Do you feel like you have to be “plugged in” at all times?
In recent years, I’ve had multiple friends who’ve decided to intentionally forego internet in their apartments. None of these people are opposed to the internet per se; in fact, they all use the internet frequently at work or at cafes. The core, shared motivation has been to avoid the issues related to how being constantly wired affects their thoughts. With texting, email, and social media so accessible, it can take restraint not to check one’s email incessantly. The needless checking of email or excessive surfing of the web can lead to distractions, almost to the point of dependency. Experience has taught them that the easiest way to maintain the ability to think clearly and for extended periods of time has been to be unplugged as much as possible.
Opting out of contemporary amenities has a rich history in western civilization going back undoubtedly earlier than Diogenes, though it has always been perceived by society as something done by eccentrics. Famously in America, Thoreau conducted his experiment in living simply at Walden, and his book discusses how objectionable so many of his contemporaries found what they perceived to be a sort of moral baseness, a laziness in his choice of lifestyle—he devotes whole sections of his book to addressing his detractors.
Part of what I imagine feeds into the social perception that opting out is somehow morally questionable is the recognition that many modern technologies are perceived to facilitate productivity—to deliberately elect against such technologies might superficially appear to be a means to avoid “work.” Who but a contrarian would scorn technologies which make life easier? Perhaps more subtly, there may also be a perception that those who cannot effectively regulate their own use of email, text messaging, Facebook, etc. are somehow lacking in restraint. The need to be absolutist in completely abstaining from the technologies could seem like a weakness.
Thoreau has a number of relevant replies to these sorts of criticisms, but perhaps the most concise is a tongue-in-cheek anecdote he shared. ”A lady once offered me a mat, but as I had no room to spare within the house, nor time to spare within or without to shake it, I declined it, preferring to wipe my feet on the sod before my door. It is best to avoid the beginnings of evil.” It is not so important with what intentions or how trivially needless complexity is added to one’s life, so much as the risk that things which seem unnecessary at first might later come to consume time and energy.
Up to this point in my life, I feel like I’ve exercised restraint in not upgrading to a smartphone. I don’t object to the technology—someday I likely will “upgrade,” perhaps when they stop selling the plain ones. I find that for now I have enough access to computers that carrying another around with me all the time seems like it would be excessive.
More relevant, I am concerned about how it might affect my habits of thought. I notice, not with condescension, but with a slight degree of concern how so many people in New York City seem to pass every spare moment checking their phones. I’ve frequently stood behind someone on a narrow subway escalator who was taking the opportunity of the brief escalator ride to check their phone, instead of simply walking down the escalator. When my mind wanders, I oftentimes find thoughts I appreciate having, and I wouldn’t want to stifle it by filling that space with chatter.
Nevertheless, I’ve never been one for extremes of self-neglect—I couldn’t go so far as to completely cut myself off from email and the web (at least at this point). I have an RSS aggregator which I enjoy reading, though I am mindful of the fact that it could be a distraction and try to keep off it when I work. Thoreau again chides: “To a philosopher all news, as it is called, is gossip, and they who edit and read it are old women over their tea.” For whom is it relevant to follow all the daily fluctuations of news, all the magazines, all the trends? With finite time and authentic interests, we can lose a lot by being seduced by distractions. For me it feels as though a more moderate path—tempered, deliberate, intentional use of technology coupled with awareness of potential for distraction—better serves.
Admittedly there are some people whose jobs are highly interpersonal—managers, marketers, and the like—for whom having constant access to subordinates might feel like greater power and more efficacy. But it is not clear that even these people really serve productivity if they impose distractions on their subordinates who would benefit more from uninterrupted periods of work (Paul Graham, a technologist and essayist has an essay to this effect).
More subversively, eccentrics who opt out completely also call into question how justified we are who opt in. Those who opt out intend in some sense to lead by example in living by different values. They may in fact be equally or more productive than their average contemporaries (measured by literary output, quality of life, social impact), but they have been so on a distinct and often uncondoned schedule. Their values also clearly differ insofar as they at least appear not to feel the loss of amenities with which the rest of us have grown comfortable, on which we are now dependent.
Technologies provide for us an ecosystem for consuming what we want, rapidly. As long as we are aware of what we are hoping to get out of technology, we can perhaps use it well and be enriched. But there a fine line between buying into technologies and buying into the values with which they are intertwined.
Philosophers have perennially returned to the issue of understanding what shapes desires and the extent to which we are governed by desires manipulated by forces outside our control. (David Foster Wallace gives a densely packed, succinct summary of this sentiment here on YouTube.) Technology enables increased rates of gratification, the cost of which may be a temperament tuned towards faster gratification. People who opt out remind us that we are constantly making this choice by degree with our actions, even if we don’t want to recognize that we are.
When our patterns of behavior conform to the technologies we use—when we consume through them and let them suggest to us what to consume … socialize through them and depend on them for social interactions —how free do we remain?
Read more: 30 Days Without Social Media
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