At lunch, during the conference in Stockholm last week, I sat down with a conference attendee I have met a couple of times previously. She works on human rights issues and is deeply involved with the Internet, but she had arrived at the end of the road. She was taking courses in beekeeping, because she wanted to turn away from technology and do something “real” as she put it.
Her issues with new technology were many, but foremost was the way our technology destroys time. Not time as a physical phenomenon, but experienced time. Our ability to concentrate on something for a long time. This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as technology-induced attention deficit syndrome and it consists in that twitching spirit that checks email and status updates and tweets every second. Her thesis was that no greatness will ever come of that. No originality will come from those locked in the moments, views, and random thoughts of others.
We had our lunch, silently, there is something about an argument like this that kind of makes you feel stupid if you laugh and chatter too much, and then we spoke about Nietzsche and Bruchstuck-menschen for a bit. She agreed that she thinks that technology is turning us into fragmented beings, that it shatters our ability to authenticity. Much like Nietzsche.
The problem with technology, she seemed to say, is that it eats all of our time. but in very small portions, leaving us with but crumbs of time for reflection, insight and deep thought. It is easy to agree, but let’s push back for a moment. What is it in technology that forces us to use it obsessively? What is that forces us to check our email ever few seconds?
Perhaps our mind changes with the new technologies we use. Some studies argue that the changes in the brain that follow on what is loosely referred to internet addiction syndrome are akin to those caused by cocaine or alcohol dependencies. Nicholas Carr et al argue that the Internet is making us shallow.
But is this change necessary? There is, paradoxically, a strong element of technological determinism in the new techno-pessimism. It seems to state that we can offer no resistance, and that technology will force us to shatter into shallow fragments of what we were. That thought of inevitable technological degeneration has been with us since Plato, who had Socrates say that writing would lead to people losing respect for wisdom, forgetting the epic poems and generally think much poorer thoughts. Yet, we conquered the pen and it seems as if it was not a bad idea to let writing into our culture. Why could we not also conquer the new technologies?
There are tools for those that are interested. Here are my two favorite distraction reflecting technologies, or technologies that safe-guard our ability to think long thoughts.
- Freedom. This little piece of software shuts down the Internet for a period of time you choose. The only way to get back only is to reboot the computer. This minimizes the distractions and allows you to work in a concentrated manner. Combine with…
- WriteRoom. A word processor that has a fullscreen mode that hides all other software and all other things on the screen. Just text and you.
It does not have to be harder than that. I actually think that beekeeping and the turn away from technology is a response to something else than a deeply felt dissatisfaction with the way technology forces us to distraction, it is a response to the phenomenon that Weber called Entzauberung, the continual loss of magic in our world. It is not so much that the Internet distracts us, it is that it is hard to create meaning in this new medium, and if there is something we crave as human beings it is exactly that: meaning.
And if you turn to beekeeping, away from technology, you have created meaning. But, again paradoxically, that meaning is dependent on technology. You have turned away from technology and that becomes your meaning producing choice. You have not turned to beekeeping. It is only with the information society as background that beekeeping has an attraction.
The real challenge is to create meaning that depends on something more profound than a frustration with technology and its effects. To accept technology, but not allow it dominion over you.