enough about us

Recently, I’ve been reading a number of thoughtful posts and articles that explore what’s becoming of the self under our current technocracy. This Judith Donath piece on pseudonymity is smart, as is this more expansive meditation by Rob Horning. And then there’s a new series by Josh Glenn on codes:

Each post in this series will identify one code: a single node in the vast meaningfulness-matrix structuring our perception of the everyday world….

Many of the codes analyzed in this series may seem banal, quotidian, obvious. Why? Because that’s how semiotic [i.e., meaningfulness-producing] codes function in our daily lives; they operate at the that’s-just-how-things-are level of “primary ‘obviousness’.”

I hope the Code-x series will shed some light — no matter how dim or fitful — onto the enduring structuralist question: What are the implicit assumptions (or “mythologies”) we’ve absorbed without consciously evaluating them?

The first code Glenn explores is one he calls “Wired Self-Potentiation”: “Multitasking re-imagined as existential branching-out. Breaking the mold. Demonstrating vitality, multiplicity, and proactive refusal to conform to stereotyped expectations. All thanks to networked technology.”

This is all really, really good stuff — vital stuff — and yet I find that reading it makes me tired. More about me? More about us? More about the endless performative dance of selfhood? Even if the analysis is critical rather than consumerist or celebratory, it keeps turning us inward. This kind of semiotic/cultural analysis is my thing, in a very serious way, but there’s so much of it now I just want to go for a walk with my dog or sit under a tree and listen to birds or practice some form of kenotic meditation.

Anyone who has ever tried to think knows the value of escaping, from time to time, the gravitational pull of even those topics that most fascinate you and seeing them in new and vivid ways after re-entry. (“The Eureka Phenomenon,” Isaac Asimov called it in an essay that used to be a staple of freshman composition courses.) This is not to say that taking a break from thinking about the technologically-assisted self is an escape from the self. But it reorients you; it reminds you that the world is bigger than your habitual, everyday experience of it. That’s a good thing.

what “detox” does and doesn’t mean

A good many people in my Twitter feed really like this reflection on unplugging by Casey Cep, whose writing I too usually enjoy a lot. But this piece is making me scratch my head. Let me go through the end of the piece and I’ll see if I can explain my confusion:

This is why it’s strange to think of these unplugging events as anything like detox: the goal isn’t really abstinence but a return to these technologies with a renewed appreciation of how to use them.

Cep seems to think that the word “detox” has one meaning, the one associated with drug addiction: drug addicts visit a clinic to detoxify their system, with the determination not to return to their bad old habits. But we also use the word in other ways: think about the “detox spa,” which people visit for a period during which they avoid foods they usually eat and drinks they usually drink — but with every expectation of resuming their familiar practices, more or less, when they return to ordinary life. If people are thinking of “digital detox” in that sense, which is, it seems to me, far more common than the drug-addiction sense, then Cep’s critique simply doesn’t apply.

Few who unplug really want to surrender their citizenship in the land of technology; they simply want to travel outside it on temporary visas. Those who truly leave the land of technology are rarely heard from again, partly because such a way of living is so incommensurable. The cloistered often surrender the ability to speak to those of us who rely so heavily on technology. I was mindful of this earlier this month when I reviewed a book about a community of Poor Clares in Rockford, Illinois. The nuns live largely without phones or the Internet; they rarely leave their monastery. Their oral histories are available only because a scholar spent six years interviewing them, organizing their testimonies so that outsiders might have access. The very terms of their leaving the plugged-in world mean that their lives and wisdom aren’t readily accessible to those of us outside their cloister.

Is this meant as a criticism of the nuns? That their alternative way of life isn’t “accessible” to others? If not, then I don’t know what the point of the anecdote is. If so, then I don’t agree. No one is obliged to make his or her experience accessible to anyone else.

That is why, I think, the Day of Unplugging is such a strange thing. Those who unplug have every intention of plugging back in.

As noted above: exactly.

This sort of stunt presents an experiment, with its results determined beforehand; one finds exactly what one expects to find: never more, often less.

Wait, do we know that? I’d be quite surprised if no one who has unplugged has been surprised by the resulting experience.

It’s one of the reasons that the unplugging movement has attracted such vocal criticism from the likes of Nathan Jurgenson, Alexis Madrigal, and Evgeny Morozov. If it takes unplugging to learn how better to live plugged in, so be it.

Isn’t that often just the point? I know that when I take a vacation from Twitter, which I do sometimes, I do it in hopes that when I return I’ll enjoy it more and get more from it.

But let’s not mistake such experiments in asceticism for a sustainable way of life. For most of us, the modern world is full of gadgets and electronics, and we’d do better to reflect on how we can live there than to pretend we can live elsewhere.

I guess I just haven’t seen anybody detoxing who is thinking of it as “a sustainable way of life.” I think we can take it as axiomatic that anyone who announces his or her detox on social media isn’t undertaking severe ascesis. So as far as I can tell, Cep’s post doesn’t hold up as a substantive critique.

But she’s surely right about one thing: detoxers can be obnoxiously self-congratulatory about their highly temporary withdrawals from our digital worlds.

digital dualism and experiential monism

I’m going to begin by quoting only the concluding paragraph of a fairly long essay by Nathan Jurgenson, so please click through and read the whole thing to make sure I’m not misrepresenting the argument. Here’s the end:

Of course, digital devices shouldn’t be excused from the moral order — nothing should or could be. But too often discussions about technology use are conducted in bad faith, particularly when the detoxers and disconnectionists and digital-etiquette-police seem more interested in discussing the trivial differences of when and how one looks at the screen rather than the larger moral quandaries of what one is doing with the screen. But the disconnectionists’ selfie-help has little to do with technology and more to do with enforcing a traditional vision of the natural, healthy, and normal. Disconnect. Take breaks. Unplug all you want. You’ll have different experiences and enjoy them, but you won’t be any more healthy or real.

First of all, I don’t understand the need for an accusation of “bad faith.” Perhaps if the disconnectionists are wrong they are sincerely wrong. I see no reason to attribute to them this particular moral failing.

Second, I fully endorse Jurgensen’s point that the connected life is no less real than the disconnected. Our lives are always real; anything we do is as real as anything else we do. I also agree that “the disconnectionists establish a new set of taboos as a way to garner distinction at the expense of others, setting their authentic resistance against others’ unhealthy and inauthentic being” — this is indeed far too strong and too common an element of disconnectionist rhetoric.

But there are elements of Jurgenson’s argument that I can’t endorse. Let me get at them by noting that the question I would like to put to the disconnectionists is this: What are you going to do once you disconnect? You’ve got a lot of extra time on your hands now: how do you plan to use it?

Suppose a sedentary man who had been spending several hours a day playing World of Warcraft decided to disconnect and take up running. Wouldn’t he in fact have made himself healthier by that decision? — and let’s be precise here: not by the decision to disconnect as such but by the subsequent decision to do something better, which required disconnection as a prerequisite. And doesn’t that disprove Jurgensen’s blunt claim that if you disconnect “you won’t be any more healthy”?

Perhaps Jurgenson didn’t mean that kind of health. But if you can become physically healthier by replacing one kind of activity with another, then why not in other areas of life as well? Perhaps also Jurgenson would say that he merely meant that one doesn’t automatically become healthier by disconnecting; but that’s a very, very different claim than the one that he actually made in his essay. To respond to the claim that disconnection will make you healthier by saying that disconnection won’t make you healthier doesn’t advance the discussion: it just replaces one highly dubious generalization with another.

What does disconnection do? It depends. It depends on why you disconnect, on what you were doing when you were connected, on what you do instead of being connected. (Now reverse the polarities and ask what connection does, and you’ll need to employ the same logic. Imagine a person who’s sedentary because she reads books all the time getting an iPhone with fitness apps that she uses to help her become more physically active and more disciplined.)

A lot of Jurgenson’s recent work has been focused on this critique of digital dualism, but my concern is that Jurgenson may just be replacing a simplistic dualism with an amorphous monism. At one point in his essay he writes, “The obsession with authenticity has at its root a desire to delineate the ‘normal’ and enforce a form of ‘healthy’ founded in supposed truth.” Note that every significant term here is placed either in literal or implicit scare quotes: normal, healthy, truth, authenticity. Not all of these terms are obviously useless, and I’d particularly like to make a case for the value — even the necessity — of thinking about our leisure-time decisions in terms of what conduces to our health.

So while Jurgenson is right to deconstruct the binaries of digital dualism, he’s wrong, I think, to believe that such a critique requires deconstruction of the values and concerns that drive digital dualism. We may agree that digital dualism is an inadequate response to the role that digital technologies play in our lives; but it does not follow that that role requires no reflection, no interrogation. All digital tools and toys — just like all non-digital ones — are prone to misuse, and in my view the categories by which we distinguish right use from misuse are precisely those of health, at least, health in the broader and richer sense of flourishing, eudaimonia.

Now, as a Christian, I’d want to steer a conversation about these matters from health to eudaimonia and ultimately to the love of God and neighbor; but I’d be happy to start with health, and remain in that conceptual ambit for a while. And I certainly don’t think we’re helped to make wise technological decisions by a deconstruction of digital dualism that leaves us with even fewer means of sorting through our complicated technological experiences.

the real enemy

Rebecca Solnit is right when she points to good things lost in a technological rush, lost by most and sought again by at least a few:

There are also places where human contact and continuity of experience hasn’t been so ruined. I visit New Orleans regularly, where the old leisurely enjoyment of mingling with strangers in the street and public venues – where music is often live and people dance to it, not just listen to it sitting down, where people sit by preference out front and greet strangers with endearments – forms a dramatic contrast with the Bay Area where contact with strangers is likely to be met (at least among the white middle class) with a puzzled and slightly pained expression that seems to say you’ve made a mistake. If you’re even heard, since earphones – they still look to me like some sort of medical equipment, an IV drip for noise – are ubiquitous, so that on college campuses, say, finding someone who can lend you an ear isn’t easy. The young are disappearing down the rabbit hole of total immersion in the networked world, and struggling to get out of it.

Getting out of it is about slowness, and about finding alternatives to the alienation that accompanies a sweater knitted by a machine in a sweatshop in a country you know nothing about, or jam made by a giant corporation that has terrible environmental and labour practices and might be tied to the death of honeybees or the poisoning of farmworkers. It’s an attempt to put the world back together again, in its materials but also its time and labour. It’s both laughably small and heroically ambitious.

Sherry Turkle was also onto some of these important issues when she published Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other last year. And Nick Carr covered these, and some others, in The Shallows in 2010. Winifred Gallagher also when she published Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life in 2009. And Maggie Jackson in Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age in 2008. Bill McKibben was even right about many of these very points when he gave us The Age of Missing Information in 1992. (Modesty forbids my mentioning anyone else who may have written about living in an “age of distraction”.)

So, as I said in my previous post, one problem with Solnit’s essay is that it shows no awareness than anyone else has written about this issues, even though it’s one of the most written-about issues of our time. Solnit is usually such a sharp observer and surprising thinker that this re-presenting of the utterly familiar is uncharacteristic of her.

But I think there’s another problem as well, and it’s a problem shared by almost all of us who think and write about these things — and I say “us” because I include myself. We are inclined to attribute our scattered minds to living in a “digital age” or a “networked age,” and while the latter term is more relevant than the former neither gets at the key issue.

Now, what I’m about to say isn’t new either, but it’s a point that I think is grossly under-emphasized: the primary challenge we face is our extreme vulnerability to intermittent reinforcement. The same impulse affects the person who glances at her phone every thirty seconds and the person who can’t resist the allure of the one-armed bandit: This time it just might happen.

If we think that out problem is our digital gadgets, we’ll be inclined to a digital dualism that can lead us to think that if we just escape or set aside our gadgets we’ll be fine. But that’s too superficial a response. Intermittent reinforcement can overmaster us anywhere, and has always had that power: think of the characters in Victorian novels whose whole lives for a time can become little more than waiting for the post.

So let’s think more about the powers of intermittent reinforcement, and about the complex ways that those powers are related to the digital and the networked. Look for more posts on these matters.