Tabula Rasa

I’ve been thinking way too much about the nature of our interaction with technology and the Internet for the past year or so. (Writers like Patrick Rhone, James Shelley, Leo Babauta, Shawn Blanc and Nick Wynja have long been populating my reading queue and contributed to this ongoing introspection.) While this is undoubtably a feat of navel-grazing and nothing groundbreaking can come from it, I thought I would share where I came out of all the thinking.

I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with the way that I’ve been engaging with the online world and my relationship with it. It’s one fraught with addiction, best exemplified by the reflexive keystrokes and thumb movements to reach social media and email. Often, but not always, it’s a relationship devoid of value. The latest viral video or pictures of my friends’ meals aren’t moving me towards anything meaningful. I can’t have those minutes back. Worse, these minutes are entrenching the addiction. Dopamine is a powerful drug.

Beyond the addiction, there is the feeling of permanent vulrenability. When something is put up on the Internet, it’s there forever. Our digital selves have a life of their own. You can try to delete, to erase, but that’s like trying to pull light back out of a black hole. I still have vague aspirations for a life that might put me in the public eye and the permanence of the Internet is a bit paralyzing. Even without those aspirations, the deterrence is real. Maybe don’t post that picture, that link, that status, that blog post, lest you be judged for eternity. Maybe it’s best you stay silent.

Then, there are these mounting concerns regarding privacy. If you’re not paying for something, you are the product, so the story goes. Do I really want to be part of a massive data mining operation that is geared towards feeding the future of advertising? How does an industry focused on creating space for revenue impact the end user experience? Do I trust these companies with all this information about me? These questions only scratch the surface of the plethora of concerns surrounding emergent tech.

My initial reaction to my relationship with the online world was to break it off. I embraced the philosophy of disconnection and deactivation. I wanted to become sober, to beat the addiction. I wanted to keep my identity constructed by interactions I understood: my actions and words. I was looking for a modern day Walden. Facebook was deactivated; email was delegated to strict timetables; other social media was curtailed. I was approaching zen, I thought. Look at these pitiful addicts, trapped on their hamster wheels of cheap thrills, pawns in a large corporate game, I mused haughtily.

While I am certain there is value in all this disconnection, there is only so much time I can spend in the woods. Thoreau did, after all, return from his faux-isolation at Walden Pond. I, too, returned from the woods, but, unlike Thoreau, I didn’t come back with any new ideas. I had no guide with which to navigate society. Old habits and fears came flooding back in again.

Then, like a gift, I began to travel. It was a welcomed caesura in all the madness. My bad habits were overwhelmed by the constant assault of new experience. When you’re in a new landscape in a foreign land, your inboxes can wait patiently. Sometimes, circumstance dictates that your inboxes have to wait (maybe you hike through the mountains to Machu Picchu).

In this space of pause, I was able to gain a little perspective. I began to write a whole lot more. (Travel tends to do that to me.) I liked this different me: more confident, more expressive, more reflective. Every day had a tangible feeling of value to it. I was traveling alone and every new person became a chance to authentically relate my identity with confidence and passion. When I could “connect” I was excited to do so. I just had so much to share!

It seems to be a theme so far in this journey, but I really want to hold onto the relationship with the online world crafted in the furnace of travel. So, starting today, I’m going to begin anew. My manifesto: tabula rasa. For all I know, the internet didn’t exist before now.

What does that mean?

It means that I have a chance to build the relationship I want. The world is not returning to more simple times, to some fabled analog past of pure, meaningful interaction. If anything, it’s hurtling in the opposite direction. We must do the work of sorting out what it means to find quality in a digital world.

The more shit we create, the harder it is to find the good stuff. I can’t with a clear conscience contribute to the noise; I have to help light the signal. I want to be quality-obsessed: if I’m not creating or interacting with value, it’s going to be cut. I must dare to be brilliant and fail often in that endeavor. I must craft my own identity with care and every time I come to the table is a chance to shape it. Judgements be damned! I’d rather my voice be heard in its imperfection than it become lost in disuse. To disengage is not the answer.

That doesn’t mean the ideas of mindfulness and disconnection go out the window, either. I must build in those caesuras. In a world that demands constant connection, a pause can be good for us. It can pull us back and help us commit anew to the pursuit of quality tomorrow. But a pause cannot be permanent. The work of missing hands will, if absent too long, be replaced by the unsavory. Just like outside of the confines of the Internet, I must build the world I want.

Practically, this means that I might share more (links, thoughts, writing). Or maybe less. It means I have a firm grasp of what I’m looking for online and a way to weigh the pros and cons of a service. Maybe it means I ditch Facebook or give Twitter another try. I don’t know. I will sort it out. But I will mindfully work through that process with a blank slate behind me and vision of a future focused on quality ahead.

This is mostly for me, but maybe it resonates with you. If it does, join me! Let’s start a new movement and take back our relationship with the connected world. The tabula rasa Internet is waiting.