Random finds (2018, week 3) — On reclaiming our ‘humanness,’ investigating the irresistible, and a philosophy of digital minimalism

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Cloaked House by Ernesto Pereira — With its glazed walls sandwiched between concrete slabs this house in the Portuguese city of Marco de Canaveses blends in with the surrounding trees and provides extensive views across a nearby valley.

“I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.” — Michel de Montaigne

Random finds is a weekly curation of my tweets and, as such, a reflection of my curiosity and thinking.

Reclaiming our ‘humanness’

“We must give up many things to which we are addicted, considering them to be good. Otherwise, courage will vanish, which should continually test itself. Greatness of soul will be lost, which can’t stand out unless it disdains as petty what the mob regards as most desirable.” — Seneca in Moral Letters to Lucilius, Letter 74, 12b-13

“An endless bombardment of news and gossip and images has rendered us manic information addicts. It broke me. It might break you, too,” Andrew Sullivan writes in I Used to Be a Human Being, a long read for New York Magazine (2016).

Sullivan is an American writer and blogger, and a very early adopter of what we might now call living-in-the-web. In 2016, however, he found himself in a converted novitiate in central Massachusetts to get his life back on track and “try to live in reality.”

“Every minute I was engrossed in a virtual interaction I was not involved in a human encounter,” he writes. “Every second absorbed in some trivia was a second less for any form of reflection, or calm, or spirituality. ‘Multitasking’ was a mirage. This was a zero-sum question. I either lived as a voice online or I lived as a human being in the world that humans had lived in since the beginning of time.”

‘Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog,’ by Caspar David Friedrich (1818), in an adaptation by Kim Dong-kyu for New York Magazine.

“Since the invention of the printing press, every new revolution in information technology has prompted apocalyptic fears. From the panic that easy access to the vernacular English Bible would destroy Christian orthodoxy all the way to the revulsion, in the 1950s, at the barbaric young medium of television, cultural critics have moaned and wailed at every turn. Each shift represented a further fracturing of attention […]. And yet society has always managed to adapt and adjust, without obvious damage, and with some more-than-obvious progress. So it’s perhaps too easy to view this new era of mass distraction as something newly dystopian. But it sure does represent a huge leap from even the very recent past,” Sullivan writes.

Online outlets now publish exponentially more material than ever before and “we absorb this ‘content’ (as writing or video or photography is now called) no longer primarily by buying a magazine or paper, by bookmarking our favorite website, or by actively choosing to read or watch. We are instead guided to these info-nuggets by myriad little interruptions on social media, all cascading at us with individually tailored relevance and accuracy. Do not flatter yourself in thinking that you have much control over which temptations you click on. Silicon Valley’s technologists and their ever-perfecting algorithms have discovered the form of bait that will have you jumping like a witless minnow. No information technology ever had this depth of knowledge of its consumers — or greater capacity to tweak their synapses to keep them engaged.”

YouTube, for instance, is a master of getting you to watch videos you didn’t know existed minutes earlier. On an average day, people around the world watch one billion hours of video on YouTube, and most of those — 70%— are recommended by YouTube’s algorithms, according to chief product officer Neal Mohan. “We focused a lot in last several years on machine learning and artificial intelligence to learn what our users like and make. Our job is to give the steady stream, almost a synthetic or personalized channel,” Mohan said during a panel discussion at CES 2018.

Yet, not so long ago, surfing the web was a stationary activity — at your desk at work, or at home on your laptop. But with the rapid growth of smartphone ownership, the engagement never ends. Today, information has “penetrated every waking moment of our lives.”

“Just look around you — at the people crouched over their phones as they walk the streets, or drive their cars, or walk their dogs, or play with their children. Observe yourself in line for coffee, or in a quick work break, or driving, or even just going to the bathroom. Visit an airport and see the sea of craned necks and dead eyes. We have gone from looking up and around to constantly looking down.”

“We all understand the joys of our always-wired world — the connections, the validations, the laughs, the porn, the info. I don’t want to deny any of them here. But we are only beginning to get our minds around the costs, if we are even prepared to accept that there are costs. For the subtle snare of this new technology is that it lulls us into the belief that there are no downsides. It’s all just more of everything. Online life is simply layered on top of offline life. We can meet in person and text beforehand. We can eat together while checking our feeds. We can transform life into what the writer Sherry Turkle [in Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other] refers to as ‘life-mix,’” which Turkle herself describes as “the mash-up of what you have on- and offline” (Alone Together, page 160).

But, as Sullivan had discovered during his blogging years, “the family that is eating together while simultaneously on their phones is not actually together.” They are, as Turkle calls it, ‘alone together.’ “You are where your attention is,” Sullivan writes. “If you’re watching a football game with your son while also texting a friend, you’re not fully with your child — and he knows it. Truly being with another person means being experientially with them, picking up countless tiny signals from the eyes and voice and body language and context, and reacting, often unconsciously, to every nuance. These are our deepest social skills, which have been honed through the aeons. They are what makes us distinctively human.

By rapidly substituting virtual reality for reality, we are diminishing the scope of this interaction even as we multiply the number of people with whom we interact. We remove or drastically filter all the information we might get by being with another person.” Instead, we have “become each other’s ‘contacts,’ efficient shadows of ourselves.”

And although this online and automated life is more efficient, it “denies us the deep satisfaction and pride of workmanship that comes with accomplishing daily tasks well, a denial perhaps felt most acutely by those for whom such tasks are also a livelihood — and an identity.

Indeed, the modest mastery of our practical lives is what fulfilled us for tens of thousands of years — until technology and capitalism decided it was entirely dispensable. If we are to figure out why despair has spread so rapidly in so many left-behind communities, the atrophying of the practical vocations of the past — and the meaning they gave to people’s lives — seems as useful a place to explore as economic indices,” Sullivan argues.

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“When we enter a coffee shop in which everyone is engrossed in their private online worlds, we respond by creating one of our own. When someone next to you answers the phone and starts talking loudly as if you didn’t exist, you realize that, in her private zone, you don’t. And slowly, the whole concept of a public space — where we meet and engage and learn from our fellow citizens — evaporates.” (Photography by Abi Ismail / Unsplash)

As spirituality slowly weakened in favor of commerce, it downplayed silence and mere being in favor of noise and constant action. Since the Industrial Revolution, we have become “a civilization of getting things done — with the development of America, in some ways, as its crowning achievement. Silence in modernity became, over the centuries, an anachronism, even a symbol of the useless superstitions we had left behind. The smartphone revolution of the past decade can be seen in some ways simply as the final twist of this ratchet, in which those few remaining redoubts of quiet — the tiny cracks of inactivity in our lives — are being methodically filled with more stimulus and noise,” Sullivan writes. “And yet our need for quiet has never fully gone away, because our practical achievements, however spectacular, never quite fulfil us.”

According to Sullivan, most civilizations have understood this in the past. The “Judeo-Christian tradition recognized a critical distinction — and tension — between noise and silence, between getting through the day and getting a grip on one’s whole life. The Sabbath […] was a collective imposition of relative silence, a moment of calm to reflect on our lives under the light of eternity. It helped define much of Western public life once a week for centuries — only to dissipate, with scarcely a passing regret, into the commercial cacophony of the past couple of decades. It reflected a now-battered belief that a sustained spiritual life is simply unfeasible for most mortals without these refuges from noise and work to buffer us and remind us who we really are. But just as modern street lighting has slowly blotted the stars from the visible skies, so too have cars and planes and factories and flickering digital screens combined to rob us of a silence that was previously regarded as integral to the health of the human imagination.

This changes us. It slowly removes — without our even noticing it — the very spaces where we can gain a footing in our minds and souls that is not captive to constant pressures or desires or duties. And the smartphone has all but banished them. Thoreau issued his jeremiad against those pressures more than a century ago: ‘I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear.’”

Sullivan, however, sees burgeoning signs of a more human correction; yoga, for example, and also mindfulness, which has become “a corporate catchword for many and a new form of sanity for others.” You could even argue that the renewed interest in Stoicism is another example of how people trying to regain control over their lives. If we want, we can “re-create a digital Sabbath each week — just one day in which we live for 24 hours without checking our phones. Or we can simply turn off our notifications,” he writes. “Humans are self-preserving in the long run. For every innovation there is a reaction, and even the starkest of analysts of our new culture, like Sherry Turkle, sees a potential for eventually rebalancing our lives.”

And yet, the ubiquitous temptations of virtual living create a mental climate that is still maddeningly hard to manage. In the days, then weeks, then months after his retreat, his daily meditation sessions began to falter a little. After a while, Sullivan was back in his old rut, absorbing every nugget of news, even as he understood each to be as ephemeral as the last.

“I haven’t given up, even as, each day, at various moments, I find myself giving in. There are books to be read; landscapes to be walked; friends to be with; life to be fully lived. And I realize that this is, in some ways, just another tale in the vast book of human frailty. But this new epidemic of distraction is our civilization’s specific weakness. And its threat is not so much to our minds, even as they shape-shift under the pressure. The threat is to our souls. At this rate, if the noise does not relent, we might even forget we have any.”

Investigating the irresistible

As part of Behavioral Scientist’s special issue Connected State of Mind, which explores the impact of tech use on our behavior and relationships, Elizabeth Weingarten interviewed Adam Alter, an assistant professor of marketing and psychology at New York University. In his latest book, Irresistible, Alter reveals the powerful psychological underpinnings of the devices designed to keep our eyes glued and fingers swiping.

Many tech tools are designed to exploit our psychological vulnerabilities, but it’s not just about the technology. “Behavioral addictions often seek to fill a particular emotional void, which makes it essential to disentangle the reasons why someone may reach for the device in the first place,” Weingarten writes. “Someone who’s lonely, for instance, might turn to an immersive video game to build social connections.”

According to Alter, there is a difference between liking a behavior and wanting to do it. “I don’t particularly like checking all of these apps because I know it would be more cognitively nourishing for me to read a book, take a walk, or have a conversation with someone IRL [meaning: ‘in real life’]. But I want to check them. That’s in part because my brain remembers when checking some of these sites ‘soothed a psychological need’ — most likely reducing my anxiety through distraction or stimulating me during a moment of boredom,” writes Weingarten.

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Connected State of Mind explores the impact of tech use on our behavior and relationships. (Illustration by J.K. Rofling for Behavioral Scientist)

“The first question you should ask yourself is whether your phone use infringes on other experiences that you might be having if you weren’t using your phone. Time with other people? Exercise? Time outdoors? I realized a few years ago that my wife and I would sit in the same room without saying a word to each other while we stared at our phones, and we both decided to stop using or at least limit how much time we spent on our phones when we were together. So the first step is recognizing that there’s an issue that needs fixing,” Alter explains. “Once you decide you’d like to make a change, the second step is deciding how big that change needs to be. I’ve found that small changes work better than big ones at first (e.g., putting screens aside during dinner), and once you learn to be mindful about how much time you’re spending on your phone, it’s easier to make bigger changes (e.g., spending entire days or weekends screen-free).”

“Many people are resistant to the term ‘behavioral addiction’ as it applies to screen-based experiences precisely because they argue that a malady that affects the majority of the population shouldn’t be labelled ‘addiction.’ In their minds, addiction is a serious disorder reserved for a small percentage of the population. I understand that concern, but the logic doesn’t make much sense to me. When the Spanish Flu affected tens of millions of people, we didn’t give it a different label because our understanding of the disease had changed; we used the appropriate label and updated our understanding of the term ‘flu.’ The same applies here,” Alter believes. “Behavioral addiction does affect many of us; it’s certainly not as dangerous as, say, heroin addiction is, but the experiences many of us have with our screens satisfy the tests that identify substance addictions.”

When Weingarten asks him what the single greatest consequence will be if there’s no change to the way we all use our devices (and the way that tech companies design apps and products), Alter tells her that, in his view, “[t]he worst-case scenario is a world in which virtual reality experiences become so immersive and pleasurable that we spend the vast majority of our lives apart from other people. Imagine billions of us locked, individually, in our own virtual worlds. If humans primarily seek pleasure and avoid pain, it’s easy to imagine a set of virtual experiences that are designed to be so engaging and rewarding that at any moment they’re preferable to the complex, messy real-world.”

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Amidst all the dystopian visions about the impact of technology, social media psychologist Amy Orben calls for a more ‘balanced’ view. What we’re missing in research “is a very nuanced overview of technology’s effects,” she says in The Need for Nuance. (Illustration by J.K. Rofling for Behavioral Scientist)

So, where do we go from here? In The Great Awakening, Arianna Huffington tries to shed some light on this question.

“2017 was the year we woke up and began to see what the technology we have been swimming in has been doing to us. It has undeniably changed the world, and now we finally have enough data to see how it’s changing us. And it’s not always for the better,” she writes. Her answer to the question ‘where do we go from here?’ is to use this momentum — this awakening — “to transition into an age of human-centered technology.”

Momentum is growing in the political sphere, as well as in academia and on the corporate front, where the ethics of the attention economy are becoming part of the business discussion, she writes. Only last week, two major Apple shareholders sent an open letter, asking Apple to exercise more responsibility around how its products are used, particularly by children and teens. There are also signs that people want to consume media that doesn’t consume them. The rising popularity of “all things analog,” about which David Sax writes in the New York Times, illustrates this.

“But it’s not just about going back to analog. The scale of the problem with the oncoming tide of AI and augmented reality (AR) is too big. What we need is smarter, better and more human technology. Huffington thinks “2018 will show that this is the next frontier in technology — apps and tools and AI that help us set boundaries, create that space and rebuild the walls around our essential humanity. It might seem like a paradox, but it’s not unlike noise-cancelling technology — only with a much wider definition of noise.”

A cry for a more ‘balanced’ view comes from social media psychologist Amy Orben, who combines psychological insights, experimental methods, and big data to better understand how we form relationships with others on social media. In an interesting conversation, also part of the excellent Connected State of Mind issue, she urges us to slow down, build a solid evidence base, and improve the public conversation so that it can better inform, parents, policymakers, and journalists alike. “Currently we’re looking at the effects of tech use in too broad a sense — it’s like arguing whether eating is bad or good for you.” What we are missing “is a very nuanced overview of technology’s effects.”

A philosophy of digital minimalism

If, as The New York Times reported, clicking and swiping have even got the Amish addicted, what hope for the rest of us?

Except, as Kevin Kelly points out in What Technology Wants, the Amish have never been unequivocal shunners of modernity. “Amish lives are anything but anti-technological,” he writes in Amish Hackers. According to Oliver Burkeman in Are the Amish right about new technology?, “What distinguishes the Amish stance toward any given invention isn’t that they reject it outright; it’s that they start by assuming they don’t want or need it, then adopt it only if they decide it’s in line with their values.”

Burkeman doesn’t argue, however, that we should adopt Amish values. But he agrees with Cal Newport who feels alarmed by the fact that the basic Amish logic — only adopt a new technology if it helps you do what you deem important — feels so alien to us. “The Amish are clear about what they value,” Newport notes on his Study Hacks Blog, “and new technologies are evaluated by their impact on these values.”

“To implement Newport’s philosophy [of digital minimalism],” Burkeman says, “you might take an inventory of the tech you use and evaluate each item for its real usefulness, working on the assumption that if something can’t justify itself, it’s out. I’ve started that process: I left a bunch of social networks I was barely on, and deleted all but 30 (!) apps from my phone, including email. (I almost never replied via phone anyway.) Yes, it’s only a start. On the other hand, I don’t own a car, so I’m already Amish-ish in that respect. Time to start shopping for a horse and cart.”

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Illustration by Michele Marconi for the Guardian.

Towards the end of his book The End of Absence, Michael Harris writes about his decision to take a month off from the internet.

“Did he experience an epiphany? Not really,” writes Leo Mirani in What it feels like to be the last generation to remember life before the internet. According to Harris, Mirani writes, “it’s the break itself that’s the thing.” It snaps you out of the spell, that can convince you that it was a spell in the first place.

Although Harris acknowledges taking a full month off is a huge luxury which he could only afford because he was writing a book, an occasional break can still be helpful. He thinks “what you get is a richer interior light and the ability to see yourself in a critical light, living online. Because if you’re in the middle of something you can never see it properly.”

“Harris isn’t railing against these things, though,” Mirani writes. “He doesn’t prescribe fewer internet hours or complain much about ‘kids these days.’ Instead, he acknowledges that his worries stem mainly from his anxieties about his own behavior. Like many of us, Harris checks his email on his phone first thing in the morning. ‘When you wake up, you have this gift of a blank brain. You could fill it with anything. But for most of us, we have this kind of panic. Instead of wondering what should I do, we wonder what did I miss. It’s almost like our unconsciousness is a kind of failure and we can’t believe we’ve been offline for eight hours,’ he says. It is habits like this that are insidious, not the internet itself. It is a personal thing.”

More Michael Harris in this Digital Mindfulness podcast, in which he talks about how encouraging a wider critical public discussion on how we spend our time with the digital tools and services we use every day will enable us to create healthier relationships to digital technology and society.

And also this …

Tom Warmerdam, who is originally from the Netherlands but has lived in the UK for 21 years, turned his passions for cycling and engineering into a career at Demon Frameworks in Southampton, where he designs and builds unique custom-made steel-frame road bikes. One at a time.

“My background is that I’m a failed engineering student,” Warmerdam says. “All the time I was at university all I did was weld two very small pieces of metal together and I wanted to be more hands-on.”

A modern engineer building classic bicycle frames is part of The Artisans, a series in which we see artists and craftspeople in their working environments, from the traditional to the cutting edge, and learning about their processes and working methods.

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Photography by Christopher Thomond for The Guardian.
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As well as carefully restoring the existing spaces, Dominic Pandolfini planned a large but space-efficient two-storey extension for the rear of Port Melbourne House — a 100-year-old heritage property in one of the city’s bayside suburbs. Pandolfini’s aim was to create “a family home with an abundant sense of space and light.”

“The house embraces the relationship between the old and new to create a timeless family home with a spatial drama not typically associated with inner-city terrace sites,” said the architect.

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Photography is by Rory Gardiner.
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Is this room half empty, or half full? (Photography by AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)

“Thinking about spaces in a more ‘Japanese’ way can open up new ways of organizing our lives and focusing on the relationships that matter to us. Building spaces that deepen relationships (wa), generate new knowledge (ba), connect to the world around us (tokoro), and allow moments of quiet and integration (ma) can enrich our experience of the world and that of those around us.” — Jerrold McGrath in The Japanese words for “space” could change your view of the world

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