Living in the future

Consciously engaging with technology provokes a specific 90's kid brand of nostalgia.

In the hectic atmosphere of MozFest 2018, I was able to snag a seat at a workshop on mindfulness and technology. Led by linguistics researchers, a pamphlet was passed out to each of us to follow along with the exercises.

Over an hour and a half, my relationship to my phone permanently changed. 

The workshop wasn’t espousing digital minimalism or breaking up with your phone. There wasn’t a huge mindset shift we were expected to jump aboard. Instead, the workshop leaders acknowledged that our phones are precious to us—we look at them hundreds of times a day, often the first thing we see in the morning and the last thing we see before falling asleep. Many of those habits weren’t going to change, especially for those of us whose phones are essential tools for our jobs.

We were presented with pictograms of the human body. We had to choose one type of phone notification and write how it made us feel—and where in our body we felt that. 

I struggle with bodily awareness, so this was difficult for me. But then we talked about how work email notifications created anxiety for people; or that they didn’t want to know when someone had liked one of their Facebook posts because it was distracting. We were challenged to customize our phones to make us feel good—mostly to reduce stress. We drew our ideal phone layout—how were the apps organized? What was necessary for the home screen? 

At the end of the session, I had a new phone screen of the Litany Against Fear from Dune. Whenever I felt anxious, I would unlock my phone and repeat the words over and over again. Now my background is a picture I took of Lake Michigan on a sunny summer day, and my lockscreen is a goofy Picrew of me and my partner they put together. My apps are organized into folders by color, except for the “Transportation” folder because lime green and hot pink didn’t fit anywhere else.

I reassess my phone every few months. During the 2018 workshop, I turned off my personal email notifications. Like many people who have had the same email for nearly a decade, I seem to constantly get emails from marketing lists I can’t seem to unsubscribe from. Sometimes there is something interesting, or an email actually addressed to me, but that was less and less likely. Seeing that I had a dozen unread emails created a false sense of urgency and spurred me to abandon whatever I was doing in order to get that number back to zero.

Last summer I uninstalled Twitter from my phone, and I never added it back. I have mixed feelings about this choice—I can’t remember what prompted me to log off, but something happened that I didn’t want to see. I turn to my phone for entertainment, flicking through apps, wandering over posts; I didn’t want my Twitter timeline to be in that mix. I am in an odd position where Twitter is pretty important for my work—both for keeping tabs on the news and cultivating a personal brand that ideally keeps me hireable as media companies rise and fall. Without Twitter on my phone, I’m tweeting less, and losing some of that clout. I can see myself adding it back to my phone sometime in the future, so it’s not just me shilling for my own articles all the time.

I’ve never had the Facebook app because I don’t care about it, and I’ve heavily adjusted my Instagram notification settings. I closed my eyes and thought What makes me happy? Why do I have this Instagram account?

I created my bookstagram account (@jazzmythlit) explicitly because I wanted to join a community, find friends and create new connections over a shared love of books. I like talking to people, bantering back-and-forth about newest titles or cooing over vintage romance covers. Whenever I saw an Instagram notification and realized it wasn’t a comment, I deflated a little because it wasn’t what I wanted out of the app. I don’t care about likes—so now I never see them unless I explicitly check. But whenever someone talks to me, via comments or DMs, I am excited. I have push alerts set for those notifications. I am the tiniest bit happier after seeing one. 

The major downside of silencing notifications is that you have to be intentional about checking your pings. If, for instance, you rely on email a lot for work, you’d need to remember to check your email X times a day or Y times an hour. (For this reason, I have notifications on for my work email. You never know when breaking news could hit.)

In curating my notifications, I’m pulled back to high school when I had my sick ENV3 phone, how every day when I got home I raced to my room to check my email. In those days, the only email I received was from colleges who got my contact info from standardized tests. I loved to dream of college though, and gleefully consumed all the courting emails even though I know they were blasted to thousands of other teenagers. 

I have a little bit of that excitement now when I check my personal email after work. In this day and age I get much more interesting messages—mixed with those damn marketing ones that somehow evade my filters—and logging in gives me a thrill.

I saw a tumblr post ages ago that perfectly summed this blend of emotion. It addressed 90’s kids, saying they were stuck between two eras because they have nostalgia for their childhoods with limited technology—I certainly remember when we got our first family computer, how Neopets games could take forever to load on dial-up—but have also grown up with social media and the internet. Too young to relate to millennials, too old to relate to Gen Z. (Definitely old enough to be horrified when my baby cousins called their smart device “my friend Google.”) Just stuck in the middle with each other.

It’s easy to lose the wonder of technology now that our lives are saturated with it. I remember watching Zenon: Z3 and seeing Raven essentially FaceTime with the main character, and being blown away by that version of the future. The Disney Channel Original Movie first aired in 2004, and Skype was founded in 2003. The moment I was on a video call—likely sometime in college—and recalled that scene in Z3 I was stunned. All of the awe I felt had dissipated, as being able to talk to anyone at any time face to face was just part of normal life.

I miss that feeling, and I think as someone in tech I’m particularly desensitized to it. This week I’m going to savor the magic of the technology at our fingertips, all the pixels, the infrastructure, the history. 

Your turn. Do you have any technology nostalgia? What was the moment you realized you lived in the future?