Jonathan Cutrell

Come Down Off the Ledge


It seems that we have more opportunities to delete things than we realize.

Why is "Delete Facebook" even a thing, anyway? We suddenly realize this little chat window, status update thing... that it's bigger than we thought. It makes money, and it eats people's time. It gives us back something... Perhaps it's chewing up our time and spitting it back in our face. Maybe that's why we want to delete it.

Perhaps this is the way all infiltration occurs - not like a SWAT team storming in, but more like a slow insider spy force moving in one person at a time. This little toy of a website or app that at one point was pretty much just Farmville and poking becomes something more, quite stealthily at that.

So many things we use, though! So many that we don't even remember until we take direct and specific account. I have over fifty devices connecting to my router. Fifty. I remember clearly when my Internet was one-at-a-time - someone calling our home phone would "bump" me from my AIM chat sessions.

I deleted Slack from my phone and my computer for this reason - to subtract. A direct accounting of how my time is chewed up and spit back out at me, one emoji at a time.

"There's a person on the other side of that thing, you know." Yeah, of course there is. But my messages are chewing up their time just as quickly. The compression of that medium is more salient than ever.

When you fight over chat, you may be the only one seeing the fight, for example. Ever accidentally misread someone's tone through the frame of your computer screen, your phone screen? Ever make a mistake in an email because you were felt behind your computer?

I use Freedom and Circle to self moderate. I'm no special case, no elite soldier. I fall prey to this elaborate waste as well. And quickly, too. A snap of a command-T+twi... off to the races, I see the silliest thing under the Moments tab on Twitter and down the hole we go.

So I choose my barriers when I'm thinking clearly.

Coming down off the ledge means realizing that you don't have to do this. You don't have to sacrifice the only thing that binds us all: your limited time.

When you are thinking clearly and someone asks you, "would you like to have notifications that overwhelm you at any hour you are awake?" - few people would really want to opt-in to this. No one says, "man, I really hope I don't get much sleep tonight because I was staring at a screen too late."

When I ask you about your life's ambition, you wouldn't say "to spend 12 hours on a screen every day keeping up with the latest gossip and news and hijinks to pacify my awareness of my limited existence." That's an uncomfortable, commonplace reality.

We think access is equivalent to convenience. We think access is actually a one-way street, too. That we have access to all the things we use - all the information we want. Every review of every restaurant so we find the BEST coffee at the perfect time of day, roasted seconds before we walk in the door so our majestic entrance is met with perfectly timed personalized service. I can hear the trumpets sounding now - a welcome to our kingly appearance of perfected modernism.

Oh, and don't forget just how important that coffee is to your personal mission to save the world. And you're going to do it, just as soon as you send this Tweet, check that email, and fire off a quick Slack message.

Come down. Come down off the ledge. You don't have to do this.

But, as our friend Marshall McLuhan (or someone) once said, "We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us."

We have access to our tools, but they also have access to us. We have access to Facebook, to Slack. To iMessages and email. We have access to every TV show, virtually every book we can imagine, every piece of media. We can tour the world through our screens, leaving our bodies in the dust to rot in their inactivity.

We have all of this access, and believe we are observers, travelers, impacting only. And yet, the opposite is true.

We allow our email to have access to us. We allow our screens to impede on our ability to see clearly. We let our endless pursuit of the perfect coffee to eliminate serendipity. Our thirst for modernity and connectedness leaves us terribly alone, docile. Our time chewed up, our "deleting" becoming an act of valor.

Come down off the ledge. You don't have to do this. You don't have to give everything access to you. You can be whole, and you can leave all of that behind. You choose where your time goes - you choose who gets your attention. You choose, with your rational mind, how many steps to take in a day. You choose to create over consume.

But first, you have to come down off the ledge.

Stop believing that this is the inevitable way.

Stop pouring your time into endless buckets of nothingness, giving away your passions in exchange for pacification. Stop trading your sanity and your soul for safety and satiation.

The ledge feels safe, doesn't it? Jumping into the water, off the bridge like everyone else. It feels safe, because it's common - it's the way everyone else is going. We've come so far to not learn this lesson - that the crowd is a terrible thing to follow.

Come down off the ledge.

Written by Jonathan Cutrell, Engineering Manager at Guild Education and podcast host at Developer Tea. You can follow him on Twitter at @jcutrell.