Quotation-as-title by Marcus Aurelius. Image from top linked post.
What would you do if you knew you had 24 hours left to live? I suppose it would depend on context. Is this catastrophe going to affect everyone, or only you? I’m not sure I’d know what to do in the former case, but once I’d said my goodbyes to my family, I’m pretty sure I know what I’d do in the latter.
Yep, I would go somewhere by myself and write.
To me, the reason both reading and writing can feel so freeing is that they allow you to mentally escape your physical constraints. It almost doesn’t matter what’s happening to your body or anything around you while you lose yourself in someone else’s words, or you create your own.
I came across an interesting blog recently. It had a single post, entitled Consume less, create more. In it, the author, ‘Tom’, explains that the 1,600 words he’s shared were written over the course of a month after he realised that he was spending his life consuming instead of creating.
A lot of ink has been spilled about the perils of modern technology. How it distracts us, how it promotes unhealthy comparisons with others, how it makes us fat, how it limits social interaction, how it spies on us. And all of these things are probably true, to some extent.
But the real tragedy of modern technology is that it’s turned us into consumers. Our voracious consumption of media parallels our consumption of fossil fuels, corn syrup, and plastic straws. And although we’re starting to worry about our consumption of those physical goods, we seem less concerned about our consumption of information.
We treat information as necessarily good, and comfort ourselves with the feeling that whatever article or newsletter we waste our time with is actually good for us. We equate reading with self improvement, even though we forget most of what we’ve read, and what we remember isn’t useful.TJCX
I feel that at this juncture in history, we’ve perfected surveillance-via-smartphone as the perfect tool to maximise FOMO. For those growing up in the goldfish bowl of the modern world, this may feel as normal as the ‘water’ in which they are ‘swimming’. But for the rest of us, it can still feel… odd.
This is going to sound pretty amazing, but I don’t think there’s been many days in my adult life when I’ve been able to go somewhere without anyone else knowing. As a kid? Absolutely. I can vividly remember, for example, cycling to a corn field and finding a place to lie down and look at the sky, knowing that no-one could see me. It was time spent with myself, unmediated and unfiltered.
This didn’t used to be unusual. People had private inner lives that were manifested in private actions. In a recent column in The Guardian, Grace Dent expanded on this.
Yes life after iPhones is marvellous, but in the 90s I ran wild across London, up to all kinds of no good, staying out for days, keeping my own counsel entirely. My parents up north would not speak to me for weeks. Sometimes, life back in the days when we had one shit Nokia and a landline between five friends seems blissful. One was permitted lost weekends and periods of secret skulduggery or just to lie about reading a paperback without the sense six people were owed a text message. Yes, things took longer, and one needed to make plans and keep them, but being off the grid was normal. Today, not replying… is a truly radical act.Grace Dent
“Not replying… is a truly radical act”. Wow. Let that sink in for a moment.
Given all this, it’s no wonder in our always-on culture that we have so much ‘life admin’ to concern ourselves with. Previous generations may have had ‘pay the bills’ on their to-do list, but it wasn’t nudged down the to-do list by ‘inform a person I kind of know on Twitter that they have incorrect view on Brexit’.
All of these things build upon incrementally until they eventually become unsustainable. It’s death by a thousand cuts. As I’ve quoted many times before before, Jocelyn K. Glei’s question is always worth asking: who are you without the doing?
Realistically, most of our days are likely to involve some use of digital communication tools. We can’t always be throwing off our shackles to live the life of a flâneur. To facilitate space to create, therefore, it’s important to draw some red lines. This is what Michael Bernstein talks about in Sorry, we can’t join your Slack.
Saying yes to joining client Slack channels would mean that down the line we’d feel more exhausted but less accomplished. We’d have more superficial “friends,” but wouldn’t know how to deal with products much better than we did now. We’d be on the hook all the time, and have less of an opportunity to consider our responses.Michael Bernstein
In other words, being more available and more ‘social’ takes time away from more important pursuits. After all, time is the ultimate zero-sum game.
Ultimately, I guess it’s about learning to see the world differently. There very well be a ‘new normal’ that we’ve begun to internalise but, for now at least, we have a choice to use to our advantage that ‘flexibility’ we hear so much about.
This is why self-reflection is so important, as Wanda Thibodeaux explains in an article for Inc.
In sum, elimination of stress and the acceptance of peace comes not necessarily from changing the world, but rather from clearing away all the learned clutter that prevents us from changing our view of the world. Even the biggest systemic “realities” (e.g., work “HAS” to happen from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.) are up for reinterpretation and rewriting, and arguably, inner calm and innovation both stem from the same challenge of perceptions.Wanda Thibodeaux
To do this, you have to have to already have decided the purpose for which you’re using your tools, including the ones provided by your smartphone.
Need more specific advice on that? I suggest you go and read this really handy post by Ryan Holiday: A Radical Guide to Spending Less Time on Your Phone. The advice to be focused on which apps you need on your phone is excellent; I deleted over 100!
You may also find this post useful that I wrote over on my blog a few months ago about how changing the ‘launcher’ on your phone can change your life.
If you make some changes after reading this, I’d be interested in hearing how you get on. Let me know in the comments section below!
Quotation-as-title from Rajkummar Rao.
I really enjoy Aeon’s articles, and probably should think about becoming a paying subscriber. They make me think.
This one is about your identity and how much of it is bound up with your smartphone:
After all, your smartphone is much more than just a phone. It can tell a more intimate story about you than your best friend. No other piece of hardware in history, not even your brain, contains the quality or quantity of information held on your phone: it ‘knows’ whom you speak to, when you speak to them, what you said, where you have been, your purchases, photos, biometric data, even your notes to yourself – and all this dating back years.
I did some work on mind, brain, and personal identity as part of my undergraduate studies in Philosophy. I’m certainly sympathetic to the argument that things outside our body can become part of who we are:
Andy Clark and David Chalmers… argued in ‘The Extended Mind’ (1998) that technology is actually part of us. According to traditional cognitive science, ‘thinking’ is a process of symbol manipulation or neural computation, which gets carried out by the brain. Clark and Chalmers broadly accept this computational theory of mind, but claim that tools can become seamlessly integrated into how we think. Objects such as smartphones or notepads are often just as functionally essential to our cognition as the synapses firing in our heads. They augment and extend our minds by increasing our cognitive power and freeing up internal resources.
So if you’ve always got your smartphone with you, it’s possible to outsource things to it. For example, you don’t have to remember so many things, you just need to know how to retrieve them. In the age of voice assistants, that becomes ever-easier.
This is known as the ‘extended mind thesis’.
This line of reasoning leads to some potentially radical conclusions. Some philosophers have argued that when we die, our digital devices should be handled as remains: if your smartphone is a part of who you are, then perhaps it should be treated more like your corpse than your couch. Similarly, one might argue that trashing someone’s smartphone should be seen as a form of ‘extended’ assault, equivalent to a blow to the head, rather than just destruction of property. If your memories are erased because someone attacks you with a club, a court would have no trouble characterising the episode as a violent incident. So if someone breaks your smartphone and wipes its contents, perhaps the perpetrator should be punished as they would be if they had caused a head trauma.
These are certainly questions I’m interested in. I’ve seen some predictions that Philosphy graduates are going to be earning more than Computer Science graduates in a decade’s time. I can see why (and I certainly hope so!)
Remote working, which I’ve done for over five years now, sounds awesome, doesn’t it? Open your laptop while still in bed, raid the biscuit barrel at every opportunity, spend more time with your family…
Don’t get me wrong, it is great and I don’t think I could ever go back to working full-time in an office. That being said, there’s a hidden side to remote working which no-one ever tells you about: anxiety.
Every interaction when you’re working remotely is an intentional act. You either have to schedule a meeting with someone, or ‘ping’ them to see if they’re available. You can’t see that they’re free, wander over to talk to them, or bump into them in the corridor, as you could if you were physically co-located.
When people don’t respond in a timely fashion, or within the time frame you were expecting, it’s unclear why that happened. This article picks up on that:
In recent decades, written communication has caught up—or at least come as close as it’s likely to get to mimicking the speed of regular conversation (until they implant thought-to-text microchips in our brains). It takes more than 200 milliseconds to compose a text, but it’s not called “instant” messaging for nothing: There is an understanding that any message you send can be replied to more or less immediately.
But there is also an understanding that you don’t have to reply to any message you receive immediately. As much as these communication tools are designed to be instant, they are also easily ignored. And ignore them we do. Texts go unanswered for hours or days, emails sit in inboxes for so long that “Sorry for the delayed response” has gone from earnest apology to punchline.
It’s not just work, either. Because we carry our smartphones with us everywhere, my wife expects almost an instantaneous response on even the most trivial matters. I’ve come back to my phone with a stream of ‘oi’ messages before…
It’s anxiety-inducing because written communication is now designed to mimic conversation—but only when it comes to timing. It allows for a fast back-and-forth dialogue, but without any of the additional context of body language, facial expression, and intonation. It’s harder, for example, to tell that someone found your word choice off-putting, and thus to correct it in real-time, or try to explain yourself better. When someone’s in front of you, “you do get to see the shadow of your words across someone else’s face,” [Sherry] Turkle says.
Lots to ponder here. A lot of it has to do with the culture of your organisation / family, at the end of the day.
I’m a big fan of The Book of Life, a project of The School of Life. One of the latest updates to this project is about the pervasive use of smartphones in society.
To say we are addicted to our phones is not merely to point out that we use them a lot. It signals a darker notion: that we use them to keep our own selves at bay. Because of our phones, we may find ourselves incapable of sitting alone in a room with our own thoughts floating freely in our own heads, daring to wander into the past and the future, allowing ourselves to feel pain, desire, regret and excitement.
I feel this. I want my mind to wander, but I also kind of want to be informed. I want to be entertained.
We have to check our phones of course but we also need to engage directly with others, to be relaxed, immersed in nature and present. We need to let our minds wander off of their own accord. We need to go through the threshold of boredom to renew our acquaintance with ourselves.
The diminutive digital assistants in our pockets do our bidding and unlock a multitude of possibilities.
Our phone, however, is docile, responsive to our touch, always ready to spring to life and willing to do whatever we want. Its malleability provides the perfect excuse for disengagement from the trickier aspects of other people. It’s almost not that rude to give it a quick check – just possibly we might actually need to keep track of how a news story is unfolding; a friend in another country may have just had a baby or someone we vaguely know might have bought a new pair of shoes in the last few minutes.
It’s a cliché to say that it’s the small things in life that make it worth living, but it’s true.
Our phones seem to deliver the world directly to us. Yet (without our noticing) they often limit the things we actually pay attention to. As we look down towards our palms we don’t realise we are forgetting:
- The curious delicacy of a friend’s wrist
- The soothing sound of traffic in the distance
- Moss on an old stone wall
- The pleasure of feeling tired after working hard
- The excitement of getting up very early on a summer’s morning, in order to have an hour entirely to oneself.
- A bank of clouds gradually drifting across the sky
- The texture and smell and colour of a ripe fig
- The shy hesitancy of someone’s smile
- How nice it is to read in the bath
- The comfort of an old jumper (with holes under the armpits)
Every technology is a ‘bridging’ technology in the sense of coming after something less sophisticated, and before something more sophisticated. My hope is that we iterate towards, rather than away, from what makes us human.
We are still so far from inventing the technology we really require for us to flourish; capitalism has delivered only on the simplest of our needs. We can summon up the street map of Lyons but not a diagram of what our partner is really thinking and feeling; the phone will help us follow fifteen news outlets but not help us know when we’ve spent more than enough time doing so; it emphatically refuses to distinguish between the most profound needs of our soul and a passing fancy.
As ever, a fantastic article.
Source: The Book of Life
Since 2013, Edward Snowden has been advising people and creating software. The Haven app he’s been working on l interesting, and given I’ve got a spare Android smartphone, I might try it in my home office!
Designed to be installed on a cheap Android burner, Haven uses the phone’s cameras, microphones and even accelerometers to monitor for any motion, sound or disturbance of the phone. Leave the app running in your hotel room, for instance, and it can capture photos and audio of anyone entering the room while you’re out, whether an innocent housekeeper or an intelligence agent trying to use his alone time with your laptop to install spyware on it. It can then instantly send pictures and sound clips of those visitors to your primary phone, alerting you to the disturbance. The app even uses the phone’s light sensor to trigger an alert if the room goes dark, or an unexpected flashlight flickers.
Update: more details in an article at The Intercept