moshfegh released a new critically-acclaimed novel, “My Year of Rest and Relaxation”. The story is about a young, thin, and pretty (as she tells us herself many times) Columbia graduate in her mid-20s, in the year 2000. In the midst of a booming and glittering New York City, she’s still consumed by the deaths of her hideously neglectful parents, her abusive on-again/off-again boyfriend, and her meaningless job at an art gallery. She mopes, blocks out her “best friend”, and comes to the conclusion that she can’t really deal with the world anymore.
Armed with a bevy of prescriptions, and an insane psychiatrist (who never remembers that the narrator’s parents are dead), she decides to sleep for a year.
“I opened the medicine cabinet and took two Valiums and two Ativans, guzzled water from the tap. When I righted myself, someone appeared in the mirror as if through a porthole window, and it startled me.”, “I took a Xanax and an Infermiterol, pulled my soggy coat out of the tub, and ran a hot bath.”
About the logistics, she writes,
“I took a shower once a week at most. I stopped tweezing, stopped bleaching, stopped waxing, stopped brushing my hair. No moisturizing or exfoliating. No shaving. I left the apartment infrequently. I had all my bills on automatic payment plans. I’d already paid a year of property taxes on my apartment and on my dead parents’ old house upstate. Rent money from the tenants in that house showed up in my checking account by direct deposit every month. Unemployment was rolling in as long as I made the weekly call into the automated service and pressed “1” for “yes” when the robot asked if I’d made a sincere effort to find a job. That was enough to cover the copayments on all my prescriptions, and whatever I picked up at the bodega. Plus, I had investments. My dead father’s financial advisor kept track of all that and sent me quarterly statements that I never read. I had plenty of money in my savings account, too — enough to live on for a few years as long as I didn’t do anything spectacular. On top of all this, I had a high credit limit on my Visa card. I wasn’t worried about money.”
All of these mundane tasks secure, she delves into a cocoon of watching VHS tapes from the 80s, taking sleep aid drugs, sleeping for more than 12 hours a day, and walking to the downstairs bodega for sustenance.
When I first finished the book, I became angry. Who was the narrator to think that her problems were worse than anyone else’s? What right did she have to waste her wealth and spend a year in a narcotic trance? Many reviewers agreed, calling Moshfegh’s characters brilliantly-written, but immensely unlikeable.
But, as I was reading “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” on my Books app on iPad, I kept getting interrupted. Twitter notifications kept popping up, mercilessly, one after the other, on the top of my screen. Late-night work emails demanded clarifications. Friends and family texted, requiring an immediate response. Or, my racing mind remembered something I needed on Amazon and navigated away from the Books app, breaking my flow. In other words, I was bombarded by all the normal digital detritus that accompanies middle-class life in America these days.
And what I realized is that, instead of hating the narrator, I was immensely jealous of her ability to be selective about what information she exposed herself to.
Historically, privilege has always meant the ability to block out physical space. From Versailles, to California farmers, to Mark Zuckerberg, those with the means to do so have always carved out privacy, and, just as importantly, quiet.:
Vox did a video on how quiet has become a sign of quality. And people sell quiet. Bose has become a noise reduction company, and so has Miele.
The ability to have room for leisure has always also been an upper-class pursuit. Just ask anyone at Downton Abbey. What did people do there all day? Breakfast, chat, read, take walks, and by then it was time for dinner on large, quiet estates.
Today, the true signal of privilege and choice means not only the ability to block out physical distractions, but digital ones, as well.
The ability to carve leisure time away from never-ending work Slack notifications, work emails, from endless requests, likes, tweets, and urges to favorite and comment on things is something that few people can afford these days.
I'm not sure I know a single person in tech that's good at vacation.— Nick Craver (@Nick_Craver) April 22, 2019
But those people who can afford it, are very good at it.
Whether be it through silent retreats:
For my birthday this year, I did a 10-day silent vipassana meditation, this time in Pyin Oo Lwin, Myanmar 🇲🇲. We went into silence on the night of my birthday, the 19th. Here’s what I know 👇🏼— jack (@jack) December 9, 2018
or writing books about unplugging from technology, or the ability to send children to schools that don’t use technology,
But the school’s chief teaching tools are anything but high-tech: pens and paper, knitting needles and, occasionally, mud. Not a computer to be found. No screens at all. They are not allowed in the classroom, and the school even frowns on their use at home.
or the ability to pay away worries through services like Uber, Instacart, and TaskRabbit, or fancy noise-cancelling headphones (usually around $300 for the best) for the ubiquitous open workspaces that have popped up like unfettered mushrooms in tech over the past ten years.
All of these options to drive away distractions can be had for money or time exchange, and offer people who can use them competitive advantages. The higher up you get in the corporate ladder, the more you can afford to block off time to do quiet retreats, or hire personal secretaries, or afford to take all of your unpaid vacation or ignore emails, or, like most of our top political and business leaders, write terse ones..
Or, even, like Moshfegh’s character, to afford sleep. In “Why We Sleep”, the runaway best hit of the year, by the director of Berkeley’s Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab, the author writes that we absolutely need to get seven to eight hours of sleep a night, and what happens if we don’t sleep.
(Arianna Huffington, Bill Gates, and Jeff Bezos offer similarly helpful advice - just get some sleep.)
Walker does nothing to address how to actually get that sleep, and gives passing mention to the fact that new parents might miss out on this fact. Well, of course they do. What’s the solution, then? The obvious answer here would be extended maternity and paternity leave. How to get that? Work for a company that offers it - an elite tech company - or be plain out of luck trying to find six weeks to spend time with a baby.
What about school children, whose schedules are so out of sync with their Circadian rhythms? Yes, they should get sleep, but who will advocate for them when their needs are misaligned with corporations and school boards?
Below people like Matthew Walker,Jack Dorsey, Cal Newport, Hillary Clinton, Ben Smith, DHH, and Jeff Bezos, and others who can afford to unplug, to talk to real humans, to sleep, to quit Facebook, are the rest of us in the social hierarchy.
We, who need to be plugged into PagerDuty to check if something has gone wrong in production, Outlook we need to respond to an email from the CEO, to reply to tweets, to keep up with our Facebook feeds, and as artists and writers, to promote our content. There are very few authors who have the luxury of not being on Twitter.
We are all connected to the spigot, even if we want to opt out. Social media contains all of our news, our family’s baby pictures, extensions of our lives in one exhausting digital stream. One glaring example that comes to mind is Facebook specifically.
Although I’ve written extensively about how important it is to get off the platform as soon as you are humanly able, for the sake of our collective mental health, I find myself not being able to take my own advice.
Not because I’m addicted, but because Facebook, for better or worse, is still the platform where social events are planned. Where parent groups exchange information. Where family pictures are shared and discussed. To willingly walk away from Facebook and all of its needy notifications is to experience both immense relief and complete ostracism.
And yet, many men I know personally, and online, have been able to walk away from Facebook entirely.
It is time. #deletefacebook— Brian Acton (@brianacton) March 20, 2018
As I’ve struggled with my own balance of this (which includes, grudgingly, checking into FB once a month and feeling emotionally terrible after each interaction there), what I’ve realized, even more than understanding how tied we all are to the attention economy, is that women have been distinctly asked shoulder the burden of this specific digital noise.
Just as they’ve always had to shoulder the record-keeping of household activities like thank-you notes, children’s activities and appointments, shopping lists, and social obligations. Arlie Hochschild, the sociologist who coined the term “emotional labor” (i.e. “The duties that are expected of you, but go unnoticed.”, wrote a seminal book, “The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling,” examining how women’s emotions are mined for profits. Her case study was airline stewardesses, and she notes that they performatively display their feelings (offering sympathetic assistance to angry passengers, calming babies, wishing everyone a pleasant meal, and much, much, more) in exchange for airline companies profiting off of these emotions.
The study was done in the 1970s, but this easily extends to the social media platforms of today, particularly Facebook, which has become the social watering hole of the middle class. Women are still expected to participate in wishing people happy birthdays, keeping tabs on who had babies and who went on vacation, liking photos, leaving comments, posting articles, and generally providing the social glue
Facebook is still where all the social groups I’m part of (including mom groups, parent groups, Russian groups, etc.) have and talk about their events. To be absent from these conversations is to turn into the “other” in a much different way than men can opt out.
In the same way that women in the corporate world struggle to find a balance between being friendly and perceived as overly assertive, women on social media tread a fine line between looking like social outcasts if they decide that they don’t want to give their information to social media, and oversharers if they fully participate in the medium.
As I’ve opted out of Facebook, what I’ve noticed is, first of all, that I don’t feel ragingly angry. I don’t know who went on vacation where, unless I talk to them via text message, and I don’t care. I don’t care about political articles that are specifically designed to infuriate me. I don’t care about people I went to college with ten years ago. My world is neater and quieter.
At the same time, I miss more and more events targeted at my daughter’s age level that we could have attended. I miss small observations that my friends wouldn’t make over text that they do via Facebook posts that I no longer discuss with them. I miss parenting conversations that are extremely relevant to my local school district. I miss birthdays that I should have written down in my paper calendar, but didn’t. I miss discussions the Jewish community at large, which I am connected to digitally instead of physically, is having. By opting out of performing emotional labor on Facebook and going into my own sort of media hibernation, I miss the steady background hum of “having my finger on the pulse” as it relates to me and my family.
But, did I also mention that I also became even more active on Twitter as a result?
To bring it back to some of the other books I discussed, I’d be much more interested in reading Cal Newport’s wife’s book about how she unplugged.
People have noticed these subtle trends in a sideways kind of way, and it’s been finally making its way into the public sphere. If mainstream media is any indication, it seems like we’re seeing a slow trickle away from social media, and a change in public opinion, that the noise of social media is just as dangerous in smoking, in different, intangible ways.
There is an urge to move to leisure as a modus operandi, and I’m all for it.
What I think will be great is when not only Jack Dorsey can afford to be away from Twitter for a long time - when the average person (and especially woman) can, and take a long, nice, digital hibernation without worrying about the consequences.