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Yesterday I discovered, via a friend, a Kickstarter project for a product called ALARMclock. It is, in fact, an alarm clock, but with a not-very-subtly embedded double entendre: it informs you of the time but also the number of friends you have, how much money you have, and the days left until the predicted date upon which you will die. All of which could potentially engender ALARM, ha ha.
The variables are, of course, a bit fuzzy. Your friends are tied to your social media accounts (always dubious), your money to a singular bank account, and the days you have left, according to generic actuarial tables. It should be noted that the latter does not take into account the mortality implications of voluntarily imposed “acute stressors”, such as choosing to sleep on a bed of sharpened spikes every night, or living in New York City, which sometimes makes you think “acute” is not a strong enough adjective for “stressor”. But the ALARMclock makes the point. “Reconnect with powerful motivating forces such as financial instability, social insecurity, and fear of death,” its splash page reads.
I would lobby for a few other metrics, though. (Financial and social insecurity and a healthy fear of death are so limiting.) I would also like a quantitative measure tied to my IQ that goes down every time I play 2048 on my iPhone, take an internet quiz determining which 1990s sitcom character I most resemble, or stack another unread Economist on my coffee table.
Actually, that’s a lie. I don’t feel that guilty about not reading The Economist. But I do worry about the deleterious effects of 2048, 1990s sitcom quizzes, push notifications and the amount of mental energy I spend on dopamine-inducing but potentially brain-damaging activities in which I indulge on a regular basis. My last full-time job was a stint as editor-in-chief of the New York Observer, a small regional newspaper, but I’ve spent most of my career in digital media, beginning in 2002 as the founding editor of Gawker.com, a gossip site published by former FT journalist Nick Denton. Internet-induced overstimulation is less a recreational hazard than a lifestyle for me.
In an effort to mitigate those effects, I recently signed up for a meditation workshop at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California – the retreat centre that was one of the origins of the 1960s counterculture movement. Though I had never been to Esalen, I knew of it as the birthplace of Gestalt therapy; a place frequented by the psychologist Abraham Maslow, and the writers Henry Miller and Aldous Huxley; a place where people got naked in the hot springs, but which had been toned down a bit since Hunter S Thompson – a caretaker of the place for eight short, disastrous months – described it as “a real menagerie, flavoured with everything from bestiality to touch football”.
Somewhat to my disappointment, there was no bestiality or touch football but there were a lot of attendees from Silicon Valley, many of whom were taking a workshop inspired by the mythologist Joseph Campbell and titled “The Hero’s Journey” or some such. One Google employee described this to me over lunch as a course in “charting your personal narrative”, as his friend and fellow tech-company employee sprinkled some sort of green vitamin supplement on his already organic, sustainably farmed and presumably healthy food. They were part of a group that had ventured down Highway 1 to continue their process of self-optimisation that no doubt already included quantifying all of their bodily functions and learning to solve complex mathematical formulas in their sleep. I wondered how they were getting along without mobile phone reception in Big Sur, but they seemed OK.
For my part, I went to the meditation workshop and learnt how to do something called Tibetan sound meditation that involves a focus on breathing, a specific visualisation and making an absurd but soothing sound, all at once. It has a certain rub-your-head-and-pat-your-stomach quality but with the additional difficulty of vocalising what you’re doing. The leaders of the workshop ran an integrative medicine programme at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas and used the meditation techniques to help breast cancer patients struggling with “chemo brain” to rebuild cognitive functions. I was merely struggling with everyday technology-induced brain damage, so I’d like to think it was doubly helpful for me. I am not a Buddhist but I do believe in neuroplasticity.
I was in a good enough mood by the end of it to enjoy fully the beauty of Big Sur unhampered by any temptation to check Twitter. As I gazed upon the Pacific Ocean while sipping my ginger and turmeric tea, I was not thinking of my financial and social insecurities, or the Yahoo! Answers page I had recently stumbled upon with the question, “How can I stop the inexorable march of time that brings me one step closer to death?”. I was thinking about nothing. Which is, I suppose, the point of meditation.
But then I noticed a bunch of the Silicon Valley guys who’d been playing Frisbee (the touch football of the aughts?) gathered near the edge of the cliffs, staring at the sea. Whales had been spotted over the weekend, and having never seen a whale myself, my inner five-year-old became excited at the possibility that the techies had spied one. I tapped one of them on the shoulder. “Is it a whale?” I asked, hopefully.
“Nah,” he said. He pointed upward. “My buddy’s got a drone.” And just above us buzzed $300 worth of black plastic that looked like the product of an unfortunate union between a hovercraft and a mosquito.
I later read that Dick Price, the co-founder of Esalen, had died when a boulder fell on him in 1985. While meditating. But that seemed a little suspect. So today, back in mobile phone reception, I googled “Dick Price” and unexpected boulder accidents and, it turns out, Price was hiking when the boulder fell on him. This sounds more plausible, but what to do with that information?
In a few hours, my alarm clock will go off. My non-internet-enabled alarm clock that, at a slowly rising volume, wakes me with the soothing sound of radio reports of developments in the Ukraine or Gaza. A different kind of ALARM.
I’ll check my phone and take a look at Twitter, erase a pile of push notifications and text back two or three people. And then, for at least five minutes, as I try to do every morning, I’ll turn my phone off, sit cross-legged, and focus on nothing but the sensation of breathing.
Elizabeth Spiers is a writer and digital media consultant
Illustration by Luke Waller