We, and in this case I mean "society," not the royal "we," are obsessed with not missing out. The phrasing here is important: we're not obsessed with knowing everything, catching everything, being in-the-know at all times on all topics, because of course that's impossible. But we just can't stand the thought of "missing out."
Now, "missing out" is a difficult term to define, purposefully vague as it plays in a tape loop-of-fear in our heads. So I'll offer a few symptoms.
- We keep our phones powered on and with us. This is perfectly rational. After all, we might receive an emergency call about something. Someone might need to get ahold of us "urgently," and because we have our phones with us, they'll be able to get ahold of us.
- We refresh Twitter and Gmail in case there's something new. This is perfectly rational. After all, there might be something new, and it may very well be interesting to us.
- We watch a season of television recommended to us by friends. This is perfectly rational. If they enjoyed it, we might enjoy it too, and plus if we finish the whole series we'll have something to talk about.
- We scroll through a promising Tumblr. This is perfectly rational. If we like what we've seen already on a Tumblr, there's a good chance that there will be more good stuff, stuff that could inspire our creativity, or that might even be worth sharing on our own Tumblrs.
These days, I've been watching more TV. As in, the real TV that is beamed over the air and is delivered in "channels" with a "schedule" and dorky local newscasters at 6PM and 11PM.
This has presented a new kind of not-missing-out impulse in me. Again, this is hard disease to explain, but symptomatically I've watched dozens of football games, almost as many episodes of The Big Bang Theory, and, I'm ashamed to admit, a Kutcher-fied episode of Two And a Half Men. When you watch real TV with "channels" and a "schedule" they say things like "up next..." or "stay tuned for scenes from next week..." or "you won't want to miss the sensational new..." I know it's silly to say "yes, Mr. TV, I will stay tuned and watch that thing you told me to watch," but sometimes I do just that.
I turn on the TV because it's the path of least resistance
Now, I want to assure you, I don't actually like anything I watch on TV, except maybe one or two football games. After all, I only get NBC, CBS, low-res version of Fox, and this local channel called "my9" which only ever shows Everybody Loves Raymond and King of Queens reruns — we're not talking about golden age TV here. I turn on the TV because it's the path of least resistance.
But once TV is on, I keep watching what's on, no matter how bad it gets, no matter what city CSI is currently inhabiting, no matter... oh my, is Ashton Kutcher really checking to see if he has a shot with Miley Cyrus? No matter how bad. Because otherwise I might miss out.
On real TV, with these channels I keep referring to, there is this creepy series of ads I keep seeing for DirecTV that claim you can record five channels at once. Can you imagine? That means for every hour of the day, your DVR would capture five hours of can't-miss-TV. Which means every fully utilized day you get 120 new hours of television to watch. Do the math, man.
I've always thought of TV abuse as a Generation X problem. These days we have a three-fold advantage: the internet is way better than TV, the cable shows are way better than network TV, and the DVR lets us skip the commercials. But here I am, an enlightened twenty something, and I've fallen into this decades-old trap.
I want to be okay with missing out, because it's a skill that I want to have when I'm back on the internet. It's the difference between checking Twitter once every four hours, or for four hours at a time. It's the difference between texting your friends to stay in touch, and only interacting with your friends through text message. It's the difference between looking at Tumblr for creative inspiration, or letting Tumblr scratch your entire creative itch. It's the difference between watching TV shows you like, and watching TV shows you're supposed to like.
When I "miss out" on one thing, I get to spend my attention on another thing — something that's my definition of important, not CBS's. It's a simple DirecTV-style math problem, except I only have one tuner: I'm awake 17 hours a day. I used to spend 16 hours a day on the internet. How do I spend them now?
Here's what I wrote a few months ago:
"It's the boredom and lack of stimulation that drives me to do things I really care about, like writing and spending time with others."
What was so blissful about my first few months away from the internet is that I didn't know how to not miss out. I was just a total novice at wasting time without the internet. I didn't really start watching TV in earnest until a month or so ago. The top forty station is a new addition as well — I've always sung in the shower, or listened to audiobooks. The newspaper used to befuddle me. I couldn't even imagine trying to watch a local newscast until the other day. My magazine subscriptions were sparse at first — now I get Wired, New York, New Yorker, Harper's, and the Claremont Review of Books.
I have another six months to pick my strategy, to come to terms with missing out
And so now the challenge is set. I know what I'm up against. I have another six months to pick my strategy, to come to terms with missing out, to read books instead of Tumblr, and listen to albums instead of Rdio playlists. Six months to do the math, man. And then, like a young Andrew Garfield in The Social Network, I'll write the equation on a window and allow a montage sequence to take place where a nerdy outcast with something to prove will use my equation to make one billion friends and a few enemies.
The equation might look something like this: 24 x 5 = 120.
I mean, seriously? Five channels at once?