What do we lose when we have everything?
A reflection on the pleasure of doing things the hard way
You can’t see this, but I am writing this newsletter by hand. Nothing fancy — the notebook isn’t Moleskin but a 200-page lined spiral notebook I bought at Shoppers Drug Mart for a little over four dollars. Instead of my Parker, I’m using a BIC gel pen I got at the drug store too. It has the advantage of moving fast across the page and still rendering my scrawl into something I have a hope of decoding later.
I am alone in a Thai restaurant with muzak keeping me company. The walk here from my office reminded me how much lockdown is a sensory deprivation as much as a social one. I smelled hot grease from a restaurant kitchen and a rich cloud of incense from a store that sells brightly coloured pants and a variety of charms to ward off the Evil Eye. Strange, isn’t it, to be excited about patchouli? It’s not a scent I particularly love, but today I thought I should buy some simply to awaken that part of me.
I was nursing some gloomy observations as I walked down the street, occasioned by my latest attempt at a digital detox. I do take social media breaks every now and then anyway. Usually the clue that it’s time to deactivate my socials is that I find myself becoming irrationally angry at something I saw online. If I’m thinking about some silly thing someone posted hours afterwards, I know it is time to turn it all off for a couple of weeks.
During the first week I keep catching myself typing “Twitter” into my navigation bar without even thinking, composing Facebook posts in my head, and reaching for my phone as I finish cooking. In the second week my mind is clear at last, I am happy and find it easier to sink into a novel, to be alone with my thoughts or with no thoughts at all. Just as I’m feeling great about how much control over my brain I have, I log on again, and before I know it I’m posting five times a day and explaining to a stranger why they’re wrong on the internet.
This time around, I didn’t get annoyed with anyone. I wasn’t even annoyed with myself. No, I was frustrated with the whole situation of the past two years, and the havoc it has wrought on my ability to focus. Social media is not the main culprit here: what is to be blamed is the state of not being able to plan a week ahead because I don’t know if school will be on, if travel will be possible, or if institutions will be open. But social media, already so attention grabbing and anxiety producing, is the worst possible auxiliary to an ongoing crisis. And because I can’t do much about the crisis itself, I reread the key bits of Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism and committed to a month (mostly) off from distraction, including a few measures I had not dared try before — such as only checking my Messenger every few days.
How this will go remains to be seen. But just a brief period away from the constant flow of information and a walk in cold Toronto air made me realize something sad. Namely: the ease and constant availability of digital media has significantly reduced my pleasure in a number of creative outlets.
I used to be enjoy photography. Mind you: I was never a good photographer. That wasn’t the point. But for a while in graduate school I carried an old, cheap SLR with me at all times, and developed the film myself. What I got out of this was the pleasure of a slow, needlessly arduous process: taking multiple photos, adjusting aperture and f-stop to get a range of options later on; spooling the film onto a steel reel in a pitch black room, operating solely by feel, and with the knowledge that a tiny mistake could ruin a good chunk of the roll; developing the film; spending hours in the dark room developing photos, using my hands and various little objects to dodge and burn as necessary; and finally, more time plunging the photographic paper into chemicals, and then washing, washing, washing it before it could finally dry.
Even now I can almost bring back the smell of the chemistry from memory, the excitement of coming out of the dark room with a freshly washed, still wet photograph that I could finally examine under white light.
There was more, too. When I used my old cameras (and this I think was true for the SLRs as well as for dinky automatic film cameras) I could not see the results right away. And that did something funny to my brain: it enabled me to see the photographs in the world. When I had a camera in my hand my eye was sharper. I noticed textures, started to work out how to frame what I saw, mentally translated colours into black and white.
The moment I got a digital camera my ability to see disappeared. I mean it — pfft, gone. It’s hard to convey how immediate this was, and how permanent. For a while, I thought it was a matter of getting a digital SLR, but that did not, in fact, help. There was something about the way a digital camera made the process too easy, and gave me the result too fast. My eyes no longer needed to imagine photographs, because the camera could show them to me immediately. Needless to say, I tried to approximate the manual, film experience — by using only the camera viewfinder, or by trying full manual mode (by no means as intuitive as my old Yashica). But this took much more discipline, and never felt as organic as photographing on film.
In short: I stopped taking pictures.
I also stopped going to look at pictures in art galleries.
My experience with music is pretty similar, except that what I lost there was an ability to listen well, with attention and emotion. The constant availability of almost any song I can think of has rendered music into background noise. Here the loss is not as complete as with photography. I can still listen in a focused way in live concerts, or if I sit down with an album of an evening, or when — surprisingly — I play foreign-language digital radio stations while I cook. Knowing I will never be able to find a song I like online makes me listen hard when I hear it — it maybe the only time I’ll have a chance to do so! It reminds me of the excitement I used to feel when a favourite song came on the radio. Before you could play “Stairway” absolutely anytime you wanted, it was actually pretty neat to be driving on a long road and hear those first chords just as the sun was getting golden.
There is an argument — often made by others — that the effects I experienced with photography and music also hold for interpersonal relationships. Facebook and Twitter give us access to thousands of people at a time, but at the loss of deeper connection. Other writers have made this point better than I have, and I also don’t accept it absolutely. I’ve met some fascinating people in person whom I previously only knew online, and I do think there is a value to “light” connections as long as one can remember to do things with flesh-and-blood people too.
One area where the internet has improved my pleasure is cooking. I think this is because the online world can only offer representations of food, not copies of it, and the technology for making food itself has not changed that much. Knitting is like this too: I am grateful for YouTube videos that will show me how to do certain techniques, but there is no question of my sitting there and watching someone else knit for an hour instead of doing it myself.
But these exceptions aside, what strikes me is the incredible loss of pleasure in the world, one I never tallied up before now. And next to that, a troubling recognition that my joy in certain forms of art is highly dependent on the technology through which I experience them, and might disappear if the technology becomes inaccessible.
So here I am, using pen and paper for a task that feels most natural to me on a computer, accepting the pain in my wrist and the sheer amount of time it takes to write something long-ish in a notebook. I’m testing out how it feels to create something a little more arduously than is strictly necessary, and with more of my senses engaged. Like the digital detox, it is an experiment. I’ll see how it goes, or I’ll feel it.
Friends, thank you for reading this far. If you are so inclined, I would love to hear from you: what has digitization does for, or to, your creativity, or your appreciation of art?
An Update and Further Reading
I have a new gig as a columnist at the Times Literary Supplement. My first piece for them in this capacity is a piece on the importance of pleasure in difficult times.
I have been mulling over how limitations invite delight for a while now — as in this brief essay on improvisation at Iberian Connections.