What did people do before they could look up the answer to every single question that arose in their heads instantly?
Did they try to guess the answer? Did they just wonder — What’s the population of Georgia? — and then shrug their shoulders and move on?
Did they question this stuff at all? Or were questions like this one— easily answerable questions that provide us with fun, unnecessary facts — absent in human thought?
Did people simply live their lives not caring about weather patterns around the world and the demographics of cities that they didn’t live in? Did they just not care what sushi place had the highest rating in their neighbourhood and what European city they could escape to for the cheapest price that weekend?
I am not in the good old days club. I don’t think that the world was necessarily any better back when people could only be distracted by their brains. But lately, I’ve been working on becoming more present. And because I want to be more engrossed in my real world, Google searches on my phone have become my worst enemy.
The other day I tried to work on being present at my neighbourhood Chipotle in Angel. It felt like the right place to start: I don’t normally go to restaurants by myself, but I really wanted a burrito and I was alone and I thought — instead of going home and propping myself up in front of Gilmore Girls — why don’t I sit outside, turn off my phone and watch the world around me?
Angel is a wild and magnificent place. It’s filled with first dates and last dates and groups of friends from all around the world. Delivery drivers come and go and buses pass with curious people looking out from the top deck, on their way to Oxford Street or Paddington. There are lots of dogs and children on leashes and sometimes a Jamaican guy is playing Call Me Maybe on steel drums. It’s a wonderful place to be present and observe. It’s a wonderful place to eat a burrito by oneself.
So, I put my phone on airplane mode and sat in the sun to study the world around me and eat a delicious burrito and it was great until I saw a sign.
Angel Business Design Centre.
I’d seen the Angel Business Design Centre so many times before. I knew that it was this big place where they held conferences of some sort but what exactly was it? Knowing what I knew was not enough — I wanted to know everything. When was it built? Is there a restaurant inside? What’s the next conference that they’re hosting?
My curiosity bubbled and grew — it started in my brain and moved downward until it captured my hands and, before I knew it, I was pulling out my phone and turning off airplane mode and clicking on Safari and right when I was about to search Angel Business Design Centre I stopped.
Wait a minute.
Do I really want to know what the Angel Business Design Centre is, or is looking up information about it just a way to distract myself from my life? What will I do with that information? What happens if there is a restaurant inside? What happens if there isn’t?
I stopped and put my phone away. If I really want to know what the Angel Business Design Centre is, I’ll think of it later and I can look it up then. Now is my time to appreciate the things around me. It’s not always time to Google.
Looking up every little thing that we question is polluting our brains. Sure, I know the capital of Ethiopia and how much it costs to get round-trip tickets to Johannesburg in September and when Tokyobike was founded. But, I only know these facts and thousands of other facts like them because it takes seconds to look them up on my phone.
Do I know the things that matter to me, like what city I want to move to next? The proper technique for painting with oil paints? No, I don’t know these things because they take a long time to understand and to think about. I don’t know these things because I’ve traded in learning a couple of these things over time for learning thousands of little facts immediately when I think of them.
The temporary high that we get from learning these fun facts motivates us to keep looking up every little question that enters our minds. But the energy it takes to look up every little thing that enters our minds is not negligible.
Every question is task switching — distracting and distorting our brains and making our little fingers tired, too. By the time we get home, there’s no way we’re going to want to look up a new scale to learn on the piano, so instead we look up three more fun facts and scroll through Instagram for the rest of the night.
It’s a couple of days later and I still don’t know what the Angel Business Design Centre is, but I don’t care. Having the time alone to think about my life and how I feel and the taste of every bite of my vegetable burrito as I sit and people-watch along Upper Street in London is worth more than knowing about a place where people go to conferences that they hate.