“A Contracting Sense of the World”
I have a growing section on my bookshelf devoted exclusively to books about how the Internet and social media is changing who we are and how we think. Each of these books says roughly the same thing in different ways. Our (ab)use of and enslavement to our devices is turning us into increasingly shallow, selfish, insular, and inattentive creatures. Our digital habits are making us less productive, more easily distracted, and unable to devote sustained attention to anything that doesn’t come in the form of Internet-sized morsels of information. I have read each one of these books on my shelf. Each time, after I turn the last page, I gulp and think, “Oh man, that was (uncomfortably) accurate. I need to change some of my habits.” And then a week or a month goes by, and I am right back to business as usual, treating my days as little more than a wearisome exercise in managing a never-ending torrent of disconnected, redundant, even useless information.
The latest contribution to this section my bookshelf is John Freeman’s The Tyranny of Email. The book was written in 2009, so it’s a bit dated (yes, I am aware of how ridiculous it sounds to say that something written four years ago could be out of date… such is life on the digital superhighway). Freeman devotes most of his attention, obviously, to our email habits, but I suspect that for many people, email is kind of yesterday’s news. Few restrict their online communication to email these days. There are so many other options, so many other avenues through which our staccato bursts of communication can pour forth.
But I think that in place of “email” we can quite easily substitute “whatever modes of online communication we gravitate toward.” Freeman’s central point remains. We are ruled by our devices, by the digital world, by the perceived demands of the Internet. Everything floods at us in real-time. We are alerted to every update, every message, every mention, every tweet and re-tweet, every alert, everything imaginable as it happens. For many of us, our days are largely spent reacting to a self-inflicted tsunami of information, much of it trivial (or worse), much of it leaving us with the sense that we can never keep up, never be on top of things, never be in control.
But we keep doing it. A few weeks ago, I joined Twitter. I don’t really know why I did this. Curiosity? A nagging sense that I was being left behind? A restless uneasiness that I might not be “maximizing exposure via multi-platform engagement?” Boredom? Who knows? I haven’t “tweeted” much so far (mainly because, a) I seem to be entirely too wordy for 140 characters; and b) I can barely stomach the word “tweet”), but observing and participating in the phenomenon of Twitter has been interesting. So many consonants and symbols bumping up against each other, so many impenetrable references to “conversations” that began elsewhere, so much irritating advertising.
How odd, I thought yesterday, that we choose this. How odd, that we choose to maintain a running list of whatever happens to be on the minds of an enormous number of people/organizations (one famous theo-blogger, I noticed, followed over 20 000 people. Let’s just think about that for a minute. How is that even possible?! What does is even mean to say that you “follow 20 000 people?!”), many of whom we have never met, will never sit down for coffee with, will never talk about anything meaningful with. How odd that we would choose to stay apprised of such an astonishing array of ephemera.
How odd that we would choose to be people who are shaped in this way.
Near the end of his book, Freeman talks about the Internet and our engagement with it as a “shaping context”:
Our inboxes [and Facebook, Twitter feeds, etc.] have usurped the morning paper as a shaping context; many of us check it before we even glance at the news, let alone brew that first cup of coffee, making our email (and by extension, ourselves) the most important information—the shaping context—of the day. This is an important development. From dawn to dusk, email has become a kind of rolling to-do list that, as more and more information is provided to us electronically… stretches across all aspects of our life. If this is the first stream of information we dip into in the morning, we begin our days with a contracting sense of the world, rather than an expanding one.
The irony is, of course, rich indeed, and has been remarked on often. The “world wide” web was supposed to open the world to us, to expand our horizons, to make us the world’s first truly “global” citizens. And yet, our engagement with it so often has the effect of turning us in on ourselves, making us the curators of our own private little worlds of self-selected news sources, and frantically updating feeds. We have become our own “shaping contexts.” And our worlds contract.
Freeman advocates something like a “slow communication movement.” Much of his advice is very good, and I will be trying to follow it. Among other things, he says: Don’t check your email more than twice a day; turn the devices off after 9 pm and before 8 am; use the phone instead of the computer; take media-free days. It all sounds very good and promising. But at the end of the day, I think it comes down to a series of very simple questions that each of us must ask and answer daily: What kind of person do I want to be? What will I allow to shape who I am and what I am becoming?
I had to pick up my kids early from school yesterday for an orthodontist appointment. As I was waiting in my car, I noticed a woman walk out of the front door with her son. He was excitedly yammering away, probably talking about his day, what he did at recess, which girl he thought was cute, whatever. She was staring at her phone, texting, scrolling, updating, while she was walking. I continued to watch the two of them. Eventually, after glancing over at his mom a few times, the boy stopped talking. I stared at her, inwardly willing her to put her phone away and pay attention to the human being beside her. But her eyes didn’t leave her screen from the time she exited the school until the time she opened her car door.
I silently (and self-righteously) rebuked this woman for her shameful inattention to the world around her, to the precious child right beside her. Until I realized that far too frequently she was me.
The promise of Christmas is, among other things, the promise of presence—God with us. I am thinking that among the gifts we could give each other this year, in our relentlessly sending/receiving, frenetically updating, techno-weary world, is the gift of unplugging, disconnecting, and truly being with each other. I am thinking that we could choose to be shaped in better ways.