Thursday, February 02, 2006

No to Technology’s Reach

A critical step to finding a spiritually centered life: Realize that you want to be distracted and harried by technology. Then you will recognize that you by yourself have the power to change and remove many of these distractions. Then you will learn to say No to technology’s reach. Then you will learn an important Yes to the spiritual life.

Americans are probably more addicted to entertainment than previous generations. First of all, we have more gadgets than our grandparents—iPods, wifi, satellite TV, Blackberrys (although their existence is currently in question).

And yet I’m surprised by the similarities about the human condition through various times. Consider the insights of the scientist and philosopher, Blaise Pascal, who lived over four centuries ago when modern science—and its promise of technological salvation—began to sell its wares. In a succinct insight, Pascal wrote, “I have often said that the sole cause of human unhappiness is that we do not how to stay quietly in a room.”

We seek distractions, and especially if we’re rich and famous. Pascal observed 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 CEO, rock star], 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."

In order to stay “diverted,” today we rush after technology. And all these technological advances are fascinating, aren’t they? Increasingly, they’re also cute. Pick a movie, any 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 and gets a workout. Who needs a barbell when you got that thing for your biceps? 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 into our lives.

I know it’s not entirely easy to put techno-gadgets aside. I mean, I love them. I don’t think they’re Satans with transistors. As I type this into my laptop, music downloaded from iTunes plays on the hard drive, Apple Airport wires me into the internet, my cell phone rests in my briefcase, and several email accounts are retrieving messages. We live in a technological world.

And I particularly adore all the options for communication today. 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. Office voicemail eliminates the problem of calling someone at 10 pm (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 Rollerblading 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.

So, why do we clutch our techno-gadgets, often imprisoned by them, but not letting anyone take them from us? We sound like Gollum clutching “my precioussss.”

As Pascal point out, it’s really about boredom. 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?

So I’ve learned a simple truth: Say No. Unplug from time to time and listen. Learn to restrict technology’s reach. Try it. You’ll be surprised by what it does for your soul.


Jim Coons said...
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Jim Coons said...

I find it almost funny (though not quite) that I'm logged on, sitting on my couch, with no hard-wires connecting me to these thoughts, now responding via some unseen is seemingly impossible to say "no" to technology, especially when it's so easy to say "yes" because we have somehow managed to make it easy by that same technology. It runs deep in our culture: I think of the frozen chicken nuggets in my fridge for my kids when they need a quick snack, or of the fast food joints that call my's our culture. It truly is a spiritual discipline to turn it all off. And what I've found, like with all the disciplines, is that it is freeing! Just say no!!!

Kirk Leavy said...

Like others, I'm enjoying your words in a way convenient to me. Technology is not only makes it convenient, it makes it possible. Not very long ago your words would have been typed on a typewriter (I can explain what one is if anyone is interested) and printed for distribution to your intended audience via some physical delivery method. The delivery of the physical piece may or may not be timely and it may not be in a format convenient for my situation. In my situation, I am out of town for an extended period of time which physically disconnects me from my "church". I can make a phone call, which due to the time difference may make that inconvenient for one of us or send a letter, which takes too long for todays business decisions. Technology, on the other hand, provides me with tools allowing me to stay connected to my church. I would have never read your words without an internet connection and a laptop nor would I be able to stay informed through group e-mails about the business of the church. And even though I can stay connected through the website, e-mail, and cell phone calls, they all have an OFF switch, which as you say, needs to be used more often. The fact remains though, that I have a choice of when, not if.