I have been diagnosed with depression by two different therapists. I’m pretty sure they’re right. One of them, who I saw on and off for almost five years, said I had dysthymia with double-depression, which means that my “normal” mood baseline is a few points below other people’s, so even when I swing upward toward happy/manic, I don’t get as happy/manic as neurotypical people.
Fun, isn’t it?
Lately I’ve been having some real struggles with my depression, and I think a lot of them are related to how much technology I use. In that vein, here are six of the best ways technology depresses us.
6. Passive interaction. — There are a lot of creative people out there. Millions. Perhaps billions. Many of them make some pretty great television shows, and someone’s got to watch them, right? Why not me? Why shouldn’t I be the one to re-watch a mostly-awful program from the early 90s, or critically-acclaimed shows from the late 90s and early 2000s? Or to go back and enjoy all the episodes of Star Trek in production order from the very beginning? And then there’s the new shows: Orphan Black, Orange is the New Black, Sense8, and even BoJack Horseman (which I find myself liking a lot even though it’s full of some — dare I say — depressing truths).
The fix is in. Every time I finish a show, there’s a new one to be watched. When I finish BoJack, I have to watch Sense8. My partner and I are alternating Orphan Black and Veronica Mars. When Netflix drops a new season of House of Cards or Orange is the New Black, there’s a weekend completely eaten up. Oh, and the fall TV season is about to start too; I watch fewer than 10 prime-time shows each year, not including Game of Thrones, but that’s still a lot of time gone too. And then there’s winter and spring and summer premieres, and Netflix and Amazon and Hulu always have new things, and at some point I have to get my hands on Blunt Talk, and…
How is this a bad thing? By merely interacting passively — and using second-screen apps or talking about the shows online doesn’t count — you’re consuming someone else’s version of the world instead of the real version. Or, worse, when you’re a creative person you’re consuming other people’s creativity instead of outputting your own. Literally anything, including breathing, can block a creative person, and given how hard it is to make new things and finish making them, passive interaction such as television can really ruin things. I barely wrote anything last month, but I sure as hell watched a lot of TV.
5. Casual gaming. — What do you do when you have fifteen free minutes? And no, I’m not just talking about when it’s time to take your phone into the bathroom. Checking social networks takes a while if you follow a lot of people, but it only takes a few minutes to play a casual game like Two Dots or Pac Man 256, my current game obsessions. Daily goals, rewards, achievements, and the unlocking of new levels and items… they all remind you to play, even if you don’t have notifications turned on. And if you’re on your computer, there’s countless games on Facebook to whittle away the hours.
The fix is in. Bored by casual gaming? How about non-casual games? I don’t have a game console, but if I did, I could play any number of immersive adventures, from RPGs to shooters to co-ops. People do this all the time. It takes a couple of minutes to load up a game and play it, and if you’re going to do that, you’re going to invest the time to finish. It’s not like when I used to fire up the Atari in elementary school and play a few rounds of Asteroids, or even Galaga and 1943 on the NES. When I used to play Madden, in the late 90s and early 2000s, it could take upwards of two minutes just to load a game, on top of the load time for the actual system and disc. After that it’s a matter of pride to keep playing, even when there’s other stuff to be done.
How is this a bad thing? The same as with passive interaction, except now you’re being nagged all the time to keep playing the game. It sits there on your screen or your shelf, waiting for you to squeeze in some time to play. So you game, and you don’t go see your friends, or clean your house, or write a story, or play a sport, or cook healthy food. I’m glad my computer didn’t track how long I spent playing Civilization 5 a few years ago, but it was a lot of time. Probably enough time to write an entire book. It’s depressing to think about how much time we spend on things that don’t matter, like casual games. Sure, they have their place, but their place isn’t “a substitute for actual living”.
4. Keeping digital records. — Do you have MyFitnessPal? RunKeeper? A FitBit? Do you record your meals with Instagram, or check in everywhere on Swarm? Do you vlog, tweet, or update your status on Facebook? It seems innocuous — and sometimes even healthy — but it’s just as insidious because it always, always goes from being “something fun to do” to “something I have to do”. At first you follow ten or twenty people on Twitter, and then you’ve got 150 and you have to keep track of everything they do. Woe betide you if you don’t send a birthday message on Facebook (or any other social media site) before everyone else, or forget to post a filtered picture of your dinner at Applebee’s (after artfully re-arranging the plate, of course).
The fix is in. When does it get less fun? When the apps nag you to sign in, to check in, to record your food, to take a few more steps or go on a jog. When you don’t want to miss a thing. When you scroll through your entire Tumblr dash, or your entire Twitter or Facebook feeds. When you join niche social networks and try to read all the posts and look at all the pictures and comment on all the threads. And, worst of all, when you start thinking you have to create good content instead of just enjoying other people’s content that’s created for you — and then getting depressed when you realize no one likes your content. I’ve been on Twitter for almost eight years, and I’ve never once had a tweet get more than 100 interactions. It’s a lot of pressure, and it can break a person. It’s broken me more than once.
How is this a bad thing? There’s only so much of you to go around. The more time you spend curating your digital records and ingesting everyone else’s, the less time you have to live your life. You see your friends (and your “friends”) making their goals on fitness apps and it depresses you because you could have gone for a walk but instead you watched TV. You see acquaintances from high school doing crafting or building awesome technology and you remember how you spent all afternoon chasing an achievement on a game on your phone. You see an amazing meal on Instagram and try to replicate it, only to give up halfway through because you don’t have coriander and anyway it’s easier to just throw some popcorn in the microwave and eat a handful of almonds.
3. Sleep. — Sleep is a necessary part of human existence. Without it, we die. Simple as that. But so many factors go into a good night’s sleep: how stressed out we are, how our relationships are going, how our kids feel, what we ate for dinner, what we watched on TV, what book we’re reading, and even what kind of light we were exposed to in the hours leading up to bedtime. Oh, and let’s not forget how comfortable the bed is, what kind of sheets we have, the weather outside, the climate inside, what time it is, random outside noises, random inside noises, other people awake in the house… Sleep is complicated.
The fix is in. All the things I’ve talked about to this point — watching TV, playing games, and of course gamification — contribute to keeping us from sleep. I mean, I turn my phone notifications off before I start reading at night, but I still occasionally pull down the top of my screen and see if I have any messages. But even before then, I have to check Twitter, Facebook, my other social networks, and MyFitnessPal (to make sure I added something for the day, even if I haven’t been really diligent about updating my food). I use Flux and Twilight to control the color temperature of the light that I see, but I do usually watch TV before bed (in the living room; we will never have a TV in our bedroom) and there isn’t yet an app that modulates color temperatures for smart TVs. At least, none that I’ve heard of. So, basically, I fill my brain with all sorts of BS that triggers my depression, and then I go to bed and my brain doesn’t shut off because I remember all the time I wasted during the day. Oops.
How is this a bad thing? I’ve read dozens of articles on how to get a good night’s sleep. I obey fewer than five percent of the recommendations made. I could try to obey more, but why? I’ve already ruined my day by watching TV, playing casual games, and forcing myself to do social media for people who ultimately don’t really care, so why end the day any better? It’s just a waste. I’ll get to sleep eventually. Probably.
2. Working on computers. — A great deal of jobs nowadays require computer use. Accountants, receptionists, salespeople, inventory managers… all of them use computers. Literally everyone in the building where I work, with the exception of the custodial staff and the cafeteria team, has a laptop with two additional external screens. I use maybe 75 percent of my larger one (30 inches) for work purposes; the rest of it, and my smaller one, are for social media and talking to other people. When I’m not working, I’m checking Facebook and Twitter, or I’m reading my feeds — which, admittedly, is important, because I use technology news to keep up to date with my industry and the industries with which I work (I’m in a highly technical sub-field of the advertising industry). Or I’m talking to my partner or my friends via instant message.
The fix is in. How much time do you spend staring at your screen, trying to find something to do to fill your time instead of, y’know, being creative or getting stuff done. The internet makes this super-easy, and even though we know our bosses are legally able to monitor our internet use (we sign papers that say this every time we start a new job) we still goof off on the internet all the time. It’s just accepted. I’m a major, major procrastinator, but even though I get all my work done within the SLA I still push it off to the last minute if it’s something I just don’t feel like doing. Or am too depressed to do, because yes, Virginia, depression does affect your work performance.
How is this a bad thing? I look at co-workers, present and past, who’ve developed things for the company that have made it money, and then I look at myself, who uses down-time to catch up on the internet, and I wonder how much of a waste I’ve been over the years. I’m a smart person; I could’ve come up with new products or solutions, but I just haven’t wanted to. When things are broken, I fix them. When my boss says “solve this problem”, I solve it. But I don’t come up with things on my own, usually, and when I do I tend to get stonewalled because I don’t have the knowledge to complete the projects and no one wants to help me; they all have their own work to do, after all. It’s disheartening and depressing, and I’d much rather keep up on my RSS feeds and talk to my friends than come up with ideas that’ll never come to fruition. Technology makes it easy for me to stop trying.
1. Driven to distraction. — Watching TV. Playing casual (or console, or computer) games. Gamifying our lives and keeping digital records. Forgoing sleep in favor of checking our social media. Immersing ourselves in time-wasting technology at work. What do all of these things have in common? They’re ways to distract ourselves from our lives. Because, truthfully, we don’t want to think about them. We don’t want to think about our debts, our bills, our failed dreams, our missed goals, and all the other things that depress us. Or, in the case of people who suffer from forms of clinical depression, the things that depress us more. Technology makes it easy not to think about things until it all comes crashing down.
The fix is in. It’s literally possible to use technology as an indefinite distraction. There’s always going to be one more Facebook post, one more level of TwoDots, one more listicle on Buzzfeed, one more episode of CSI, one more meal to Instagram, one more celebrity to retweet, one more political article to agree with, one more political article to comment angrily upon, one more new phone to buy, one more one more one more one more. It never stops.
How is this a bad thing? By distracting ourselves from our problems, instead of facing them head-on, we’ll never solve them. I mean, look at me: I just wrote 2500 words about how technology depresses me (and probably other people too) instead of writing 2500 words on a new short-story or book, or investigating a new product we could use at work, or finding a new, fun thing to do with my partner tonight (we have a few Groupons, but somehow we never use them). And the end result? I’m even more depressed than I was when I started.
So, y’know… success achieved?
I used to play this Sierra game called Jones in the Fastlane (originally called Keeping Up With Jones). It was The Sims before The Sims was a thing; it was basically a life simulator where you had to get a job, find a place to live, and be happy. I got pretty damn good at it. Well, back in the day, the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses” referred to making sure you were on the same level as your average neighbor: your house, your car, your job, your family, your lifestyle.
Now, when you keep up with the Joneses, you’re keeping up with their social media posts. You’re seeing their awesome meals, their awesome kids, their awesome vacations… from your couch, or your desk at work, or your phone as you sit in the bathroom and try not to tear your hair out because you can never keep up. You can only run after them, ignoring what’s good in your life: your family that loves you, your job that ostensibly fulfills you, and worst of all your own agency to make changes.
Keeping up with @theJoneses is just going to depress you. Don’t keep up with @theJoneses; instead, be @theJoneses. You might not kick your depression entirely, but you’ll probably give it a run for its money.
Got an idea for a future “Six of the Best” column? Tweet it to me @listener42.