One Thing at a Time

Do you realize there’s an entire generation that has grown up without knowing what life before multitasking was like? I think this photo I found says it all.

Looking around my “someone’s been painting around here… and took last weekend off” apartment, I felt a little overwhelmed. “Well,” I thought. “The dishes are a great place to start. I’ll just do one dish at a time.”

Then I thought, “Wow, wouldn’t that be great? If life was just something you started and finished, never getting interrupted by emails or calls or silly things like jobs?”

And I remembered how life didn’t use to require multitasking, like checking cellphones when you’re waiting for a bus or stuck in traffic, or having to email before bed at night. I remembered how life once maybe involved a little TV, or the radio, maybe a phone call… but, mostly, you were pretty much left up to your devices.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m a bit of a mass media geek. I’m really into the messages used to try and sell us on things. Technology, for instance, was supposed to make our lives easier, bring us closer together.

Back in the post-war boom, when America began dreaming of a bigger, easier, sleeker, push-button future, when the ’50s rolled around, the message was “Machines will do everything for you, and soon! In the future, robots will be our servants, machines will do all your housework, and you can live the good life! Technology… the solution to all your problems!”

Here we are, a half-century into the high-tech/digital world. I’m telling you, remembering my open-door, born-in-the-’70s childhood on the heels of the hippy movement here in Vancouver, and comparing it to the hectic, frenetic, “You’re my neighbour?” anonymity of living in the modern era… Geez, I don’t really know that the pluses are outweighing the negatives. You know?

And I love my technology. I’ve always been one of the first to get the new toys that interest me, like digital cameras, iPods, laptops… I’m a bit of a geek. I’m the first person to freak if I can’t check my email every 12 hours… but that’s kind of the problem.

Here I am, interrupting dishwashing to blog, distracted again by a virtual world, pulled into communicating with people I’ll never meet, never know, and who’ll never buy me dinner. Do I even get anything at all out of this bargain? I don’t know. It’s the guise of a relationship that never needs to really be tested.

And that’s part of the problem with our day and age. We’re big fans of relationships that don’t need testing. The people you know in forums, through blogs, in Facebook groups, they’re not “friends”… they’re names on a screen. They’ll never help you hide a dead body at 4 in the morning, but they might tell ya how to Google someone who can.

In a time when multitasking and 200-character-or-less text messages are the backbone of our lives, we’re forgetting how to have meaningful moments. Times when time stops and the world outside remains exactly that: outside.

Being with someone used to mean really being present. Now, there’s advertising everywhere to distract you, text messages, portable entertainment systems (for everything now, really)… How often do we actually let the world come to a full stop around us? How often do we really take back our time? How often do we control what influences us?

We’re bombarded by the modern age so much so that we don’t even realize how ever-present quality of life compromises are, and how much they’re harming us. CNN recently published a big shocking expose I first wrote about two years ago, in which they’re learning that the amount of pharmaceuticals present in our water — from people toilet-dumping old, expired drugs or even cocaine, birth control pills, or any pill you can imagine — are having unknown effects on us. You should hear some of the theories, like how disposed birth control pills are causing estrogen spikes in urban water sources and this somehow explains the recent rise in “metrosexual” males versus their rugged country counterparts. (Hey, it’s a theory out there, man. I don’t make this shit up.)

Hell, a scientific report has come out linking nightshift work with cancer spikes because, the theory goes, humans are fucking with natural circadian rhythms that went unchallenged and unchanged since the dawn of man… until the invention of electricity. Now we defy millenias of circadian programming with a 24/7 world that never sleeps.

Everything has changed. Everything is faster. Me, I want to slow it down. I want a life where multitasking’s something I do out of necessity and only when occasions arise demanding it, not something I want to continue doing out of normality.

With summer hanging tantalizing close now, I long for those late night thought-provoking conversations I’d have with my friends, staring at the stars from a sandy beach, before any of us had laptops or cell phones or distractions. It’s not the same these days. Not as often, anyhow.

When science-fiction writers foretold of a world where computers and machines would be social intermediaries in our lives, I don’t think any of us could have predicted just how far-reaching and endemic their impact would be.

And now that the ride’s in full swing, what do we do if we want off? Finding myself a private cabin on the rugged BC coast isn’t really all that feasible, since I like my urban life. Slowing it down will take work. The trouble is, slowing down my life doesn’t mean those around me will do the same, and that’s the problem. Whether we like it or not, we’re often brought along when other peoples’ lives are caught in these whirlwinds.

It’s making it even more complicated to meet new people. As I embark on my “new life”, I’m trying to figure out a tactful way of asking “Are you one of those people who text messages on your Blackberry while talking to your friend… while you’re driving downtown? ‘Cause, if you are…”

It’s about priorities, man.

Or is it? Maybe they don’t get that life’s not that bad when you can actually sit in your apartment, in silence, hearing the splatter of tread on a wet road nearby or your neighbour’s wind chimes clanking in a gust. I don’t know. But I know what I consider “real” in life. I know I won’t be regretting that I didn’t answer my cellphone more when I’m a week from dead and buried, man. I know that, at least.

And I know I’ve got more dishes to do… one at a time.

(If any of this resonates with you and you wonder what one does to slow down the speed of life, you need to learn about the Slow Movement, and the guy who best encapsulates it as food for thought is Carl Honore in In Praise of Slow. Check out his book’s blog here.)