Freedom From Ourselves
I’ve come across this in a number of places this week… Apparently, you can now purchase software to force yourself off the internet. Freedom is a program designed to keep you offline for up to eight hours at a time, freeing you up to be creative, productive, on task, and healthy and happy to boot, no doubt. Technology to save us from technology. Just what we need.
The Internet has obviously been abuzz about this topic, often in conjunction with two recent articles: Pico Iyer’s very popular piece in the New York Times called “The Joy of Quiet,” which speaks of, among other things, the growing attraction of “unplugged resorts,” and Slate’s “Can We Unplug?” on the illusion of internet freedom. Both articles touch, in different ways, on the pitiable state of affairs we have gotten ourselves into—we are distracted, addicted, inattentive, hyper-connected people, who now find ourselves going to almost laughable lengths in our desperate attempts to unplug.
For my part, James K.A. Smith’s analysis of this situation is among the most insightful I’ve come across. For Smith, the issue is the absence of virtue—we have habituated ourselves poorly:
[T]he material rhythms of an “online” life have inculcated in us patterns of behavior—and hence internal dispositions—to seek distraction. It’s not that we lack habits; it’s that we have acquired habits of distraction.
Yes, yes, yes. I think that many of us have simply failed to cultivate the sorts of virtues that would allow us to navigate the contours of the technological landscape with skill, discernment, and virtue. We have become addicted to the endless status updates and cross-posts and links and tweets and hits and stats and ratings and news aggregators and real-time scores and God only knows what other manner of cyber-noise. The online world, for many, provides a narrative of meaning and purpose. We flood online, reflexively and reactively. We want to be “in the know.” We want to be “connected.” We want to be a part of the conversation, even if the conversation turns out to be superficial and meaningless. We don’t always (often?) know what we are looking for, but we’re pretty sure we know where to find it: online.
I spent a bit of time this morning reading Thomas Merton’s No Man is an Island. This passage, in particular, stood out:
Now anxiety is the mark of spiritual insecurity. It is the fruit of unanswered questions. But questions cannot go unanswered unless they first be asked. And there is a far worse anxiety, a far worse insecurity, which comes from being afraid to ask the right questions—because they might turn out to have no answer. One of the moral diseases we communicate to one another in society comes from huddling together in the pale light of an insufficient answer to a question we are afraid to ask.
Merton obviously did not have our current technological predicament in mind when he wrote these words in 1955, but I’ve been thinking about what they might have to say to us today nonetheless. I wonder: does our collective addiction to the internet represent a kind of “huddling together in the pale light of an insufficient answer to a question we are afraid to ask?” Do our suspicions about what the “material rhythms of our online lives” are doing to us point to deeper questions that we are afraid to ask? Questions about who we are, what we are doing, and why? What does the distracted anxiety of our culture betray about the narratives we have adopted to give our lives meaning? About the answers our lives are providing to the implicit and explicit questions we are asking? I wonder…
I’m mostly just in musing mode today. I don’t have perfectly-formulated responses to any of these questions (and would welcome any thoughts you might have on the matter). But I do worry about where we are headed. I worry about the kinds of habits we are cultivating, the kind of people we are becoming. I envy Merton his cloister and his calm quiet. I hope and pray that we will continue to pay heed to voices like his, which urge us to have the courage to ask the right questions for the right reasons.