Jenga of digital wellbeing
Experiments, observations and overthinking about my digital obsession
11h 41m, 4h 31m, 3h 32m
Does the above ring any bell or anything at all? These are the last three daily readings from Digital Wellbeing utility on my Android phone. On Tuesday, it went way higher than the 11 hour and 41 minutes it currently reports but that is due to the fact that once you remove an app, its usage statistics gets removed with it. If I was the BSA, I would raise a bug for the product team requesting for a miscellaneous usage count in such use cases where the user had a guilt trip and had removed the usual suspects (the time hogging apps that render them motionless and brainless after a while) from their phone.
It was Instagram and YouTube for me.
It’s only been two days without the apps and I am already feeling weird about the sharp decline in the overall usage. Whether this experiment is the right way to go about this or if this is plain escapism, is an uncomfortable argument. Considering the extent to which I swing on either side of this argument, it is extremely crucial that I complete writing this piece at one go as I am not very confident of not contradicting myself tomorrow.
So, what is this article about?
I am writing this to document to the best of my understanding, the ebb and flow of guilt and time throughout the day and through my mobile phone and the experiment which seems to be working in my favor to manipulate the same.
The forces at play go beyond the electronic device and the overtly devilish social algorithms.
Some of them on further inspection, seem to be rooted inside the human part of the interaction — the human mind and its idiosyncrasies. Let’s start with that first.
The human part of the interaction
Hello! I am a living mesh of flesh and blood and a panicky mess of absurd contradictions and unpredictable proportions. Before you let the affirmative response snowballing inside your throat, out of you, stating that it is pretty normal, that you feel the same and this is how humans feel — let me stop you from jumping into conclusions (or, maybe you are right!).
I am not a poor little boy unaware about his digital urges and patterns. I know fully well what goes on inside the reward circuits and how it short-circuits from time to time. It is hard to translate but I identity as a ‘Gyan-paapi’ in Bangla. Literal translation would mean a sinner (paapi) based on knowledge(gyan) but the real idea is more complicated than the half-baked translation. It means someone who already knows the accurate prognosis but willingly treads on the path of self-harm through convenient denial mechanisms, avoiding the real treatments.
A part of me would like to conform to the idea that this might be one of the symptoms of an underlying mental illness wherein it feels impossible to leave the mobile phone because without it, life seems unbearably lonely.
However, the other part of me would disagree!
Although watching random short videos on Instagram or YouTube can never be considered as interacting with another human being, it rides on the very idea that this static one-sided pre-recorded projection of a human being is often preferable to the live interactions with the people we can connect to in real life.
The law of diminishing interests and taboo
In this age of hyper connectivity, everybody already knows everything about their “social-media” peers. So, there is nothing to talk about. Also, pinging someone out of the blue, just to have a conversation that does not end in a transaction of sorts, is looked down upon as a loser/unproductive activity if not creepy.
Don’t let the deluge of comforting status updates put out on specific events due to peer-pressure or social-media trends fool you into thinking that they really want to talk to you about your problems.
Fuck, no! Give it a shot and you might find seen but unanswered pings or mono-syllable responses to your genuine multi-syllable rants. Add to that the sinking feeling of how you are not quite well in the head and how you are giving them a hard time. That rules out almost all the people you know.
Dating apps and stranger things
To add insult to injury, the apps where people are supposed to talk to strangers (read ‘dating apps’) are the ones fully equipped to suck the soul out of your already wrecked morale.
I have always considered (and reveled at) how I don’t get suitable matches because I have a fine taste and because people I right swipe on, are obviously looking for still finer tastes. Well, this is all shit. This is the pattern globally. If I trust my faltering memory, I read somewhere that the number of matches is inversely proportional to the number of right swipes you do as the algorithm punishes you for being overly thirsty.
So, on one hand I grow impatient and frustrated about how bad I have to be to get denied of a single decent match and on the other hand if I try experimenting and ditch my gut feelings during right swipes, I end up with a lot more matches but way more frustration thinking about the amount of energy and time wasted on people who can not even manage a small talk. At times, I feel I know Mona from abbywinters better than I have ever known anyone on an average from these apps.
The effect is immediate — I keep waiting for replies from emotionally unavailable people and spend time worrying about them while ignoring perfectly well meaning people and their pings.
Sprinkle some experiences where friends and partners have ditched me in the past, on top of this and all I have for myself is a sure recipe for a series of over-thought-out panic attacks. And more the dating app options, multiplied the attacks. Full disclosure : I have/had four of them for years with not a single decent human whom I liked and got liked back (because one-sided affection is a shoddy proposition).
Social media — land of the Oompa loompas
With no scope left for conversations with known and unknown people, social media ends up being the only refuge for me which in turn fucks me over by pasting over my eyes the lives of psychotically happy people who happen to manage everything from a loving partner to posh weddings, from cute travel pictures to shiny job switches and promotions while here I am, unsure about what makes me unhappy and feeling perpetually shitty about my otherwise peaceful and wholesome existence.
It’s not you, it’s me and the cycle
But then, if I know for sure how dating apps don’t work and how social media exploits my insecurities, why do I keep going back to them like toxic partners in a messy breakup?
There is this side of masochism in me in addition to the delicious idea of doing something that I am not supposed to do, something that is sure to mess up all the to-do items and keep postponing them till further notice.
I can testify about the number of times I have deleted/disabled social media and dating apps in the past one year. The thing more worrying than the count is the gap between subsequent re-installs. It follows a specific chain of thought :
“Fuck this shit, I have a happy life being myself. So, fuck you Hinge for giving me false hopes about the wholesome artsy people, fuck you Tinder for removing free superlikes and fuck you LinkedIn for showing how pathetic a loser I am for loving a job which gives me a comfortable (but comparatively less) salary, has good benefits, has good managers and gives me ample free time! Its over.”
So, there I was, uninstalling them in the dead of the night.
D-Day + 3 :
“Fuck this shit, such a loser life anyway, bruh. If I am being real, no amount of social media can make me feel worse. Also, who knows if I am going to miss the partner of my ever-after if I don’t check the dating apps today! Maybe, just maybe, these mythical creatures have decided to be on dating apps only for a day! What do I have to lose?”
Apart from sanity and a good number of hours, off course!
This reminds me how this cycle is very much a part of me and not something that these app companies have introduced. They have only helped in oiling the rusty gears. Ten years back, when there was no 24x7 mobile internet connectivity, I used to have frequent install-uninstall cycles for a PC game, Halo CE, which I played (horribly) only for the online multiplayer option. So, every time I used to get badly beaten up online, I used to uninstall it stating how it is a stupid piece of software sucking out my time and peace of mind only to reinstall after a few days thinking how practice makes perfect!
Economics of insecurity, porn and guilt loop
This system runs of insecurity as its currency and guilt as the Stockholm to my syndrome. So, I keep switching between social media and dating apps which sucks most of the day and when the realization finally dawns upon me, it is usually near dawn. And by then, I am already in a state of limbo — too tired to keep using the phone but not sleepy enough to doze off. Naturally it’s time for the silver bullet sleeping pill alternative, porn.
I know it is mostly illusion and not pleasure, mostly desperation and not excitement in an industry which mostly caters to an awkward brand of boring male gaze and unrealistic body standards.
The added reality that the female performers almost always have a dark past of abuse, insecurity or teenage pregnancies, has led to an esoteric and niche outlook towards sexuality and pleasure which has limited the options to a set of hand-picked performers and production companies.
Hence, with random mindless sex and abrupt foreplays out of the menu, there I am, at my most tired self after a day of mindless digital hogging, searching through catalogs on abbywinters or GirlsOutWest for wholesome conversations and real foreplay or looking for convincing human bodies on uncensored JAV, only to surrender as per the intensity of the foreplay and slip into a post-nut coma for a few hours after which I am back to square one. Same hungover feeling after waking up late into the afternoon, laced with guilt at the lack of self-control demonstrated last day.
And what does a guilty mind do to feel good? It might as well do the things worthy to feel guilty about! So, there goes another day.
The legend of Jenga
Now that we know what the fault lines are, what is Jenga doing in the title?
Well it is for the days that start a little different from the rest.
The days when I feel like taking back the control of my life from the vicious algorithms, I plan the entire day. I carefully take out pieces of unnecessary digital interaction one by one just like the Jenga pieces. But then almost anything can go wrong which can then trigger a new and a bigger wave of indulging with the phone with me zoning out from the real world (realism sucks anyway) which brings down the entire day back to its broken pieces without any structure or planning.
With all the pieces explained, it’s time to go back to the very beginning.
If the stakes are this precarious, how did I manage to bring down the daily damage from nearly 12 hours to less than 4?
I agree that it has only been two days and I can very well go back to my old self tomorrow but the things I realized were pretty interesting (you don’t say!) and hence this super long intro.
The idea stems from two critical questions.
What are the activities which make me feel good about myself?
- Reading/ Learning.
- Recording my voice.
- Mindfully using YouTube (only for information, interviews and movies) and Instagram (only for conversations).
- Reducing overall mobile phone usage.
What are the things that make me panic and feel shitty about myself?
Not doing a single thing mentioned in the list above.
This sets into motion a series of self-sabotaging thought patterns:
- The number of unread books I have on Kindle and on the shelf?
- The number of ideas that have not materialized into blogs or scripts?
- The last time I recorded something for the channel?
- The amount of time wasted on YouTube? …and it doesn’t stop there!
It goes beyond the immediate to things that I have not yet planned and things that are not even nearly fulfilling:
- Failing to learn harmonica or ukulele despite having both of them!
- Failing to backup pictures over cloud!
La Solution? — “single”
I focused on how the panic and the thought patterns were triggered by not doing a “single” activity and so, if I could manage to do at least one of these activities, there lies my chance!
Day 1 — Tuesday
On Tuesday, I tried reading from Kindle. Sadly, most of my current reads are non-fiction and hence conventionally dense and not for easy reading. After trying hopelessly for some time, I gave up and went back to the comfort of passive consumption — digital hogging. The frustration compounded the time spent and hence the 12+ hour usage which ended in me uninstalling YouTube and Instagram (again!).
Day 2— Wednesday
On Wednesday, I tried a different strategy. I used Forest app to block myself from using any application apart from the hand-picked apps which might be useful like music apps or Google Keep for writing. The mobile device usage went down but the insecurity didn’t as I spent most of the day dazed and sleeping. I was bored after ages and nothing to kill the time. I was about to end the day feeling like a loser and was planning to spend the rest of the night watching mindless videos as a form of revenge when suddenly it struck me!
I evaluated the activities that give me joy and struck them one by one -
- Reading non-fiction was not a success the other day so there’s no reason why it would be any good the day after.
- Writing needs a fair amount of inspiration which was missing.
- YouTube and Instagram were out of bounds for the obvious reasons but if I didn’t act quickly, I would start mindlessly binge watching videos which is bound to fuck up the mobile phone usage as well.
Hence, I had to force myself to record something — the only activity left in the list.
The initial force needed to overcome the inertia was huge considering the excuses my mind came up with —
- I haven’t touched the recording gear in five months so it will take time to adjust.
- If I record tonight, I will be late for bed and late the next morning so the cycle will be as is.
- I had no rehearsals for the pieces I was to record so it won’t be good …and so on.
Somehow, I managed to get myself to record four pieces. It was after five months and so it took time to get in the groove but once I got comfortable in the cramped box under my bed with all the makeshift noise dampening arrangements, it started feeling good.
I went to sleep with a mild sense of achievement.
Thoughtful Thursday — Chain Reaction of Positivity
It was Thursday. I was late in getting up from bed but strangely did not have the guilt that I was so used to. I managed my office work and soon sat down to edit one of the pieces I recorded the previous night. I picked one of the easier pieces because I felt it was crucial to complete a single piece and release it on YouTube if I had to get this chain reaction of positivity going.
I was not wrong.
I was worried that I might get distracted so I kept the Forest app going like it had been, the entire time of editing and for most of the day.
It is important to notice how similar the chain reactions of negativity and positivity function.
The moment I was able to release it by 7pm, I felt like preparing the evening snack for myself. For the last few evenings, I didn’t feel like eating which led to me staying hungry and irritated and then finding respite in mindless binge watching! On top of hunger, I realized how I stopped drinking water which made me more irritated due to dehydration.
But things changed for the better on Thursday.
While snacking, I started listening to this beautiful album (Saar by Osho Jain) that I had been planning to listen to but never quite managed to do so. It might have struck you as odd when I did not consider music in the list of things that make me feel good about myself. I have my reasons.
Music, mood and painkillers
Music is important. I remember how I discovered Miles Davis and John Coltrane as the cure for panic attacks during extended working hours before deadlines. I still use tracks from “Flying” by Peder B. Helland as sleeping pills when everything else fail.
Music lifts my mood. It makes me feel good. However, the effect is that of a painkiller. It gives immediate relief but the real disease is not dealt with.
So, although good music like this album, hypes me up, it will take me back to the existing frame of mind after it ends. For Thursday, it augmented the already “Feeling Good” vibes.
These sweet nothings snowballed into me picking up a fiction (Blind Assassin) from the shelf which I kept untouched for so many years. I could feel a difference in the way I got hungry well before my usual time. I had dinner, I brushed and had the hot water mouthwash that I had been skipping for weeks.
These tiny activities do not seem like much on happy days but when going gets tough, these tiny things weigh down heavily on your guilt and have a field day with your insecurities.
It struck me how one happy activity led to another and in a single day I managed to do all of them without much thought. The result was so surprising that I started writing a piece (this one) after seven long months!
So, the question remains — was Thursday a first of many positive days to come?
I am not sure.
It is unlikely that I will manage to create, read and write every single day. However, the fact remains that even after a long day, I didn’t feel dazed or tired and I did not miss using dating apps or binge watching mindless shit on infinite scrolls. After taking out all the faulty pieces from the day, the structure still seemed to hold its ground.
More than the results, the experiment hints at two possibilities —
- The possibility of there being an inertia to the apparently endless feeling of insecurity and dependency on digital madness which can only be cancelled by the unbalanced force of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps and doing things that makes one feel good about themselves.
- The possibility of formally calling the above as Newton’s first law of eMotion! ;)
PS. Historical data (as pointed out by Forest) suggests that I am most focused on Thursdays and hence there is a chance (however slim) that this entire piece is a product of overthinking and the experiment, a work of fiction.
PPS. I have never played Jenga.