The American writer Annie Dillard once said that how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. This means that for most of us life slips quietly away between swipes, clicks, refreshes, internet-dives and smart-phone glances.
This year I realised that I have been on Facebook for a decade. A decade! When I think about all of those status-checks and life comparisons the sense of wasted time is truly shocking. Granted, I have done other things – knocked out some kids, written a couple of books – but through every aspect of my existence the digital arena has encroached like unstoppable ivy taking over walls and buildings.
I’m not against the digital world; in fact I’m for it. I believe that the machines and devices themselves are benign and being connected is helpful, educational and instrumental. Our brains are naturally permanently online: the amygdalae – two tiny almond-shaped nuclei embedded in the brain’s temporal lobes – are responsible for memory, emotional processing and decision-making and their job is to never stop processing. Connectivity isn't the problem; it’s what we do with it. While we are posting cat videos and feeling jealous and spiteful about the instagrammed lives of our competitors, we aren’t in the real world.
We sleep walk through life waiting for the little endorphin rush that comes from getting a tick, a like, a new email, a text message ping. We don’t notice kids at our ankles, the colour blue of the sky or the faces of people next to us on the bus. We are always elsewhere and other.
We know all this and yet we still do it. According to Tanya Good, founder of It’s Time to Log Off Digital Detox, there is now clear evidence showing links between depression and excessive social media use. So how to stop this madness? It is difficult, but I am hoping that this Christmas I can use the natural pause in working rhythms and the dedicated family time to step of the treadmill and re-think.
This Christmas I plan to put away my smart-phone for at least a week along with everything it represents: my office, my to-do-list, calendar, photographs and all of my day-to-day anxieties. For photographs instead I plan to use my Lomo Instant camera which uses 35mm film. Taking up an analogue camera is not just a harking back to a mythical time in the past when things were better and more authentic. It’s simply a tool which enables me to slow down and think about the shot I’m taking. Processing the film and handling real photographs captures time in a different way.
I’m also re-thinking my bedroom area. On my Christmas list is a real alarm clock so that I can avoid sleeping with my phone two inches from my brain. I plan to read rather than look at a screen in bed – blue light keeps us awake, triggering melatonin. I’ll swap real-time twitter and news feeds for newspapers and I will go for walks. Whenever I’m alone, I won’t be checking or reacting to anything. I’ll try hard to simply be.
In other words, my intention for this Christmas is to become a little bit more internal, to slow down and be real, in the here and now, rather than letting each minute slide invisibly away into a distracted nothingness that will be forgotten as quickly as the millions of digital photographs languishing on our phones and laptops never to be looked at again. I expect the first day will be tricky, but after that, I’ll have no choice but to let go.
Words by Suzanne Joinson - the author of The Photographer’s Wife, published by Bloomsbury.