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  • Writer's pictureNick Cook

The Instant Gratification Monkey Staring into the Funhouse Mirror of a Mobile Phone

(Original Article Published 23/4/2016)

“You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land, there is no other life but this.”

– Henry David Thoreau

Have you ever found yourself almost colliding on a pavement with someone walking straight towards you set on a collision course, gaze downturned? It is easy to recognise these victims of the zombie plague that has ravished our planet because they are the ones with their whole attention locked onto the mobile phone clasped in their hands. If you are lucky, they spot your feet and veer to the side at the last moment, their eyes never leaving their mobile phones during the entire manoeuvre. If you’re really lucky you may get a mumbled apology, before they drop back into the compelling world conjured up within the silicon of their mobile device.

The worst example I’ve witnessed of the mobile phone zombie plague, was when travelling through Sri Lanka. We had stopped in a restaurant in the beautiful mountain town of Ella when a European family of four was shown to the next table. Less than a minute later they had logged onto the restaurant’s wifi network and all had their heads buried in their various mobile devices. They continued this way throughout their meal, barely registering their surroundings, no conversation, forkfuls of the (delicious) food being chewed, but I suspect barely even tasted. And that struck me as incredibly sad because they were squandering the whole point of travelling…to open your eyes to the world around you and to revel in the experience of the new.

Now I’ll be the first to admit succumbing to the lure of the phone/tablet/laptop, that window into the other world where there’s always some new Facebook status update to peek at, that funny Twitter link doing the rounds, that amazing new photo that someone just posted on Instagram. But of course with their easy seduction of your attention, therein lies the danger of our ever increasingly online world.

I gained a fresh insight into this phenomenon when I watched Tim Urban’s brilliantly entertaining TED talk – Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator (the video is at the end of this article). Tim introduced me to the concept of the instant gratification monkey, that side of our psyches that wrestles control from the rational decision-making part that is busy planning for future events and is working diligently towards them. By contrast, the instant gratification monkey is easily distracted by some shiny new thing that it pursues into what Tim called the dark playground, a guilt-filled place where you play but know you should really be doing something else. And it was that part of Tim’s talk that really struck a chord… I don’t know about you, but I can be watching a fantastic movie at home, the most gripping TV series, but if my phone is within reach, the fingers of my very own instant gratification monkey get twitchy, and unless I exercise some considerable mental discipline, I will find that phone in my hand as I begin to scroll through my friend’s social media updates.

Shakes head at himself.

So when did it get so hard for us to concentrate on something, to be present with friends, and family, to open our eyes to the wonderful world all around us, and be locked into the attention siren calls of social media and the rest?

As a keen amateur astronomer, I’m far too well aware of the incredible gift of being born on a planet that exists in the goldilocks’ zone, a region that’s not too hot and not too cold for life to exist. Also, despite finding a fast-growing list of exoplanets around other stars, we haven’t yet heard the pulse of intelligent life coming from them. And this all adds significant weight to the gift of our existence. So if life is such a gift, aren’t we duty-bound to try and make the most of our time upon this planet rather than squander it?

One of the ways that I try to do exactly this, is to travel. But sometimes mobile phones can even distort these experiences. We were visiting the São Jorge Castle in the gorgeous city of Lisbon in Portugal. A feeling of tranquility enveloped us as the sun slid towards the horizon and we drank in the commanding view of the golden city stretched out beneath us. A perfect moment. Nearby, a young couple looked utterly miserable as they took in the same view…but then the selfie stick came out and their mobile phone was attached. With that idyllic scene behind them, at last, their beaming smiles appeared. They took a photo of themselves, but as they reviewed it, frowns returned. Then photo after photo was taken, until one, at last, seemed to satisfy them. Then, with some taps on the screen, that photo was posted online for their friends to see, the illusion of their perfect enviable happy lives, maintained. But once that photo was posted, they both looked utterly miserable again. And that struck me ever as so very sad because rather than being authentic to themselves, they seemed more worried about impressing their peer group.

I have long said that we become the stories we tell ourselves. And if you’re not careful, social media can distort your story like a funhouse mirror that warps the image you present to the world.

So isn’t it time to write a new script, a manifesto of being true to who we really are, of being present in the moment, of mindfulness? Of keeping our own instant gratification monkeys in check?

With all this in mind, my own personal promise to myself is that I will try to keep my own instant gratification monkey a little bit more caged in the future. And I can start that by leaving my phone switched off as frequently as I can…so I can be more present, wherever, whoever I’m with. The years of existence are too precious a gift to squander staring at a slab of glass metal and glass. I will certainly always try to be authentic online.

So how will you tame your own instant gratification monkey and be true to who you really are?

Photo credit: szeke via / CC BY-NC-SA

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