BY DINA INMAN RAMGOLAM
“Your true traveler finds boredom rather agreeable than painful. It is the symbol of his liberty - his excessive freedom. He accepts his boredom, when it comes, not merely philosophically, but almost with pleasure.” – Aldous Huxley
The figures surrounding media use are alarming. On average we look at our phones 52 times a day (Deloitte, 2018) and spend an average of 3 hours, 10 minutes on our mobile devices—a 9-minute increase from 2018 (Wursmer, 2019). With numbers like these, there should be no surprise why some of us are seeking relief from our addiction to media by trying something different—by doing nothing at all. Yes, the art of doing nothing has a new name, niksen. A Dutch concept, niksen describes total idleness—consciously choosing to spend time serving no purpose at all (Gottfried, 2019). Whether it’s looking out of a window or sitting in your favorite chair staring at the wall, the gist is that you do it without aim or need for achievement.
The idea of doing nothing as a way to clear the mind and be in the present is nothing new. However, niksen and its growing popularity is a contemporary response to the hectic, fast-paced, ‘fill your time doing something’ society we live in. For many of us, especially those addicted to media, niksen is a far-fetched, unrealistic notion of how to slow down and spend our time. After all, we live in a networked society plugged in by technology, where staying connected and remaining available feeds our need for speed, productivity, and feelings of relevancy. But, with the growing problem of media addiction, we must begin to question the virtues of all things better, faster, and smarter. One way to do this is to examine the one factor both media addiction and niksen have in common—the element of time.
Indeed, time is fundamental when evaluating media addiction. Whether it’s the amount of time spent, the mismanagement of time, or the loss of valuable time, time is often a variable used to diagnose media addiction (Kim & Haridakis, 2009; Reith, 1999). However, time plays a much larger role. From the dominant cultural patterns that shape our behavior to the simple, yet informative, ways that it helps to explain daily experiences, time is also telling in how we become addicts and what we experience as a result. This essay demonstrates the role of time by identifying three distinct dominant cultural patterns that play a role in encouraging media addiction. These patterns then come to shape how we experience time. Understanding one’s temporal experience is helpful in that it informs us of how an individual might feel and what they may encounter on a daily basis as they work and live (Ballard & Seibold, 2003). Temporal experience can also indicate whether or not someone is at a greater likelihood to become addicted to media. In sum, the review offered here provides us with an opportunity to think about the complexity of a fast-paced culture and its potential corresponding experience.
Temporal experience is largely shaped by dominant cultural patterns that include a combination of “national, regional, local, and ethnic influences” (Ballard & Seibold, 2003, p. 393). Contemporary arguments reveal that we are no longer subservient to clock time and temporal experience is instead shaped by the notion of network time—temporal patterns that better describe our present-day reality of merging the real and the virtual via information and communications technologies (ICTs) (Hassan, 2007). As such, current dominant cultural patterns are influenced in part by the technological affordances of media, and these affordances become evident in addicted behavior (Griffiths, 1995).
To be more specific, there are three factors that drive dominant cultural patterns: varying levels of synchronicity, temporal compression, and temporal expansion. Varying levels of synchronicity (e.g., high, medium, and low) describe the overall patterns and properties associated with ICTs. For instance, properties such as the speed of interaction, the time an individual has to encode a message once a message is received, and the ability an individual has to review previous information (Dennis, Fuller, & Valacich, 2008), all demonstrate the variability of communication patterns. The end product are patterns that are robust, irregular, and in some instances overlapping. Think about the variability of email and texting. Email, which is asynchronous, may take days or hours for a response whereas texting can be near-simultaneous. When considering the addictive behaviors associated with media addiction such as compulsion, we can see how varying levels of synchronicity might lead to the inability to control the checking of a mobile device, for example. There’s plenty of anticipation and guesswork involved with asynchronous communication as we often do not know when we are going to receive any given message. This leads us to constantly check our devices so that we avoid missing messages (Bayer, Campbell, & Ling, 2016).
The second factor, temporal compression, is the ability, through the use of technology, to increase our activity “within the same unit of time,” reorganize “the sequence and ordering of activities,” and eliminate “all unproductive times from the process” (Adam, 2004, p. 128). Temporal compression is a key component to how communication patterns via media use are potentially saturated (i.e., multiple activities conducted within one unit of time), fragmented (i.e., short and incomplete messages), and desequenced (i.e., randomly ordered messages). Multicommunicating, the juggling of two or more interactive conversations at the same time (Reinsch, Turner, & Tinsely, 2008), is a prime example of temporal compression. The ability to electronically multitask is a feature favored by those who report media addiction (Labar & Tepordei, 2019). This means that media addicts become accustomed to filling their moments with productivity by craving the smart devices that allow them to do more than one thing at a time.
Temporal expansion reflects how communication patterns now reach far into times and spaces previously deemed private or restricted. More specifically, temporal expansion focuses on the flexible nature of these patterns—meaning, the lack of temporal and spatial boundaries involved in mediated communication patterns. Mobile communication and virtual work arrangements exemplify temporal expansion in that mobility and working across time zones affords users the communicative flexibility (e.g., we are no longer bound to space/place) necessary for accomplishing communication goals. The lack of temporal boundaries makes it easier and more acceptable to engage and communicate via ICTs twenty-four hours a day, 7 days a week. For instance, sending your manager an email at 2 a.m. provides one with the opportunity to communicate outside designated office hours. Open access is a capability also favored by those who report social media addiction. Social media addicts have pointed to the ease and accessibility they have to connect with others in their network despite the elements of time and space (Cha, 2010).
The details illuminated by the three dominant cultural patterns demonstrate the potential to drive media addiction behaviors but they also shape an individual’s experience of time. Time can be understood to have a variety of dimensions. In particular, the dimensions of present-time perspective, pace, temporal separation, and urgency—all expose the impact of the dominant cultural patterns (Ramgolam, 2012). For instance, in Ramgolam (2012), the dimension of present-time perspective was found to be positively related to those individuals who engaged in multicommunicating (i.e., temporal compression), and also referred to events in terms of the ‘here-and-now’ or the present. Additionally, the pace and urgency for which individuals reported was also significant and increased when multicommunicating (i.e., time was experienced as fast-paced and as running out). When participants worked across temporal boundaries (i.e., temporal expansion), they reported the inability to refer to their actions and activities as less divided up or separated from each other (i.e., lack of temporal separation).
The reports mentioned above are the outcome of time experienced as a result of using media. Although the study above did not specifically measure for media addiction, the findings do provide us with insight as to what dimensions may be relevant when evaluating reports of media addiction. Interestingly, the temporal dimension of present-time perspective, has consistently been linked to describe the experience of an addict (Goldin, 2014; Labar & Tepordei, 2019). Present-time perspective focuses on taking advantage of the moment as opposed to contemplating the future or thinking about the past. Although “our temporal sense is ever-shifting,” addicts are argued to have low temporal bandwidth—meaning they often “discount the future at far greater rates” (Goldin, 2014, p. 249-250). Discounting the future and instead constantly living in the moment is what leads addicts to lose control. The notion of present-time perspective stands in opposition to individuals who are more future-oriented, where they contemplate the consequences of time spent performing a particular behavior. The implication here is that the use of media, with all its ease, availability, and functions lends conveniently to experience immediate gratification (i.e., present-time perspective). Enabling features that grab our attention and bring us into the moment, like notifications on our smart devices, are ripe opportunities to draw in those prone to media addiction.
The goal of this essay was to question the value placed on all things fast and smart by reviewing the element of time and its relationship to media addiction. The dominant cultural patterns presented above explain our fast-paced culture and how this may lead to media addiction and particular experiences of time. Additionally, the hope here is that we begin to question our actions when it comes to media use. Perhaps, before we purchase the latest media, we need to think long and hard about whether or not we really need it to be smarter, faster, or more accessible to others. If our devices are constantly putting us into a state of urgency (e.g., push notifications), then maybe we are better off not utilizing such a capability. We also need to be cognizant of the things we spend our time doing. Like niksen, media addicts experience time in the present. This quandary begs us to address what exactly we are spending our time doing and question if it helps or hinders our health and creativity. Boredom, for example, proves valuable in that it is often a prelude to creativity (Mann & Cadman, 2014). Interventions and counter measures have been studied and offer media addicts opportunities to change their habits. For example, in her book Sleeping with Your Smart Phone: How to Break the 24/7 Habit and Change the Way You Work , Leslie Perlow offers organizational members and management with a system that promotes a better work-life balance. There are also apps like Unhooked that offer individuals a way to reduce screen time and instead take a walk. These attempts are ambitious but important for those addicted to media. They help us think about our temporal tendencies and the costs associated with being addicted.
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