No, Tweeting, Texting, and Selfie-Taking Do Not Deprive Us of Zen Moments of Mindfulness

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Dec. 17 2013 2:02 PM

Note to Selfie

We’re told that we spend too much time recording moments instead of living in them. That’s a false choice.

Attendees photograph President Obama with their mobile phones at a Women's History Month reception at the White House in Washington, March 18, 2013.
Attendees photograph President Obama with their mobile phones at a Women's History Month reception at the White House on March 18, 2013.

Photo by Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Some of my favorite memories and best ideas from last year are gone. I wrote them in a notebook I carried in my back pocket, and a few months ago, I left the notebook on a plane. Observations about my kids, story ideas, and thoughts about the world around me were lost. I replaced the notebook, and then last week, left the replacement notebook on a plane. This should win me some sort of prize. 

John Dickerson's notebooks.
John Dickerson's notebooks.

Courtesy John Dickerson

I have developed emergency relationships with the lost-and-found departments at Delta and United airlines, but you know how that story ends. You can find vintage sandwiches in the seat-back pouches of a plane, but if you leave a leather-bound notebook about the size of a 3-by-5 card behind, they'll throw it in the engine and clam up before you get out of the airport. They have special drills for this, I think.

I have carried a notebook in my back pocket for the last 23 years, five months, and 11 days. I can be precise because I still have the first one and 20 others like it on a shelf in my office. They contain thousands of little passages, some only a sentence, from coffee shops and northbound trains and campaign buses. I've transcribed overheard conversations ("Shy sales people have skinny kids"), I’ve sketched characters for a novel ("he had the face of a dissipated potato”), and I've collected facts, words, and quotes from my travels and reading ("Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard").

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

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For years, not many other people shared my little habit. Now we all do it on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Lately, there has been some concern about all of this activity. Last weekend in the New York Times, Sherry Turkle wrote about putting our lives “on pause" in order to tweet, text, or take a selfie: “When you get accustomed to a life of stops and starts, you get less accustomed to reflecting on where you are and what you are thinking.” A few months ago, also in the Times, Nick Bilton wrote that we're all so busy capturing moments, we're not living in them.

This is a false choice. You can live in the moment and capture it. (Apple's ubiquitous holiday ad made a version of this point and went viral.) I have the notebooks to prove it (most of them, anyway), and the proof is in how acutely I feel the loss of the two last seen in and around seats 8A and 11F. What I have lost is not just my observations of various moments—made more meaningful because I stopped to put them into words—but I’ve also lost the feelings and recollections those entries would have unlocked when I looked back over them.

In recent years, I've captured more through my iPhone than my pen. As a practical matter, that means some of that writing I lost is in Twitter or on Facebook, but the technology offers more than just the cloud backup. It has improved this process of engaging with life through pausing to capture it.

The unexamined life is not worth living, said Socrates (and every freshman taking philosophy), but he also said to beware of the barrenness of a busy life. There is a tension between the obsessiveness Turkle and Bilton write about and the enriching observations of the kind I fancy I have. We all know how to spot the obsessives. They're blocking views at concerts as they hold up their phone to capture distant singing blobs of blurry light onstage. They text and drive, putting other people at risk, or they’re the ones at dinner who photograph every course change.  

These people are a chore, but people have been abusing the mouth by talking too much for ages. If you are tweeting and not paying attention to the world around you, then you're just a bore. It's not technology's fault or a change in norms. If you go out to dinner with people who are constantly texting, it's like going to dinner with people who won't shut up about their golf game or their wireless speakers. It's also true, though, that for some people, talking too much or taking a thousand photographs is the way they experience the world. They are not interested in your Zen moments. A life of frantic self-interruption may be their therapy.

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