One day in December 2016 a 37-year-old British artist named Sam Winston equipped himself with a step-ladder, a pair of scissors, several rolls of black-out cloth and a huge supply of duct tape, and set about a project he had been considering for some time. Slight and bearded, with large grey-blue eyes, Winston had moved to London from Devon in the late 1990s. He supported himself through his 20s and 30s by teaching, doing illustrations for magazines and selling larger, freer-form artworks, many of them pencil-drawn, to collectors and museums. He had just collaborated on a children’s book with author Oliver Jeffers, and done his part to propel “Child of Books” up the bestseller lists. Grateful as he was for commercial success, Winston found he disliked corporate publishing. All the emails! He saw himself as a lead-smudged idealist, an artist-hermit at heart. He’d been troubled by nervous energy and stress since he was young, was an intermittent insomniac, had difficulty filtering noise and distractions in public spaces, and was someone who – like so many of us – increasingly relied on his phone and computer. So Winston decided to hole up for a few days. No screens. No sun. No visual stimulation of any kind. He was going to spend some time alone in the dark.
It took him hours, climbing up and down the ladder in his studio, to cover every last aperture and pinprick of inbound light. The studio, in a converted factory in east London, has large tenement windows and a sloped roof inlaid with skylights that were especially tricky to seal. By Winston’s conservative estimate he used 200 metres of duct tape before he was fully satisfied that here, at last, was darkness. He would sit in it, drawing with pencil and paper, doing yoga, snacking a bit, waiting to see if the dark had any sort of palliative effect.
The world in the 21st century is no more richly textured or exotic to touch than it used to be. It smells about the same and there are no new flavours. Not since the coming of factories, then aeroplanes, domestic appliances and motorways has there been a serious uptick in sound pollution. Yet the spill of information and distraction that comes at us by eye has grown and grown ceaselessly for two decades, without any sign of a halt or plateau. DM! Breaking-news! Inbox (1)! This is a time of the scrolling, bottomless visual, when bus stops and the curved walls of Tube platforms play video adverts and grandma’s face swims onto a smartphone to say hi. People watch Oscar-nominated movies while standing in queues, their devices held at waist height. A Netflix executive can quip, semi-seriously, that he covets the hours we sleep (hours in which we do not, currently, stream Netflix shows). Apple has put an extra screen on our wrists and Google retains quiet hope that we will eventually wear a screen inside our specs. Big news lands in 140 characters or less, ideally with a startling picture or piece of video, else it doesn’t register as big news.
Our brains tend to lean on the visual, heavily prioritising sight over the other four senses. Ever since we climbed on to two feet as a species, taking our noses farther from the aroma-rich savannah floor, we have been wired to be seeing creatures and for better or worse we usually experience the what’s-next-what’s-next of this world through our peepers. As an artist, Sam Winston was often on the lookout for topsy-turvy projects – weird, sidelong ways to unmoor familiar habits or nudge his work in new directions. He wanted to know what would happen, to him and to his work, if he hid away from the ocular blitz for a while.
Now, working and sleeping in his blacked-out studio, he began to notice new things. Without sunlight as a guide, the day’s rhythms came via aural clues he had been only dimly aware of before: the cessation of London’s air traffic overnight, or the sound of idling vehicles as they took fractionally longer to move off from traffic lights during rush hour. When he brewed cups of rooibos in a rote-remembered action at his tea station he noticed that he could hear the difference between hot and cold liquids as he poured them. He began to see, he later told me, “how intelligent our senses are. And how we just drown them in the tsunami.”
Winston found that he was productive in the dark, too, drawing until his pencils were nubs and creating a series of huge sketches – broad-stroked in places or crowded with overlapping sentences in his crabby handwriting – that would later become part of an exhibition at the Southbank Centre in London. Between drawing jags he had vivid daydreams, even hallucinations, “as if my brain was a digital radio left on search, constantly searching for an available channel”.
Winston’s older brother had died, suddenly, the year before, and bereavement was another prompt for him to hole away in the dark. He had expected to use his time under seal to have profound thoughts about love and loss, to feel gratitude towards his girlfriend, a fellow artist, and his parents back in Devon. Instead a very different figure stalked the darkened landscape of Winston’s mind – one who was suited, lardy and omnipresent in the news after his recent election as president of the United States. Winston considered himself only a moderate news junkie, bombarded but not an addict. Yet here was Donald Trump, cavorting around his studio. It was as if, Winston felt, the news was something he’d over-indulged in, even overdosed on, a damaging substance that only now, in cold-turkey conditions, could swirl up out of him and be evacuated.
Winston emerged from the blacked-out studio before his food stocks ran out, around lunchtime on a Saturday. He’d been in there for six or seven days. The sun hurt his eyes. For a long time Winston watched train after train go by on the tracks outside his studio, relishing the everyday sights he’d been starved of, and at the same time trying to settle his insides. What he presumed to be a sudden dump of daylight-induced hormones made him feel faint. The next time he retreated into the dark, Winston resolved, he would try to come out after sunset for a gentler transition. Intrigued by the experiment, and suspecting there were greater depths he could go to, he had already decided there would be a next time.
Through 2017 and 2018 he made plans. He Googled bits and pieces of research. A pioneering experiment on sensory deprivation had been done at the University of Manitoba in Canada in the 1950s, during which hundreds of people were asked to remain alone in a sealed dark room for as long as they could bear. About a third of the subjects quit within days. At most they were in there a fortnight. If he went into the dark again, Winston wondered, could he manage a month? He Googled some more, and went shopping online, ordering more black-out cloth, more duct tape.
Information overload was a term coined in the mid-1960s by Bertram Gross, an American social scientist. In 1970 a writer called Alvin Toffler, who was known at the time as a dependable futurist – someone who prognosticated for a living – popularised the idea of information overload as part of a set of bleak predictions about eventual human dependence on technology. (Good call, Alvin.) Information overload can occur in man or machine, wrote another set of academics in a 1977 study, “when the amount of input to a system exceeds its processing capacity”. Then came VHS, home computers, the internet, mobile phones, mobile-phones-with-the-internet – and waves of anxiety that we might be reaching the limits of our capacity.
A study in 2011 found that on a typical day Americans were taking in five times as much information as they had done 25 years earlier – and this was before most people had bought smartphones. In 2019 a study by academics in Germany, Ireland and Denmark identified that humans’ attention span is shrinking, probably because of digital intrusion, but was manifesting itself both “online and offline”.
By that time Jonathan Spira, head of research firm Basex, had done a study which estimated that hundreds of billions of dollars were being shucked away from the American economy every year, in miscellaneous productivity costs, by an overload of data. Another organisation called the Information Overload Research Group was co-founded in 2007 by Spira and Nathan Zeldes, a computer engineer-turned-consultant who had once been asked by Intel, a computer-chip maker, to reduce the burden of email imposed on its workers. By the end of 2019 Zeldes was ready to sound a note of defeat. “I’d love to give you a magic potion that would restore your attention span to that of your grandparents,” he wrote in a blog, “but I can’t. After over a decade of smartphone use and social media, the harm is probably irreversible.” He advised people to take up a hobby.
In an age of overload it can feel as though technology has rather chanced its luck. Pushed too much, too far, bone-deep. Even before coronavirus spread across the world, parts of the culture had started to tack towards isolation and deprivation as desirable lifestyle signifiers, hot-this-year, as if some time spent alone and without a device was the new season’s outfit, the next Cronut, another twerk.
Before a pandemic limited the appeal of wallowing in someone else’s tepid water, flotation-tank centres were opening all over London. In the Czech Republic there are spas that sell clients a week in the dark in shuttered, serviced suites. “Social distancing is underrated,” Edward Snowden tweeted, deadpan, in March 2020: a corona-joke, but one that will have spoken to the tech bros of Silicon Valley, for whom retreats were the treat of choice.
Recently, I saw that a person called Celine in San Francisco had tweeted to her 2,500-odd followers about the difficulty of “trying to date SF guys in between their week-long meditation retreats, Tahoe weekends, month-long remote work sessions...” About 4,000 people tapped to endorse the sentiment, launching Celine onto an exponential number of strangers’ screens, including my own. The default sound for any new tweet is a whistle, somewhere between a neighbourly “yoo-hoo” and a dog-walker’s call to heel.
Hilda Burke, a British psychotherapist who has written about smartphone addiction, told me that part of the problem in this age of overload is the yoo-hooing insistence with which each new parcel of information seeks our attention. Speakers chime. Pixelated columns shuffle urgently or icons bounce, as if to signal that here is the fire. Our twitch response to urgency is triggered, in bad faith.
When Celine’s tweet whistled onto my phone one idle Friday I couldn’t understand why I found it mildly stressful to read. Was it that it made me feel old? That I already had enough to think about? Eventually I realised that, for me, every tweet is a bit stressful. Every trifling, whistling update that comes at us, Burke said, “is like a sheep dressed in wolf’s clothing. The body springs to attention, ready to run or fight, and for nothing that’s worth it. This is confusing.”
In Sam Winston’s case the epiphany moment came when he realised just how much he was enjoying his hangovers after a night out. He lolled on the sofa. He didn’t feel “targeted by Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, all these services with algorithms that are intentionally designed to be as sexy and juicy and distracting as possible, to fire my synapses as often as they could. What’s that truism? ‘Protect me from what I want.’” He realised that he had a weird urge to be on something like a cruise ship for a month: “To experience a clear stop to it.”
During the summer of 2018 Winston worked to secure a location for his planned month in the dark. An acquaintance agreed to lend him a one-room guesthouse in the Lake District, asking only that, once the property had been thoroughly blacked-out with cloth and tape, Winston sign a waiver taking the blame for any catastrophe. He bought cupboard stores, frozen pies, an apocalypse-supply of bottled water. He arranged for a group of trusted people to call in by phone and make the occasional visit to check that, as one friend put it, “he wasn’t going full Norman Bates in there”.
Winston decided on a few more ground rules. He would do four weeks, going in on Monday at the start of October and coming out on a Sunday at the end. This would amount to 672 hours in seclusion. He would take voice notes on a Dictaphone and record less literal impressions in a series of pencil drawings.
In keeping with the maverick spirit of the effort he did not look deeply into the health risks. He did a bit of reading about melatonin and serotonin, hormones that are produced in the brain by the pea-sized pineal gland and which help the body to regulate its sleep-wake cycle. Winston figured he’d end up rather starved of serotonin, which is usually secreted during daylight hours and helps us to feel alert, but that he’d get an absolute bonanza of melatonin, a soporific. He didn’t consult a doctor, though he did quiz a Specsavers employee during a routine appointment. She said she didn’t know what to tell him.
Winston couldn’t resist a final tweet before he locked himself away: “No reception. No screen time. Drawing in darkness. See you in Nov.” On the last day of September he took a sunset walk in the fields surrounding the property, staring at hills and cows and in general trying to enjoy this last conventional use of his eyeballs. Then he went indoors and went to bed, killing the lights for the next 28 days.
He could handle the pitch-black mornings, having tried a shorter version of this experiment before. So when Winston awoke and got over the momentary panic – that, no, he had not lost his vision overnight – it was easy and agreeable to drift back into a dark-drugged second sleep. When he did get out of bed, feeling his way to the kitchenette and the fridge, breakfast took longer than usual to prepare and consume. All this contributed to a certain time-slippage. Even in those first few days he imagined he was up and under way on some morning activity, drawing at his work table, or doing yoga stretches on the carpet, only to receive a check-in call from his girlfriend, who let him know he was a few hours behind. Without a precise sense of time he surrendered again to the vaguer, lulling rhythms of something-like-morning, something-like-afternoon, something-like-evening, something-like-night.
It was quieter in the country guesthouse than it had been in the city studio. Winston’s ears had to tune in to more distant aural clues. Before long he realised he could tell the difference between day and night from the density of traffic noise on an A-road half a mile away. He went through other transitional stages he had experienced before, such as that weird prominence of news and current events as his psyche cleared its titbits and cookies, “the accumulated songs, the little thought eddies, a kaleidoscope of stuff”, as Winston remarked in a Dictaphone note on day five. A day later he recorded another note: “I’ve discovered it doesn’t matter which way you walk in the dark, forward or backwards, it makes no difference. Either way you can’t see anything. Quite good, walking backwards.”
With his vision suppressed, his other four senses were getting a chance to step up and show their stuff. It has long been accepted that people who can’t see may experience other sensory gains. With advancements in brain-scanning technology in the 1990s and 2000s, academics began to test our anecdotal understanding with empirical research. Their findings suggested that non-visual sensory enhancement happens quickly in the dark. Even 30 or 45 minutes after the lights plink off, our fingertips thrill with greater responsiveness and we seem to become markedly better at determining the direction of travel of sound. Research in this area is ongoing, and it excites scientists who specialise in the senses because it suggests the brain is more adaptable – more “plastic” in their terminology – than was previously thought.
Charles Spence of Oxford University’s department of experimental psychology talks about brain plasticity as if he’s a property magnate. “When the body is plunged into darkness”, he told me, “this huge visual part of the brain is no longer doing the stuff it normally does. That’s a lot of spare real estate and what you find is that, surprisingly quickly, the real estate is retooled or repurposed.” The other senses simply take it over. That the non-visual senses should commandeer brain space so quickly – within an hour, according to some studies – excites specialists such as Spence because it suggests that we are using latent connections instead of growing new ones, which would take longer to form. By turning off the lights, in other words, we aren’t necessarily enhancing the other senses, we’re just more inclined to heed what these other senses are already saying.
As he entered his second week in the dark, Winston spent ages running his fingers over common objects, the edges of things, surfaces, entertained and distracted by the minute textural details he could discern. He had been drawing in the dark. Now, whenever he picked up a pencil, he was sure he could intuit the density of a pencil’s lead from its vibrations on paper as well as “the acoustics of it, its energy across the page”. Certain tactile experiences came with exciting visual impressions. Washing was especially thrilling – “showers were Alton Towers” – as every drop of water seemed to conjure a corresponding drop of colour in Winston’s mind. When his girlfriend called him from a London bus, he found that he relished the humdrum noises in the background, the sound of commuters, the beeps. “It was like having a whole tv mini-series to think about afterwards.”
The refining of his other senses led to compromises and frustrations too. Winston could no longer get to sleep on sheets that had been washed in supermarket detergent because he found the fragrance so strong it made him gag. Foods he’d always liked turned disagreeable, particularly processed ones. There was an unforgettable afternoon with a McCoy. Winston was convinced he could now track the progress of the crisp’s saturated fat down his oesophagus. One day, troubled by indigestion, his brain conjured a frightening image of himself with a distended, bloated stomach. He started to eat less after that. Exercising, crying, masturbating less. As Winston prickled with a richer sort of sensory awareness, these basic physical activities wound down because he found them too dramatic, too weird, too much. He had come into the dark to escape, but this didn’t feel like much of one.
By the start of the third week, soggy with melatonin, Winston was spending more and more time on the sofa. He sunk in to memories. Daydreamed. Hallucinated. He saw landscapes drift past, mostly coastlines, shimmering seas. His hallucinations could be workaday and he found that his mind itched to redraw the guesthouse around him, plastered beige walls there, tiled kitchenette there…Then, after something as prosaic as that, he would see a cloud-filled sky. A star field.
If the bodily effects of the retreat were strange (psychedelic showers, the snake-like digestion of a crisp), then these were foothill experiences compared with the mental effects. In the aftermath Winston would have trouble putting the experiences into words and we would have long conversations trying to map where exactly he went in his head, trying to differentiate between day-time hallucinations and night-time dreams, sometimes falling back on the Dictaphone notes Winston had recorded in the dark.
He was amazed at the obscurity and reach of the memories that came to the fore, “these weird little air bubbles from the past that went ‘pop’.” As with Trump, the people who turned up to join him – sometimes hallucinated, sometimes felt only as spectral presences – were rarely those he expected. When he was 17, Winston had been a bit crap toward his first girlfriend. He hadn’t thought about her in decades and now she strode back in (hiya!) to join him in the black-out. It took Winston four or five days, wringing his hands, picking back through long-ago instances of infelicity, laziness, casual teenaged callousness, to retrieve a useful memory: she’d once written him a letter he hadn’t answered. “She was the first person who ever wrote to me and said, ‘I love you.’ And I turned around and said, ‘Whatevs, I’m over, doing this with somebody else.’ I missed it at the time, the intimacy and the tenderness of the moment. So there I am, 20 years later, in the dark – realising how incredibly selfish I’d been.”
The spectral girlfriend shimmered away. Afterwards, Winston found himself revisiting and replaying all kinds of bygone squabbles and misunderstandings. Pleasant moments too. He thought about his girlfriend a lot. He wondered why he had never asked her to marry him. He found he could wallow, a little more inquisitively, a little more sympathetically, in overwhelming emotional events that had rushed by at the time.
This was not always a good thing. Winston thought a lot about his brother, Ben, who had died. “Just fell over. He was 40. He had a wife and a young daughter. He was in the middle of his life. It wasn’t fucking fair.” When someone dies on you like that, Winston said, “there’s a rational bit of you that knows they’re dead. And there’s this irrational bit where you feel a bit like a bloodhound. You’re sniffing around going ‘Sorry, where have they gone?’” In the dark, with no morning or afternoon, the real and the imagined had vaguer edges and Winston started sniffing around more deliberately. “I had some experiences that were pretty far out to sea. A part of me thought, you know, ‘I’m gonna go and find Ben.’” This didn’t happen. There was no spiritual encounter, no satisfying reunion for Winston. Instead, during his scarier reveries on the guesthouse sofa, he started to doubt what he called “the binary here and not-here of death”. Winston even wondered once or twice if he’d died himself. He worried he might be going mad.
“When you turn off perception by going into darkness,” Charles Spence told me, “mental imagery has nothing to compete with. It becomes the most intense thing there is. Hence you start to see hallucinations, people confusing reality with their mental imagery, the mental image for the real.” A friend of Winston, Martin Aylward, who’d tried a week-long dark retreat himself, warned how noisy the experience could be. “Even if you spend a little time with yourself,” Aylward said, “you’ll notice how a voice chatters away in your head – the blah-blah-blah of the inner monologue. In the dark that can start to be extremely loud, extremely tiresome. And relentless.”
There had been moments, listening to Winston’s tales from the dark, that I wondered if we might all follow his lead and spend our own month under seal. In a fluorescent world, especially in these tense, locked-down times, mightn’t darkness be a sort of readily available cure-all? A potent, inexhaustible form of bedroom pharma?
Winston went into the dark for a month in a bid to escape the digital bell-chimes, the bouncing icons, the bulletins and info-blasts – our exhausting daily scroll. “But when you go into the dark for a long time,” Winston admitted to me, recently, “you’re not going into a void. You’re going into yourself. And good luck finding blissful empty quiet there.” There was nothing to compete with the loud, incessant inner monologue or drown it out. I wondered, then, whether we’d created and refined all our sparkly informational distractions because on some level we knew the relentlessness of the subconscious had the real power to overload.
By the start of the fourth week Winston had started to lose track of how much sleep he was getting. He was having dreams of such dazzling, 3D intensity that even months later it was hard for him to call them dreams. One morning towards the end, Winston woke up and recorded a raspy, panicked Dictaphone note: “Day 19... There was a bizarre little event. The Queen came to visit, and I was naked, and she was here already.” Around this time a friend drove to the guesthouse to look in on Winston. He answered the door in a blindfold, looking pale and gaunt. Talking slowly, maybe at two-thirds speed, he said he hadn’t been expecting anyone until the afternoon. “But it’s 5pm,” the friend said.
The real world, the one with garishly delineated mornings and afternoons, was creeping back to claim him. His girlfriend was due to arrive at the guesthouse a couple of days before the end, to help Winston adjust to human company again and ease the outward transition. He recorded a voice note: “So this is day, I think, 26? 27? She arrives in a couple of hours. Everything’s sped up. Everything’s got quite rush-y. Like, shit, I need to wipe down the surfaces or make the bed. None of it big. But it [still feels like] coming out of hyperspace.”
On day 28, just before dusk, his girlfriend helped him out of the guesthouse, leading him in a blindfold to the garden. Winston was gently hysterical, cackling and clapping, kneeling to touch the ground under his feet, stroking the bark of a tree and muttering, “Who made this?” When he gingerly removed his blindfold and used his sight for the first time in 672 hours he had to bow his head against the minimal glare. He stared at the horizon for a long time, and later explained what was going through his head: “the whole system rebooting...Like you’re being born, but this time with an adult head on...I remember I felt really innocent. Like those astronauts who look back on Earth and wonder how a war could ever happen, how we could all get so confused. [There was] a sense of the impending loss of that. I knew that before long I’d be back on the Central line, thinking that some stranger was an idiot for standing in the wrong place in the carriage.”
Before he lost that thinning sense of innocence, Winston wanted to capitalise on his experience. He dragged his girlfriend off on a walk and proposed to her. She said yes. Over the month away he'd lost weight and his pallid, almost puce-coloured skin had turned a raw burnished pink in the outdoor breeze. As long as she’d known Winston his eyes had been an unremarkable blue-grey. Now, when he removed his blindfold, she gasped. She rushed to take a picture. His eyes, after 28 days without anything to feast on, had turned a vivid baby blue.
Shortly afterwards, Winston put the quirky photograph of his brightened eyes on Twitter, for his followers to see. He logged in, uploaded the JPEG, appended a pert little message and pressed send, digital chores that signalled as surely as anything that he was back in the world.
One afternoon in January this year I met Winston by Regent’s Canal in east London. He had just taught an art class nearby and was due back at his studio, where admin awaited him. More than a year had passed since the end of his monkish retreat and his eyes had returned to their regular blue-grey. Winston was carrying a large satchel, over-stuffed with cardboard tubes and when I asked what was in them he said it was his students’ work. That afternoon he had led a class in which he encouraged them to put on blindfolds to draw.
He had become an advocate for making art in the dark. Winston’s retreat had left him with conflicting feelings, but he was convinced of one thing: that a blast of darkness, taken in moderation, was a powerful creative tool. The boiled-down pitch he’d been making to other artists was that by depriving yourself of visual stimulus, the mind had to leave its comfortable grooves. Originality resulted. He was pleased with the large swirling pencil drawings that he’d made in the dark and had plans to exhibit them at the Barbican in London and the National Centre for Writing in Norwich. Winston had commissioned poets and novelists to undertake dark retreats, and been satisfied to hear from them that the freeing effects of dark-working carried over into other forms of creativity.
On his computer there were tons of emails that needed answering about the dual shows. Inbox (200), Inbox (300). One of the most time-consuming tasks, Winston admitted, had been his efforts to persuade curators in London and Norwich to construct enclosed black-out spaces, so that visitors could try immersion in the dark themselves. An hour or two at most, Winston suggested. Not 672.
He said he wouldn’t recommend what he’d done to any-one. A year on, Winston had finally found his bearings again but it took him months, maybe six, to get his equilibrium back. For a long time he couldn’t stop noticing every little inbound impression. In a city as loud and smelly as London that was too much to tolerate. After the retreat he often felt glum, almost bereaved, because, for all its terrors, the dark could be addictive. He pined for another immersion. This disturbed him.
Back at the studio we met his girlfriend. As usual, to record our conversations, I laid my iPhone on the table, beside a fail-safe iPad. Behind us, the studio computer flicked to a screensaver, hiding email software that teemed with to-dos. Unwilling to face these, Winston fooled about with a cardboard tube instead, using it as a loud hailer to pester his girlfriend. “Why haven’t we got married yet?” he boomed.
She smiled and said: “I don’t know,” throwing Winston an ambiguous look that I took to mean, “Because you’re the kind of person who might vanish on a black-out jag at any moment.” Winston sighed. Things had seemed simpler with the lights off. “I wanted to know, ‘How did we all get so confused?’ Because I couldn’t see the confusion. Now I can’t see the simplicity.”
He sat at the computer. Typed a bit. He was restless. Did I want to try it, Winston asked, the dark? The sun was setting outside the tenement windows. We could sneak in a couple of hours before I had to go home, he reckoned. Excited as a boy getting out his stickers, Winston grabbed two blindfolds from a hook and started shoving furniture to the walls. His girlfriend excused herself. I agreed to try and do some writing while Winston meditated and snoozed on the sofa nearby. The poet George Szirtes had been so uneasy about the coming dark, Winston recalled, that he needed his hand held. Don Paterson, another poet, had admitted that what truly terrified him was the prospect of his own uninterrupted company. “I’ll just be over here,” Winston said to me. There was a click and the lights went off.
From the sound of the sofa’s miniature rustlings, I tried to visualise the positions Winston shifted through. Then I listened to the creaks of the building’s heating system and the more distant trains. Taking up a pencil I started to make the scratchy beginnings on this story (what would eventually become paragraph three). After half an hour, surely no more, I heard Winston stir. He removed his blindfold and checked the time. Two hours had passed. With some reluctance, I pulled myself out of a middle-place of pale colours, crisp sound and slower, sedate thought. I said goodbye to Winston and headed for the nearby station. An electronic message board above the platform said the next train was 15 minutes away: unacceptable. I texted home to complain about this. The board rotated through station names, security warnings, bromides about respectful travel. A man beside me watched the new Scorsese on his upturned phone.•
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article attributed a study to the Information Overload Research Group. The study was undertaken by Basex.