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Tech, necessity, and the discomfort of sitting with ourselves

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1997 called, it wants its quietude back

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Shutterstock

Last week I found myself lying prone on an operating table, awaiting arthroscopic surgery. I remember mumbling something about my eyeglasses just before the lights went out. Holes were poked into my knee, cartilage was removed, bone was micro-fractured, and then I was sent home. Nearly twenty years ago, I'd had a similar procedure. But this time, something was different.

Spending four days on the couch meant I had a lot of time to sit with myself, and when I say "with myself," I mean "with technology." That has been the biggest difference between 1997, when I last had surgery, and now: all of the tech, the online video services, the social networks, the ridiculously capable hand computers we carry with us everywhere.

The last time I was in post-op mode, I hadn’t yet dialed up on AOL to chat with Buddies or put up angsty Away Messages (the original subtweet). My parents were still months away from purchasing our first family computer, a Gateway 2000. Less than a quarter century later, and it’s almost impossible to avoid personal tech — even when "resting."

Last time I had surgery, I wasn't even using AOL Instant Messenger

Technology has been useful in surprising ways, and just as surprising has been the utter lack of usefulness of some of these new-fangled gadgets. On-demand video services are a godsend. I watched more documentaries, scripted films, and Sia videos in three days than I would normally see in three months’ time. Streaming video came up big in another, unexpected way: after finding out that I potentially wouldn’t be able to get a physical therapy appointment for weeks, I searched for PT videos on YouTube and found one that was so tailored to my needs that I wondered if ad targeting was to blame/thank.

Snapchat, something I’ve used inconsistently over the past couple years, also became part of the routine. I could go highbrow and say that I decided to use my rare downtime to research a social platform that is becoming increasingly important for publishers, but in truth I was bored and feeling old after reading this Buzzfeed story. I snapped my bum knee, my cat, the fog rolling in outside my window; I messaged with friends and amused myself with their daily stories; and I spent a lot of time in Discover. I like Snapchat. (I am still fairly Snapchat-illiterate.)

Wearables are useless right now

Wearables, on the other hand, are useless right now. I alternated between an Apple Watch and a Fitbit for about a week post-surgery. Why did I bother with either of them? I don’t know. There was little value in step counting. I knew that pain was waking me up in the middle of the night; I really didn’t need a sleep-tracking gadget to tell me that. The Fitbit became incrementally more useful when I had to travel for work and wanted to limit the number of steps I was taking, but it was still a relief to ditch it afterwards. One less thing.

To say I welcomed most of these diversions while I was laid up is an understatement. I stayed tuned in to developments at work by hanging out in Slack. I kept up with news on Twitter. I responded to get well wishes on Facebook Messenger. I sent emojis to friends in group texts.

Tech as the ultimate distraction from vulnerability

This is all good, right? None of this was possible twenty years ago. Maybe back then my friends from school called me on the corded telephone that wasn’t even long enough to reach the couch. Now, everything is amazing. Being surrounded by so much tech and communication saved from the horrible discomfort of having to just sit with myself, of having nothing to do but think about things like human frailty, and wonder why the hell that Magic Markered "Yes" is still visible on my right knee cap. (That is the very low-tech way doctors ensure they’re cutting into the right place.)

But isn’t that more discomforting on some level, the fact that I no longer have any desire to just sit with myself?

It wasn’t just about FOMO, or proving that I could still do my job when I wasn’t 100 percent. Here was the perfect opportunity to actually ignore work and decompress for a few days, and I, almost compulsively, had filled up time and space with every possible digital distraction I could think of, simply because the alternative was even more uncomfortable: feeling vulnerable.