Inside the box
If you're feeling a bit boxed in nowadays, it's hardly a surprise.
We live in boxes. There are the obvious physical boxesâ€”the house, the room, the carâ€”those are just the obvious start. Other boxes are harder to see: cultural boxes, familial boxes, genetic boxes,... Each would be a topic for a book in and of itself, but for this article, I'll focus one category: the digital boxes within the computer box.
The computer is a physical box representing a fractal infinity of digital boxes. 1s and 0s automagically shuffle around and somehow turn into Rs, Gs, and Bs, which in turn turn into the words you're reading, the music that you're hearing, or the vibrations you feel when your mom calls.
You're familiar with digital boxes: apps, websites, or games. These boxes in their colourful and interactive splendour can be addictive. So much so that if we're not careful, we can spend all the time sitting in our physical boxes, looking into digital boxes until we're carried out in the wooden boxes.
So no wonder some of us feel boxed in.
And here's the thing: as much as we might make fun out of cats for almost immediately jumping straight into a box as soon as it appears, we fail to realize we're not all that different: we love boxes.
In fact, nothing provokes more anxiety in the average modern human as not being in any box. Having nothing to do and having an infinity of options (not being boxed in) is something that most people run away from within 10 seconds. A quick look-around on the train or in the subway confirms this.
For all the outside-the-box talk, I think a better question that takes into account our affinity for boxes is:
What kinds of boxes should we choose and which should we avoid?
Let's start with the latter.
The bad boxes
There's a pernicious habit I sometimes fall into: scrolling reels.
My phone-box with funny video-boxes and comment-boxes underneath fully envelops me in a magical box that allows me to time-travel into the "I really should go to sleep" part of the evening seemingly within seconds.
Stepping inside the reel-box is a habit that makes me feel boxed in like no other. To make matters worse, 1) I'm not alone and 2) the reel format introduced by TikTok en masse is now being used by most of the big platforms. For a reason: it's addictive.
Reels are a supreme example of a bad box:
- They give you just enough novelty to trap you in.
- They reduce your possible actions to: Like, Comment, Share... (and make the rest of one's choices fade away).
- They leave you feeling worse off and in the overwhelming majority of cases don't lead to anything productive.
And yet, sometimes I choose to box myself that way like a cat coming back to a barely functional but comfortable box.
That's the danger with bad digital boxes: Play that game, open that website, scroll that appâ€”you end up doing uncreative, unimaginative things, for hours at a time.And it's so simple to succumbâ€”just accept the rules of the box: these are the actions you can take, these are the rewards, there you go.
The trade-off is luring: no immediate existential crisis, no anxiety, here's something to do (no thinking required). You're going through the motions and there's a certain level of short-lived peace in that. At the same time, that kind of existence is uninspired and what's sad to me is how easy it is to descend into it.
So, I try to pick my boxes better.
Well, Vita, what does that look like?
The good boxes
Not boxing ourselves in is nigh impossible so it's more about *finding the best boxes possibleâ€”choosing how exactly we limit our choices at any point in time.
Now, which box we choose is up to our mental state.
If we're high energy, we can choose to be our own box architects (active role).
For example, the editor I'm typing this in is a workshop-like box. It's open-ended. It does limit how I express myself, but I can choose to type a million different things. There are buttons, but those are on the periphery. I can express myself inside the editor box. The editor, the topic, the time of dayâ€”these are the boxes I chose today. I could also pick an entirely different box like a swing dance class (box of time, space, and people), or I might code (editor = box, home office = box).
Good boxes like the above are vehicles for self-expression and self-realization. They lack predefined actions like Like, Share, Subscribe and as such, they make more of our own genius manifest.
When I have the energy or the will, I will look for open-ended boxes where I define the actions to take and lay the tracks before me myself, to pursue my own goals.
But Vita, what if I'm not high energy right now?
If we're low energy, we can pick a better pre-prepared box.
There are some good ready-to-go boxes out there: good movies, good books, good experiences (walk outside, art exhibition, chat with a friend you haven't seen in a while),... These boxes are nicely laid out for us without us having to make too many active choices. They are wayyyy better than the fractal box of a feed-based app.
Good boxes reward us for spending time in them, they give us new ideas, offer new perspectives, or simply make us feel human.
And with that, we have reached the boundary of this particular article box. My hope is that it makes you reflect on whether you're boxing yourself in in the way you want.
Look around. What are the physical boxes you spend time in? What are the digital boxes you spend time in? Are they open (allowing for creative expression) or closed (click this button, tap that icon)? What kind of box do you spend more time in?
If you pick the right physical and digital boxes, you won't feel boxed in. Quite the opposite, the right kind of box will set you free.