thoughtwisps One commit at a time

around the moon is where the extinguished stars cluster

Lately, I have largely been operating on autopilot. Waking up, plugging into work and drowning the constant din of anxiety with a constant stream of internet distractions served up on YouTube, Twitter and Instagram. While with Insta things can either go very well (“ooh, look at this gorgeous flatlay” or very badly (“I will never be as beautiful as this model with a gorgeous boyfriend”), Twitter and YouTube are drugs with a more steady ride, if you will. Plugging myself into Twitto-matrix means an instant relaxation as the constant din of Slack notifications and unanswered emails is replaced by the steady drip of hot takes, subtweets, roasts and Twitter murder-replies. My brain quietly surfs this wave of information. Sometimes I catch myself reading tweets and not really comprehending what they are about. I’m unlikely to remember anything I’ve read in the past 10 minutes. When I re-emerge, hours may have past.

YouTube is much the same, but with a veiled consumerist slant that proves to be surprisingly effective. Although I have previously been immune to the siren calls of the reviews-meets-advertorial content, this year the compounded effect of moving to a country where any form of social communication requires overcoming a large language barries and the slow realisation that the career I had sacrificed many healthy early-20s years to build was slowly fizzing out into nothing, has had me hitting those channels harder than ever before. And the effects have been tangible, most visible in my wallet and the bulging makeup collection that now inhabits my bathroom closet. From the various coloured bottles and tubes stare at me with quiet disapproval as I ignore them in favour of watching reviews for the next great makeup release and run out to buy it.

The digital brainfog is punctuated by repeated small doses of dopamine and honestly, when everything else is an endless slog of anxiety, those small notifications feel like bliss. So much so, that I found myself becoming a labrat pressing a lever, except in this case the lever is yet another piece of content, another topic on Reddit, another tweet on Twitter, another photo on Instagram, another little byte-let crafted from myself and launched into cyberspace in the hopes that it will yield more dopamine.

A few nights ago, I caught myself spiraling into the “I’m a failure, I haven’t achieved anything cycle” - insomnia. What made matters worse, is that the choice drug for dealing with this was to log on to Insta to lull my brain into happy, pretty images of make up and it backfired. Insta fed the flames with accelerant instead of putting a lid on them. In a teary-eyed late night frenzy, I posted a makeup flatlay photo on my insignificant insta page and started hitting refresh, but the likes weren’t coming. Well, crying yourself to sleep is no substitute for notification dopamine, but it’s better than nothing.

When I woke up, all puffy and hungover from last nights mishaps, I instantly reached for the laptop, which I nowadays keep always on and next to my bed (because I often need to watch ASMR videos to even have a chance of falling asleep) and checked my Insta. The makeup flatlay photo had received exactly two likes. Two. Just two. Pathetic.

When I examine this behaviour, as I am doing now, as a third party describing events, as a narrative that happened to an “I”, still me but removed, I feel terrified. What have I become? I rely on the constant stream of digital low-cal infotainment to be able to do even the most basic of human functions like sleep.

And it’s not just in the low moments of my day that I reach for the digital-dopamine crutch. Slowly, but surely, the desire to constantly watch and engage in the content on these platforms has quelled my desire to do other things that I used to find joy in: running, playing the piano, reading and writing.

Even now, as I sit on my sofa and type these words into a text editor, the urge to click into the Chrome tab I know I have open and minimised is overwhelming. No wonder, on most days with the added pressure of work and life, I don’t even bother resisting. I just let go and become one with the anodyne sea of cyberdopamine distractions.

I feel like the tools I am compelled to use at work (like Slack) have made it impossible to shake off the latent anxiety that right at this very moment when I’m trying to focus on something, I have an unanswered direct message or a mention somewhere on Slack. And even though I try to get myself to finish whatever task I am doing, the anxiety from not knowing whether or not someone expects an answer from me on the other side of that jovial Electron app is often enough to ruin any chance of focusing. This frenzied notification anxiety also bleeds into my outside-of-work life to such an extent that I find it hard to focus on tasks like basic housekeeping unless I’m also constantly refreshing Reddit, Twitter and Instagram and checking YouTube for new content.

[I got distracted by searching for “bathbomb ASMR on YouTube for a good half an hour - time flies when you’re distracted]

Alireza Savand writes in “A busy mind with big dead dreams”

This is a life of constant distraction, 10 notification at a time, another email to respond and inquiry to take care while I’m trying to get something else done.

At my job, I’m getting crazy amounts of email on an hourly basis and most of them need my direct attentions, slack messages that ring the bell of stress and mass execution of grey cells in my small brain.

Life has shrunken for me to a very alarming extent.

Life has shrunken to a point where things that used to bring pleasure like “opera and cinema experiences” have shrunk to mindless time-fillers mediated by “other people accounts” used “to look at things that I don’t like and don’t matter to me”.

Or trips, trips to new places that used to be filled with a feast of new experiences are now simply there as backdrops for Instagram posts and YouTube videos. This fall I went to southern France and while driving among the now-barren lavender fields, I remembered this piece by Paul Reiffel. “Photographers, Instagrammers – Stop Being So Damn Selfish and Disrespectful” - the title of the piece says it all.

Given the alarming extent to which my human, lived experiences are becoming raw materials for the massive machine learning algorithms and other kinds of software that make billions for a few overseas companies, I’ve started examining why is it that I am so desperate to participate in these platforms, to be seen by these algorithms and the people, who like me, ride the highs and lows of this digital nootropic. And I realised that the answer was my ever-present anxiety of slowly slipping into obscurity.

I’m afraid that if I bring the Don-Knuth-I’ve-had-enough-of-email energy into 2020 and detach myself from everything, I will no longer be. I tweet, therefore I am. I post, therefore I exist. Otherwise, how could I be me, if I’m not constantly chipping off bits of the me and chucking them off into the big, vast bitspace in the hope that someone will like what I am and who I am.

“I Used to Fear Being a Nobody. Then I Left Social Media” proclaims the title of Bianca Vivion Brooks’ piece for the New York times and I wish I could channel this energy. Though perhaps being a contributing writer for the NYT would help alleviate my constant FOFO (Fear of Failure and Obscurity) to the point where I could actually quit the hivemind machines.

The natural question to follow this with is to ask, well, why is it so important for me to be a somebody? There are over 7 billion people on this planet, dreaming, wishing, hoping, searching. What makes me so different from all of them that I deserve to be somekind of “somebody”? It’s hard to answer this. Dave Bennet in Bennet Notes recently wrote in a piece “People Who are Obsessed with Success and Prestige “What does it look like to be obsessed with success and prestige? It probably looks a lot like me at the moment.”

And me, too. And not just at the moment, but in all of the moments for many years. Being in the tech, there is the added spin of the “college-dropout billionaires”, the luminaries in our sky of hot takes and unicorn startups. As Dave notes,

As I became more submerged into the tech scene, I started reading story after story about these young guys who all created their own million dollar startup. I envied all the comments of praise and admiration that these people received.

I realized that I needed to be this. I needed to be the next Elon Musk. So what did I do? Started working on projects that I found passionate regardless of the outcome? No. I started consuming useless content from YouTube and the internet. Articles and videos like, “The Habits of Successful People” and “Tips to becoming Successful.” In my mind, I was doing steps to achieve this enlightened state of being.

Unfortunately, after a year of purposely trying, I was still not becoming Elon Musk nor any other “successful” person. Despite reading everyday, meditating, getting up early, taking cold showers, and many more things. But what makes these guys successful anyway? Their fame? Money? Contribution to society?

For me, this syndrome had the added spin of constantly being fed the narrative that I don’t belog and thus needing to prove myself to earn a seat at the table.

So where has this all lead me? After five years working, striving and hoping I am addicted to likes and retweets and routinely use ASMR videos of people tapping on crinkly things to fall asleep, because I usually can’t any other way (no shade to anyone who likes ASMR videos, I love them too, I just wish I didn’t need to constantly use them as a sleeping aid).

If you shoot for the moon and you don’t make it, at least you’ll end up among the stars. Too bad that from the earth, you can’t see all the ones that burnt out.

I’m not sure if there is a cautionary tale in here or a life’s lesson. If there is, I’m still trying to learn it.