Digital simplicity

Hank says “Put the dang phone down!”

It’s not news that a lot of us have a complicated relationship with technology. Many of us feel like we spend more time on our phones–particularly social media–than we think, in our more reflective moments, is probably good for us. Phone addiction is now discussed as a serious issue, and the ubiquity of mobile phones has even been linked to a significant increase in mental health issues among the young. The ubiquity of mobile phones and the rise of social media seem to contribute to anxiety, isolation and depression, even while making utopian promises to “build community and bring the world closer together,” as Facebook’s mission statement has it.

I personally have wondered (but been afraid to find out) how much time I’ve spent on these services and what I could’ve done with that time instead. As often as not, social media is, for me anyway, a source of anxiety and irritation. I’ve sometimes thought of Twitter as “letting the world’s angriest people set your mental agenda for the day.”

And yet, it’s hard to stay away. In addition to social media providing a distraction from whatever else might be going on, there’s a vague, but ever-present sense that you might be missing something (however ill-defined that something is) if you aren’t logged on. And yet, at the same time, the world of social media has a tendency to encroach on other activities that we (theoretically at least) value more. Have I checked Twitter or Facebook while ostensibly playing with my kids or enjoying a long walk on the leafy streets of my neighborhood? Why, yes I have.

None of these observations are new or original, but they set the stage for a recent book that helped me crystallize some of the real problems with living this way and why and how to make a change.

In his newest book Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport, a professor of computer science at Georgetown and author of several popular books, makes a compelling case for intentionally limiting your use of digital tools, particularly social media, whose entire business model rests on sucking up as much of your time as possible. He recommends a 30-day digital “declutter” where you eliminate, or significantly cut back your use of voluntary digital tools; then after the 30-day period you reintroduce only those that add significant value to your life.

Newport calls his philosophy “digital minimalism” because he thinks the value added to our lives from the time we invest in these services is likely, for most of us, to be a bad deal. Instead of mindlessly meandering about in these environments whenever we’re bored, we should decide what, if anything, we really want to use them for, and limit our time engaging with them to these purposes. He cites Henry David Thoreau’s advice to “simplify, simplify, simplify,” not for its own sake, but to make room for richer values and experiences.

The second half of Newport’s book makes the case for activities that we can make more room for if we spend less time mindlessly scrolling through Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. These core activities–solitude, conversation, and high-quality leisure–are, Newport contends, essential to a flourishing human life.

  • Solitude means spending time alone with your own thoughts without the input of another mind. (So this excludes reading, listening to podcasts, etc.) Solitude in this sense is essential, Newport thinks, for processing our own thoughts, self-reflection, and turning over a particular problem. Taking long walks is an excellent opportunity for such solitude.
  • Conversation is defined in contrast to the fleeting “connections” we tend to make online–likes, retweets, comments. Newport says that humans are designed for a much higher “bandwidth” form of connection, as evidenced by the ways we, largely unconsciously, process the many non-verbal cues during face-to-face conversation. Online connections should largely be relegated to logistical purposes–to facilitate genuine conversation, whether in person or over the phone (or even an app like Facetime).
  • High-quality leisure includes the kinds of activities that we undertake for their own sake. Paradigm examples for Newport are fixing or building physical things, playing a musical instrument, engaging in “supercharged” forms of sociality like intense group workouts, and other “analog” activities that don’t involve simply flopping down in front of a screen.

Newport’s final chapter focuses on the “attention resistance”–a loose but growing movement of people who realize that, for social media companies and other producers of digital tools, we aren’t the customer, but the product (as the saying goes). The “attention economy” thrives when we spend as much time as possible on these platforms, and technology companies have incredibly smart engineers working to make their tools and apps as addictive as possible. The attention resistance is made of of people who take a more adversarial approach to these companies and seek to deprive them of their attention, except to the extent that they derive benefits from these tools.

While I found most of Newport’s argument persuasive, I did have a few disagreements. Despite quoting Aristotle on the value of leisure, Newport all but ignores Aristotle’s emphasis on contemplation as the highest goal of human life. Virtually all of the people Newport describes as exemplars of high-quality leisure are super high-activity types who are out clearing trees in the forest or learning how to weld as their preferred forms of “leisure.” I do agree that engaging with the physical world is an essential part of human life, virtually all of Newport’s examples still focus on a high-productivity “doing” rather than “being.” (I had a similar concern about his previous book Deep Work, which seemed at times to be mainly a manifesto for being more productive, rather than questioning the obsession with productivity.) One could argue, for instance, that the contemplation of nature has as much, or in some case more, value than putting the human stamp on it.

All that said, I found the core of Newport’s argument convincing: It is very hard to maintain that the amount of time many of us spend on social media is time well spent and that it wouldn’t be better put to use otherwise. If anything, he somewhat undersells the drawbacks of social media: particularly the dread, anxiety and malaise it can induce in many of us. I honestly can’t think of too many times I’ve come away from Twitter or Facebook feeling happier and more energized. And he seems right on about the shallow forms of affirmation we’ve come to rely on in our quest for more likes and clicks.

Moreover, though Newport is writing from a secular perspective, many of his insights would dovetail with religious wisdom, particularly on the importance of simplicity, solitude and engaging with other people and the created world without the mediation of a glowing screen. At the same time, religious wisdom could also correct Newport’s tendency to value production over contemplation. In any event, Newport convinced me to attempt my own digital declutter: a Twitter hiatus and a significant cutback on my use of Facebook. Whether I’ll be able to put these services in their proper place in my life (if they have one!) after 30 days remains to be seen.



Technology, love, and paying attention

I really enjoyed this post from Michael Sacasas at his blog “The Frailest Thing.” He argues that it’s not smartphones (or any other attention-grabbing gadget) per se that make it hard for us to pay attention to the people we encounter–it’s us.

It is sometimes a battle even to be attentive to another person or to take note of them at all.

This is not a recent phenomenon. It is not caused by the Internet, social media, or mobile phones just as it was not caused by the Industrial Revolution, telephones, or books. It is the human condition. It is much easier to pay attention to our own needs and desires. We know them more intimately; they are immediately before us. No effort of the will is involved.

Being attentive to another person, however, does require an act of the will. It does not come naturally. It involves deliberate effort and sometimes the setting aside of our own desires. It may even be a kind of sacrifice to give our attention to another and to be kind an act of heroism.

Even though this is a problem endemic to the human condition, technology can exacerbate it:

But the smartphone is not altogether irrelevant, nor is any other technology to which we might lend our attention. The thing about attention is that we can only direct it toward one thing at a time. So when we are in the presence of another person, the smartphone in the pocket may make it harder to pay attention to that person. But the smartphone isn’t doing a thing. It’s just there. It’s not the smartphone, it’s you and it’s me. It’s about understanding our own proclivities. It’s about understanding how the presence of certain material realities interact with our ability to direct our intention and perception. It’s about remembering the great battle we fight simply to be decent human beings from one moment to the next and doing what we can to make it more likely that we will win rather than lose that battle.

This made me think of a post I had recently read by Frank Schaeffer as part of his series of “12 commandments of happy parenting”:

Never give a child your divided attention once you’re playing with them, unless it’s an emergency. That doesn’t mean you should give them your attention all the time. Far from it.

Playing alone is good. But don’t be rude when you are being a hands-on parent.

Watching a young mother or father texting friends while his or her child is trying to talk to them is just plain cringe making. It’s teaching a lack of empathy and respect.

It’s also teaching all the wrong priorities about what is important in life. Don’t be surprised if you tune your child out and later your child tunes you out.

I see this all the time. I’m also guilty of it. Though I don’t have a smartphone and I generally avoid text messaging, it can be a challenge to give my kids my undivided attention. Not always, mind you–there are times when I’m fully and effortlessly engaged in some game we’re playing, or reading a book with my daughter, or making my son laugh through various facial contortions. But often–too often–my mind and attention are (at least partially) somewhere else. Maybe I’m thinking about work or worrying about something that needs done around the house. Or maybe I’d rather be reading a book or surfing the Internet.

It may also be, as some have suggested, that our multi-media, information-saturated lives (for some values of “our” anyway) are actually changing the way our minds work, diminishing our ability to maintain focused attention on one thing at a time. If so, that’s an even deeper problem.

Regardless, it does seem that Sacasas is right that giving someone our attention requires an act of will or a kind of discipline. Maybe this is partly why so many spiritual traditions have cultivated practices that require people to focus their attention. I’m thinking especially of various forms of meditation and contemplative prayer. What these practices seem to have in common is an effort to focus on a reality beyond the self–to the extent that the ego recedes into the background.

And one of the “fruits” of such practice is–ideally at least–that we become the kind of people who can more easily set aside our own desires and be attentive to others and their needs. We can certainly invoke here the example of Jesus, who seemed to have an uncanny ability to make each person he encountered feel the full force of his loving attention. To love others–including especially our children–as Jesus loves us would seem to require, at a minimum, learning to give them our attention.

Friday Links

–Today is the Feast of the Annunciation; here are some thoughts on that. BLS also has one of her outstanding musical offerings for the day.

–John Piper, theological nihilist?

–Catholics are “more supportive of legal recognitions of same-sex relationships than members of any other Christian tradition and Americans overall.”

–How to live without a mobile phone.

–A proposal for a vegan-omnivore alliance against factory farms. Related: Mark Bittman on prospects for laws protecting farm animals.

–A semi-defense of B.R. Myers’ anti-foodie polemic.

–On the anniversary of Bishop Oscar Romero’s assassination.

–Washington, D.C.’s black majority slips away. Related: the percentage of the nation’s black population living in the South has hit its highest point in fifty years.

–An interesting blog I recently discovered: Marginal Utility, hosted at PopMatters; it covers the culture of work and technology from a leftish perspective.

–Why is media coverage of Africa so unrelentingly negative?

–The Lutheran theology journal Dialog currently has its Spring 2011 issue available free online; it includes some reflections on Carl Braaten’s recently released memoir, which apparently (and not surprisingly) has some harsh words for the ELCA. Added later: Here’s another take on the Braaten autobiography from last year.

–Let the D.C. beer renaissance begin.

Added even later: Gateways to Geekery: Kurt Vonnegut.

Attention must be paid

There have been a couple of articles recently on the “slow reading” movement, one in Newsweek and one in the Guardain. Actually, “movement” may be a bit strong; it seems to be more of an impulse, or a reaction against our 24-7 ultra-connected, multitasking, information-saturated lives. (Where “we” are a relatively small minority of affluent elites, just to be clear.)

Slow reading is just what is sounds like: taking your time, really engaging with a text, not skimming or snacking on bits and pieces of information. The concerns of the slow reading movement echo those of technology writer Nicholas Carr, who in an Atlantic Monthly article from 2008 worried that Google was making us stupid. That is, re-wiring our neural circuitry to make it harder for us to pay sustained attention to a piece of writing, or an argument, or narrative. (Carr followed up his article with a book called The Shallows that has gotten a lot of attention.)

I think most of us probably sense that there’s something to this. I know that when I’m reading something online the urge to follow a link or open a new tab is almost irresistible. Rarely do I read anything of substantial length online from start to finish they way I might when reading, say, a long magazine article or a novel. It does seem to require more effort to pay attention.

If this is right, it has implications beyond reading. The ability to pay attention–to attend to some person, or thing that exists apart from (but also in relation to) us–plays a large role in the moral and spiritual life. The philosopher-novelist Iris Murdoch argued that the moral life begins in the ability to appreciate something–a part of nature, a body of knowledge, a person–for its own sake, independent of any benefit it may have for us. In other words, to pay attention. Buddhism teaches that the path to liberation is learning to pay attention to reality without the distortions imposed upon it by the chattering of our minds. Christian prayer involves paying intentional attention to God–the ultimate context of Being. So, if our minds are rendered incapable of sustaining that kind of focus (and, to be fair, not everyone agrees this is happening), what happens to us as moral and spiritual agents?

Links for Friday

– Derek on the church and (in)fallibility and communing the unbaptized

– Animal advocacy and pragmatism

– This is your brain on gadgets

– BLS has been writing a fascinating series of posts on the church and A.A.

– The thought of Paul Ramsey

– The AV Club’s June round up of all things metal

– The New York Times bans the word “tweet”

– The Karate Kid remake: surprisingly good?

– The A-Team movie: not that good

UPDATE: Had to add this: Tyler Cowen points out that the Netherlands has a animal-rights-based political party, the Party for the Animals (website here, but it’s in Dutch).

Jacques Ellul vs. the Kindle

Well, sort of. John H. at “Confessing Evangelical” has a very interesting post using 76 questions Ellul suggested we ask about any new technology.

Handful o’ links

Britain’s Labour Party needs to reinvent itself as a new liberal party.

Obama vs. McCain on climate and energy policy – not the same.

Animals as gentically modified drug machines.

Is Google re-wiring our brains?

Obama: what kind of liberal?

Meat in a vat

It’s funny, from the standpoint of animal suffering I ought to be all for this, but something about it still gives me the heebie jeebies. I’ll have to think a bit more about why that is.

Animal liberation?

Reason‘s Ron Bailey has an interesting article about the moral implications of scientifically “uplifting” animals – i.e. making them more intelligent – through genetic manipulation:

Some technoprogressive thinkers such as editor-in-chief of George Dvorsky argue that we have a moral obligation to uplift other species to sapiency. “It would be negligent of us to leave animals behind to fend for themselves in the state of nature,” declared Dvorsky. He foresees mostly great good coming out of any such project. On the other hand, the prospect of uplift inspires dread in bioconservatives like Francis Fukuyama who worries that biotechnologists will create slave chimpanzees with the intelligence of a ten-year old boy.

Setting aside the fact that no one has any idea of how to actually uplift, that is, to dramatically boost the intelligence of animals, would it be moral to do it? How would a dumb animal give its consent to being uplifted? Since no human being gives his or her consent to being born with whatever level of intelligence or health he or she has, why should prior consent be required for uplifting animals? Dvorsky actually thinks that it is more moral to uplift already born animals so that we can ask them before-and-after questions. Perhaps they would recall their pre-sapient state and tell us if it were preferable to the anxieties of self-awareness. But what if uplifted chimps and dolphins told us that self-aware intelligent language using is not all that it’s cracked up to be and that they’d rather go back to their state of natural innocence?

Bailey correctly concludes that it would be wrong to create what he calls “happy animal slaves,” that is, animals with enhanced intelligence who nevertheless are genetically “programmed” to be content with taking orders from us, like animal equivalents of the Epsilons in Huxley’s Brave New World. “Successfully uplifted animals would have to be treated with the same moral respect that we owe to human persons,” he notes.

Still, there are good reasons to think that the whole idea of “uplifting” animals, even if technically feasible, is wrongheaded. First, there are serious moral obstacles to using animals as experimental subjects in the first place, especially if there is no particularly pressing (e.g. life-saving) benefit at stake.

Second, and to me this is more fundamental, the underlying premise that animals are nothing more than “defective humans” who, if they knew better, would want to be as much like us as possible, betrays a deep misunderstanding of the value of non-human nature. In fact, it’s not too far removed from the old idea that women were “defective males” who failed to develop properly. But why should we assume that the natures that animals have are valuable only insofar as they approximate human nature? It seems more reasonable to say that the cluster of traits possessed by each species represents a set of trade-offs without one being clearly superior in every way to all the others. As it is, at the rate we’re going, human beings may turn out to be the one species capable of overshooting its carrying capacity and taking a bunch of other species with it, which would suggest that we’re less than the ideal creature.

Here again is a fundamental divide between a purely utilitarian view of nature and one that recognizes the intrinsic value of non-human creatures. If nature is sheerly raw material for human purposes, why not try to improve other species as much as possible? (Though, even on those grounds it seems to me that unforseen consequences would be a good reason for trepidation; ask Charlton Heston about wars between human beings and super-intelligent apes.) On the other hand, though, if the natural world and the creatures who inhabit it have an intrinsic value of their own, then each species exists for its own sake (or, on a theological view, for the creator’s sake) and not as raw material for human meddling.

Rather than trying to “improve” animals by making them more like us, maybe we should consider learning to let them be.

John Gray contra humanism

Over the weekend I started reading John Gray’s Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals. Gray, a British political philosopher, has gone from being a free-market Thatcherite to a critic of global capitalism to a proponent of James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis. If there is a connecting thread here it’s Gray’s resolute opposition to utopianism of every kind, whether it’s communism and socialism, “global democratic capitalism,” or humanisitic progressivism. (In his latest book, Black Mass, he takes on neoconservatism.)

Straw Dogs is somewhat loosely organized around the theme of human uniqueness. While Gray dismisses Christianity without devoting much argument to it, he reserves the majority of his scorn for post-Christian humanism. It’s cardinal error, he says, is that it wants to maintain an ideology of human uniqueness and progress which is completely undercut by the naturalistic and Darwinian foundations of secular thought. Humanists think that scientific progress will translate into progress in the moral and social spheres, but Gray demurs: “For though human knowledge will very likely continue to grow and with it human power, the human animal will stay the same: a highly inventive species that is also one of the most predatory and destructive” (p. 4).

The problem as Gray sees it is that humanists aren’t naturalistic enough. They still maintain a view of human nature that is essentially Platonic and Christian: that we are defined by our possession of reason and free will and that these qualities allow us to take charge of our destiny as a species.

Some of the more extreme versions of this hope envision us “transcending” our humanity, either by means of bio-engineering or artificial intelligence. However, Gray points out, whatever post-human forms of life we may engineer will inherit the “crooked timber” of their creators, since technology is deployed by frail humans. C. S. Lewis made the same point in The Abolition of Man when he said that “the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means … the power of some men to make other men what they please.”

On naturalistic, post-Darwinian premises, Gray contends, the idea of “the species” transcending its own limitations is abusrd. Moreover, technology is not deployed by disinterested philosopher-kings, but by a confused melange of human interests, some sordid and some noble. It’s just as likely to be used for destructive ends as for beneficial ones.

Humanism, in other words, is still trying to live off the moral and metaphysical capital of Christendom. A thorough-going integration of the teachings of biology with our world view would lead us to see ourselves not as standing over nature, but as part of it. And an increasingly destructive part of it at that. Gray thinks it just as likely that humanity will face a major die-off as Gaia reasserts herself as that humanity will somehow “master” its environment:

Darwin’s theory shows the truth of naturalism: we are animals like any other; our fate and that of the rest of life on Earth are the same. Yet, in an irony all the more exquisite because no one has noticed it, Darwinism is now the central prop of the humanist faith that we can transcend our animal natures and rule the Earth. (p. 31)

The teachings of modern science – from Darwinian evolution to neuroscience – tend to show that human beings are actually far less free and less rational than we – influenced by our Christian heritage – would like to think. The only “salvation” possible, Gray thinks, is to recognize our status as one animal among many, as part of the natural world. Though Gray thinks that perhaps some of the illusions we have about ourselves are ineradicable.

Though humanism is Gray’s main target, I think it’s worth thinking about what a proper Christian response would be to a view like his. He seems to think that Christian belief is necessarily fading for “modern” people, but I obviously think he dismisses it far too easily. Still, I think that Christian theology, even where it accepts the general outlines of the Darwinian picture, hasn’t yet fully absorbed it. For instance, can theology continue to maintain the sharp distinction between humanity and other creatures? What does theology do with the virtual certainty of the human race’s eventual extinction? How does it address the picture of human beings suggested by some science as far more conditioned by both biology and environment than many traditional theological anthropologies would have it?