Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Use the Power of No to Restrict Technology’s Reach

I'm about to attend a conference on technology and the spiritual life, where--among others--we'll hear from the philosopher Albert Borgmann. (If you want a quick intro to Borgmann, go here.) I was reminded of a related chapter I wrote in Say Yes to No, which I've "reprinted below." (And you can always feel free to buy the whole book. Just in case you were wondering....)

It seems we are more addicted to entertainment than previous generations. (It goes along with an affluent culture.) Nonetheless, there are similarities about the human condition through various times. We haven’t really gone further than the insights of the 17th century scientist and philosopher, Blaise Pascal, who lived when modern science—and its promise of technological salvation—began to peer into our world. This brilliant scientist and devout Christian possessed such extraordinary sensitivity into human motivations that his four hundred year old collection of reflections, Pensées, remains a perennial bestseller. In it, Pascal offers this succinct and piercing assessment of our condition, “I have often said that the sole cause of human unhappiness is that we do not how to stay quietly in a room.”

That’s a hauntingly accurate insight and one worth attempting. Try sitting in a room. No TV. No stereo. No Internet. In a weird way, the lack of distractions is distracting. Our minds wander. We become twitchy and uncomfortable. So we seek distractions. Tellingly, in Pascal’s own language French, the word distraction means “separation, subtraction, absence of mind, inattention, heedlessness, diversion, hobby.” And so we seek increasing amounts of hobbies to make us inattentive. One Microsoft executive coined a term for this state, “continuous partial attention.” Or inattention. This drive is demonstrated most notably in the lives of the rich and famous and for—the hoi polloi—our tremendous fascination with them. Pascal believed that this inherent, uncontrolled restlessness drove women and men toward wealth and worldly success:
That, in fact, is the main joy of being a king [insert rock star, CEO], because people are continually trying to divert him and procure him every kind of pleasure. A king is surrounded by people whose only thought is to divert him and stop him thinking about himself, because, king though he is, he becomes unhappy as soon as he thinks about himself.
I suspect that’s one reason people want to win the Lotto: to seek distraction from their problems.

            But at some point, the distractions cease and it’s just you. With palpable wit and humor, Anne Lamott reviewed her life of addictions and obsessions as a means of battling “aloneness.” Ultimately, she arrives at a strikingly similar diagnosis as Pascal with a different flavor. She tested all kinds of things to distract herself from aloneness “in sometimes suicidally vast quantities—alcohol, drugs, work, food, excitement, good deeds, popularity, men, exercise, and just rampant compulsion and obsession.” For awhile it seemed to work; “And I did pretty well, although I nearly died. But then recently that aloneness walked right into my house without knocking, sat down, and stayed a couple of weeks.” In find this last image of aloneness staying with us provocative. There comes a point where we can no longer hide and every technological device cannot keep out the demons. We do all we can to avoid confronting aloneness… which is one reason we need real friendships.

            Nevertheless, all these technological advances are fascinating, aren’t they? And increasingly, they’re just cute. Something so small and endearing can’t be evil. The new iPod shuffle is advertised for its tiny-ness. Hardly bigger than a quarter. Up to 240 songs. Hangs on your back pocket.

Or pick a movie—the 1987 Wall Street for example—and grok that behemoth mobile phone on the ear of Gordon Gecko (Michael Douglas). While “Greed is good” Gecko walks on the beach, he controls the destiny of companies simultaneously and gets a workout. Compare that device with the parody in 2001 Zoolander of the micro-size cell phone, which looks about the size and heft of a matchbook. Technology in its cuteness and ease insidiously wheedles their way into our lives.

They’re also new. Imbedded in our thinking is the evolutionary dogma that newer is better. So we trust in the recent, the fresh. And with technology, I’d be hard-pressed to defeat the contention that my previous laptop zipped through my programs and websites as the one I’m typed on right now.  I placed above the picture of what the RAND Corporation proposed in 1954 as the look and size of a potential “home computer” in 2004. By my lights, it was ten feet tall and twelve feet wide, and when you add the gargantuan dot matrix printer (and a steering wheel that looked like it was taken from Giligan’s Island’s S.S. Minnow), it would fill most of a small bedroom. 

So what’s the immediate conclusion? “Look how fast science and technology move—even quicker than we could expect.” But, God and all things spiritual, seem, well, so old… and therefore inferior. I doubt we’d admit our bias that directly, but we might state that technology obviously progresses and religion just stays the same.  So a technological prejudice lurks around our lives and can stifle spiritual health.

            Now, as I’ve already confessed, I realize the difficulty at putting techie toys aside for me. I love gadgets. I don’t think they’re Satan with transistors and silicon chips. To have a portable device that carries hundreds of songs is still amazing. It almost achieves the category of “miracle.” I’m old enough to remember the advent of the Walkman and how astounding that moment was as we snuck into the library, studied for finals, listening all the while to Toto and Hall and Oates. I like to make calls when I’m in my car. To be connected is to be productive. I live in a technological world. As I type this into my laptop, iTunes plays music downloaded from the web on the hard drive, my cell phone rests in my briefcase, and two email accounts are retrieving messages (with an enormous quantity of spam).

So I find these gadgets really helpful. Despite how much I used the power of no to weed out unnecessary elements in my life, I’m still reasonably busy. And I have a lot of tasks to attend to. If I can save some time through email and cell phones, I may actually find some for activities I really enjoy. And technology can make me more productive, especially with all the options available for communication. I still marvel at email and the wonder of sending the same document with efficient simultaneity to a committee in preparation for a meeting, and of checking in briefly with friends across massive distances without stamps, envelopes, and annoying time delay. When I arrive at work, my first thought is whether I’ve received any exciting emails. (Naturally, I’m not nearly as thrilled about spam.) It’s a direct way to connect with hundreds of people. Office voicemail eliminates the problem of calling someone at 10pm (which frankly is when I often have time to return calls). And I have a particular weakness for cell phones. I mean, my wife, Laura, could reach me on my cell even when was biking home through Central Park.

            And yet, to be honest, there’s a downside: these alternatives often complicate instead of simplify our lives. The ease of communicating becomes a curse. At times I feel obligated to check messages on the email accounts 24/7. ITunes doesn’t load properly, and I spend two hours of frustration making sure I can download my next recording effortlessly. Laura and I spend a week of frustration and experience collateral marital damage trying to load Windows.

Nonetheless, as Lamott and Pascal point out, it’s also about boredom. When I sit by myself, I’m challenged by silence, by inner desires and fears. I don’t like quiet. It’s disturbing. I want to be entertained. It’s probably also about fear. I’m afraid that deep down I’m missing something when I’m not plugging into the iPod or letting the music from my computer fill the air. I tremble at the thought of missing the up-to the minute Dow report or of having someone send an email that doesn’t get a 30-minute-or-less response. Will they think I’m inefficient? Will I miss out?

            So, as a family, we have created a few guidelines to restrict technology’s reach. We ignore the phone at dinner. We limit our kids’ “screen time” (computers, TVs, iPods) during the day so that our lives aren’t one continuous video feed. We find that a couple of hours a day is a good target. And, as yet, there is not Wii or XBox in our house. A friend takes a weekly Sabbath from email, and so we too have blackout hours from Entourage and Outlook. The net result? A fuller, richer, more centered life.


Steven said...

What a great post! You've mentioned many of my favorites; Lamott and Pascal for sure.

I was reading one of Anthony Peyton Porter's (one of Chico's many fine sages) pieces the other day and he spoke to the problem of meditation in today's world. He finds it difficult. You find it difficult and so do I...it could be a trend!

We gave up our television about 5 years ago and to be truthful, we do miss it at times. But I hate to pay for junk when I only need one or two channels...and in the meantime we read and we read some more. I've always enjoyed reading so I don't feel the absence of TV so much.

But we are connected...I count 5 computers for the two of us. 1 netbook, one notebook and 3 desktops. Plus one Wii and a Roku to grab Netflix.

Telephones are not popular in my world and I avoid them at all times. The 21st century has arrived and telephones are so 20th century. It also has to do with something I learned in the construction world before I retired...people lie when using the phone. I want to see the person I'm talking to. Not that everyone lies, mind you, but they find it more difficult to do so when face to face. For instance; we are going to the doctor's office today to do a face to face conversation regarding the fact that no one has done those things that were promised - over the phone.

Perhaps I should meditate before I go...

Steven said...

By the way...I have your book and I am enjoying it. Congratulations.

john said...

once again, i must be the contrarian re: technology. to me there is no difference between simple machines (e.g. the wheel, the incline plane, etc), and the most advanced technological devices. toolmaking is (almost) the exclusive signature of humans.

i also believe our ability to make tools that meet needs is a gift from god. who would begrudge someone in need using technology to satisfy a need like physical hunger or thirst? yet, when someone is using a tool to meet an emotional need (relieving loneliness) some people are highly critical.

most people handle alcohol responsibly. while i am not a fan of alcohol, i have no problem with wine livening up a dinner party, but i do have a problem with someone drinking themselves to a state of harm.

if you want to turn off the TV, fine. (we don't have a tv in our house, actually). but i think that is preference. i don't think it's any more or less spiritual, or more or less noble, or even more or less beneficial. god speaks everywhere. if you have a preferred mode of listening, good for you.