Random finds (2019, week 6) — On choosing a focused life in a noisy world, becoming a boulevardier, and the crisis of intimacy
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 technfluid and boundless curiosity.
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This week: Cal Newport’s philosophy of technology use; social media and the art of flânerie; how what we don’t share will define us; why children should get bored again; the play deficit; the art of attention; take the chance to jump into the unknown, says Frank Gehry; an architectural testament to the power of listening; and, finally, Maira Kalman on the deepest places of meditation.
Choosing a focused life in a noisy world
In a Q+A with Clay Skipper for GQ, entitled Cal Newport on Why We’ll Look Back at Our Smartphones Like Cigarettes, the computer science professor tells about his new book Digital Minimalism, why he thinks future workplaces may go email-free, and why tech backlash is about to go mainstream.
While everyone was sucked up in the ultra-connected, social media vortex, Newport maintained his distance. And as Facebook’s presence mushroomed exponentially, he found himself watching and wondering, why are people so into this? These seeds of doubt grew into a hearty techno-skepticism, which inspired Deep Work. In this book from 2016 about the merits of mono-tasking and deep concentration in a world of constant distraction, Newport argues that for the modern knowledge worker, the problem is not that the our work lacks challenge, but that the challenge is easily ducked.
Now, in Digital Minimalism, Newport presents a “philosophy of technology use” rooted in reclaiming control and intention back from the devices and platforms that have hijacked it. He suggests beginning with a thirty-day detox during which you stop using any “optional technologies” that you can forgo without causing harm in your professional or personal life.
Newport doesn’t deny that technology is both useful and imperative. “The problem in our current digital world, he argues, isn’t about utility, it’s about autonomy: tech greatly improves our life, right up until the point where you stop using it intentionally and unknowingly fall into manipulative black holes — on your phone, on Slack, in your inbox — that are specifically designed to be addicting,” Skipper writes.
“The theory is that with thirty days of abstinence, you’ll be able to figure out when tech stops being useful and starts being problematic. With that extra time, you’ll not only re-discover the meaningful leisure activities you left behind when scrolling through Instagram became a national pastime; you’ll also get a better sense of the values and goals that matter to you. Then, you can intentionally add back the digital tools that’ll enhance, rather than distract from, the things you want.”
Digital minimalism can be seen as a response to ‘techno-maximalism.’ “The basic idea,” Newport explains, “is that technological innovations can bring value and convenience into your life. So, you assess new technological tools with respect to what value or convenience it can bring into your life. And if you can find one, then the conclusion is, ‘If I can afford it, I should probably have this.’ It just looks at the positives. And it’s view is ‘more is better than less,’ because more things that bring you benefits means more total benefits. This is what maximalism is: ‘If there’s something that brings value, you should get it.’
What is so pernicious about that type of thinking?
[Newport] “People have been writing about why this is a bad idea in different contexts for a really long time, actually. Thoreau was really on this, looking at economic maximalism, at fellow farmers in Concord in Massachusetts. He was saying, ‘They have this mindset of, If having this much land makes me this much profit, then having twice as much will make me twice as much profit, so that’s twice as good. You want to get as much land as possible.’
He had this rhetoric that I think is still relevant today, even in the digital world, which is: there’s a cost [to these additions]. You can’t just say, ‘Another hundred acres of land is gonna give me another hundred dollars a month of profit.’ You also have to say, ‘Another hundred acres of land is gonna cost me another 30 hours a week of labor, and that’s life that I’m losing.’ […]
Digital minimalism is the same thing. We see these tools, and we have this narrative that, ‘You can do this on Facebook,’ or ‘This new feature on this device means you can do this, which would be convenient.’ What you don’t factor in is, ‘Okay, well what’s the cost in terms of my time attention required to have this device in my life?’ [Techno-maximalism] ignores the opportunity cost. And as Thoreau pointed out hundreds of years ago, it’s actually in the opportunity cost that all the interesting math happens.”
You write about digital distraction as a way we can avoid ever having to be with ourselves. What’s the value in having to turn inward?
[Newport] “You have to actually confront yourself and engage in self-reflection: thinking about your life, what’s important, what’s working, and what’s not working. And this process of self-shaping is absolutely crucial to building an impactful and flourishing life. That’s when you shape yourself. That’s when a life of focus and value is built.
The second thing, and maybe this sounds a bit more trivial, is that through time immemorial, the way that people dealt with this void — whenever they were lucky enough to be in a time and place where they had some leisure time — was to seek out high quality leisure activities…. usually highly social, highly skilled activities. As Aristotle used to write, these activities you do just for the sake of the activities — just for the quality and joy of it — gives you this resilience that makes it much easier to deal with all the other hardships of life. Your life is not just all hardships, there’s these things that we do that are intrinsically full and joyful.
If you can taper over the void with a constant stream of distractions — make it just comfortable enough that you don’t have to confront it — you’re in a really bad situation. Now you’re avoiding that self-reflection that you need to actually grow up and to build a life worth living. Also, you can distract yourself enough that you never have to answer that drive to actually fill your life with the quality activities: getting engaged with your community; picking up a skilled hobby; art and poetry; these type of things.
I think it’s actually pretty dire. Yes, it’s scary not to be distracted, but I think it’s even more scary to avoid all of the deep good that comes from having to just be there with yourself, and confront all of those difficulties and opportunities that entails.”
Becoming a boulevardier
Also Ephrat Livni writes about how to use social media. Her advise is to act like a 19th-century Parisian.
“In the physical world, we tend to be pretty careful about our interactions. Yet in the virtual world, it seems people are always itching for a fight, exchanging barbs and insults on Twitter and Facebook and making much ado about topics they often know very little about,” she writes.
“Resisting the pull of social media, and its constant pressure to take sides, is a good idea. But abstaining from it altogether is a difficult proposal for many. […] If you’re not quite ready to quit Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, a more measured approach is to treat virtual spaces more like a bustling street — a place where, like a ‘flâneur,’ you can pick up a lot of information by observing the action, while being more reticent to offer opinions and circumspect about posting.
The ‘boulevardier,’ or flâneur, was a French 19th-century literary type who wandered Paris with no particular purpose other than to be on the scene. [They] watched what was happening, taking in the bustle of others and so developing a deeper understanding of city life and their changing times.”
It was the French writer Charles Baudelaire who illuminated the flâneur and the art of flânerie in his 1863 essay The Painter of Modern Life. “The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes,” Baudelaire writes. “His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world — impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define.”
According to Livni, “Flânerie is a charmingly subversive act, a refusal to be swayed by the vagaries of the moment while committing to investigating the trends and events rather than ignoring them.”
“The idea of doing nothing is not in vogue at the moment — we’re forever optimizing our time and trying to seem extremely active. Still, this is a great time to take up flânerie. In [In Praise of the Flâneur], Bijan Stephen suggested as much when he wrote of the flâneurs in 19th century Paris, observing that our virtual streets resemble the physical boulevards of days gone by. ‘Real life hasn’t changed… Now that we’re comfortably into the era of the postmodern, perhaps it’s time to take a brief stroll into the past, to sample its sights and its sounds,’ he proposed. We can use Instagram and the like for input and limit our output, becoming keen cultural observers, refining our understanding of the online environment,” Livni writes.
“The dangers of total immersion and lack of circumspection about this fast-paced culture can’t be overstated. […] Hannah Arendt argued that a moral society depends on thinking individuals. In order to think we need solitude and mental freedom. ‘Arendt reminds us, if we lose our capacity for solitude, our ability to be alone with ourselves, then we lose our very ability to think. We risk getting caught up in the crowd. We risk being ‘swept away’, as she put it, ‘by what everybody else does and believes in,’ Jennifer Stitt writes in Before you can be with others, first learn to be alone. She warns that in our hyper-connected world, the risk of losing a connection to ourselves and the ability to think independently is greater than ever.
It’s possible that in stepping back and vowing to think before we tweet, we may discover that, upon reflection, we don’t really have any value to add. Theoretically, if enough people do this, there might come a day when the public square falls silent. While that’s unlikely, if it were to happen, nothing will be lost. If we’re all quiet and there’s nothing left to observe online, that either means we didn’t need social media after all, or that we’ve all taken to speaking only about what matters, and only when we know enough about it to opine. This category probably doesn’t encompass much, in which case we’ll be the wiser for realizing it, and in very esteemed company indeed.
At this point, we’d be in the territory of ancient sages and great philosophers like Socrates, the wisest guy in ancient Greece who admitted his limitations, and the Chinese sage Lao-Tzu who spoke only when pressed to opine, noting that ‘great eloquence is tongue-tied.’”
The crisis of intimacy
We all know that technology has changed us, on our most intimate levels. Yet, nobody really wants to face the specifics of how, says Stephen Marche. In The Crisis of Intimacy in the Age of Digital Connectivity, he argues that equality of information, which is the foundation of digital connectivity, is, by definition, the antithesis of intimacy.
“Technologists have a blind spot when it comes to their effects on intimacy,” Marche writes. “Since you can’t quantify it, what does it matter? The great analysts of human intimacy are equally blind when it comes to registering the subtle interruptions of the machines. Alice Munro’s short stories, widely considered the most intimate portraits of domestic life in the period between the 1970s and the 2010s (smack dab in the middle of the grand technological disruption), never mention a computer. It seems too silly, too negligible, a distraction from the real business of intimate life, which is family and sex. And there is another problem: if you mentioned a smartphone in a short story about intimate life, the subject of that story would be the smartphone. The technology would swallow all other meaning in fiction just as it does in real life.
The failure to deal with the intimate implications of digital connectivity leads to widespread mistakes. It is a general assumption, and not just among old people, that the rise of digital connectivity has led to a decline in intimacy.”
But this general idea doesn’t reflect reality. “The digital world is soaked in intimacy,” Marche writes. “Or, rather, there is no more and no less intimacy now than there was during the analog era; the intimacy has been transferred to another format. […] we express ourselves in lust and hunger and violence. Sitting in front of infinitely interchangeable and accessible screens, each of us stupidly needs to feel special, and will do what it takes.
The content of the internet is always in rebellion against its form. The form is smooth universality. The content is the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”
This contradiction between form and content, Marche argues, was apparent in the very foundations of the system as described, in 1974, in A Protocol for Packet Network Intercommunication. It defined ‘connection’ exclusively in the sense of an association between two or more entities without regard to a path. According to Marche, “The unspeakable power and hard limitations of the age of digital connectivity are right there, right at the beginning. ‘Without regard to a path,’ all information can be connected. The connections will, however, be ‘without regard to a path.’ The achievement is the disaster. The advantage is the flaw. The feature is the bug. Equality of information is, by definition, the antithesis of intimacy.”
“The basic contradiction is as simple as it is desperate: the sharing of private experience has never been more widespread while empathy, the ability to recognize the meaning of another’s private experience, has never been more rare,” Marche writes.
“The crisis of intimacy is not some accident, some coincidence with the rise of smartphones and social media. It is so hard to see the specific outlines of the relation, and not just because of the standard difficulties of establishing the true meaning of statistics. Who can see their own distortion clearly? Amara’s Law, which states that we tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run, is true of human fate in general. In history, as in our intimate lives, the decisions we don’t consider are the ones with the most profound consequences. A mother’s off-handed remark. A party attended at the last minute. These shape us in ways paralyzing to contemplate. Kranzberg’s Law — ‘Technology is neither good nor bad, neither is it neutral’ — has the good sense to acknowledge the inevitability of misunderstanding. It’s why time is the ultimate twist ending. It’s why the consequences of technology are never what anyone thinks they are.
The crisis of intimacy emerges directly from the structures of digital connectivity themselves, and not merely from their misapplication. There is no hope in better management. All plans for fixing the internet are a misunderstanding of the fundamental vision of connection that makes the whole thing possible. Nothing any digital technology company could do, other than to stop making digital technology, would assuage the inescapable brokenness of our condition. The connections of the internet are originally and inherently ‘without regard to a path,’ and mere human beings, on screen or off, are in infinite need of paths.
We’re going to have to find those paths elsewhere than technology. A secret name is not the same as an anonymous avatar. In a world of total information, the essence of the human will become what is not information, and the essence of intimacy will be in sharing what cannot be shared over the networks. Secret names have always stood at the center of what is holy. The ancient Egyptian universal god Ra had a sacred name, a secret name. When Moses asked God who He was, the answer came back ‘I am I am.’ Without secrets, there can be no revelation.
As the various venues of digital connectivity become the whole of the public realm, the public realm will be a collection of alienations, a bunch of beetles in a bunch of boxes. In an all-sharing world, what we don’t share will define us. The secret will be irrelevant because it is not on the network. It will be the part of us that matters.”
And also this …
Boredom is something to experience rather than hastily swipe away, Pamela Paul writes in Let Children Get Bored Again.
“Only a few short decades ago, during the lost age of underparenting, grown-ups thought a certain amount of boredom was appropriate. And children came to appreciate their empty agendas. […]
Nowadays, subjecting a child to such inactivity is viewed as a dereliction of parental duty. In a much-read story in The New York Times, The Relentlessness of Modern Parenting, Claire Cain Miller cited a recent study that found that regardless of class, income or race, parents believed that ‘children who were bored after school should be enrolled in extracurricular activities, and that parents who were busy should stop their task and draw with their children if asked.’
Every spare moment is to be optimized, maximized, driven toward a goal.”
“It’s especially important that kids get bored — and be allowed to stay bored — when they’re young. That it not be considered ‘a problem’ to be avoided or eradicated by the higher-ups, but instead something kids grapple with on their own.
We’ve stopped training children to do this. Rather than teach them to absorb material that is slower, duller and decidedly two-dimensional, like a lot of worthwhile information is, schools cave in to what they say children expect: fun. Teachers spend more time concocting ways to ‘engage’ students through visuals and ‘interactive learning’ (read: screens, games) tailored to their Candy Crushed attention spans. Kids won’t listen to long lectures, goes the argument, so it’s on us to serve up learning in easier-to-swallow portions.
But surely teaching children to endure boredom rather than ratcheting up the entertainment will prepare them for a more realistic future, one that doesn’t raise false expectations of what work or life itself actually entails. One day, even in a job they otherwise love, our kids may have to spend an entire day answering Friday’s leftover email. They may have to check spreadsheets. Or assist robots at a vast internet-ready warehouse.
This sounds boring, you might conclude. It sounds like work, and it sounds like life. Perhaps we should get used to it again, and use it to our benefit. Perhaps in an incessant, up-the-ante world, we could do with a little less excitement.”
“Children today are cossetted and pressured in equal measure. Without the freedom to play they will never grow up,” writes Peter Gray, a psychologist and research professor at Boston College, in The play deficit.
“When I was a child in the 1950s, my friends and I had two educations. We had school (which was not the big deal it is today), and we also had what I call a hunter-gather education. We played in mixed-age neighbourhood groups almost every day after school, often until dark. We played all weekend and all summer long. We had time to explore in all sorts of ways, and also time to become bored and figure out how to overcome boredom, time to get into trouble and find our way out of it, time to daydream, time to immerse ourselves in hobbies, and time to read comics and whatever else we wanted to read rather than the books assigned to us. What I learnt in my hunter-gatherer education has been far more valuable to my adult life than what I learnt in school, and I think others in my age group would say the same if they took time to think about it,” Gray writes.
But for more than 50 years now, children’s opportunities to play have been gradually reduced. This decline in opportunity has also been accompanied by a decline in empathy and a rise in narcissism. This, says Gray, “is exactly what we would expect to see in children who have little opportunity to play socially. Children can’t learn these social skills and values in school, because school is an authoritarian, not a democratic setting. School fosters competition, not co-operation; and children there are not free to quit when others fail to respect their needs and wishes.”
“In school, and in other settings where adults are in charge, they make decisions for children and solve children’s problems. In play, children make their own decisions and solve their own problems. In adult-directed settings, children are weak and vulnerable. In play, they are strong and powerful. The play world is the child’s practice world for being an adult. We think of play as childish, but to the child, play is the experience of being like an adult: being self-controlled and responsible. To the degree that we take away play, we deprive children of the ability to practise adulthood, and we create people who will go through life with a sense of dependence and victimisation, a sense that there is some authority out there who is supposed to tell them what to do and solve their problems. That is not a healthy way to live,” says Gray.
“In recent decades we as a society have been conducting a play-deprivation experiment with our children. Today’s children are not absolutely deprived of play as the rats and monkeys are in the animal experiments, but they are much more deprived than children were 60 years ago and much, much more than children were in hunter-gatherer societies. The results, I think, are in. Play deprivation is bad for children. Among other things, it promotes anxiety, depression, suicide, narcissism, and loss of creativity. It’s time to end the experiment.”
“To pay attention, to attend. To be present, not merely in body — it is an action of the spirit,” Sven Birkerts writes in The art of attention, an assay on how the peculiar vividness of the world becomes clear when we slow down and attend, learning to see all things anew.
“Thinking of the ways that I look at art or listen to music, I easily distinguish between the dutiful and the avid. In front of the battle scene, the mythological set-piece, I make myself pay a certain kind of attention. I take in the shapes and colours, obey the visual indicators that guide my eye from one point to another; I know to make myself mindful of the narrative, its thematic intention. I can even experience certain satisfactions, noting and feeling the balance of elements, the accuracy of execution, the expressiveness of certain gestures and features. All of this betokens one kind of attention. But I am not at attention. I do not engage out of my own inclinations so much as obey a series of basic directives, much as when I read a novel that is solidly characterised and plotted but that, for whatever reason, does not have me in its thrall.”
Other works of art, however, activate a completely different set of responses, Birkerts writes.
“When I move into the vicinity of a canvas by the 17th-century Dutch artist Jacob Isaacksz. van Ruisdael, for example, even before I have looked, when I have seen only enough in my peripheral vision to suggest that it is one of his, I experience what feels like an inclining toward; I ready myself to attend. I feel myself heightened in a Ruisdael way — which is different than a Vermeer way or a Giacometti way. It’s as if I dilate my pupils to absorb the particular colour tones, the marks that are his way of drawing trees, the strategies he uses to create distance in his landscapes. I am looking, moving my eye from point to point, sweeping along the width and breadth of the surface, but what I am attending to is more general, deeper, and hardly requires the verification of intensive looking. The paintings I love induce reverie. With Ruisdael, it’s easy: I draw the landscape fully around me. I suck it into myself, so that I might absent myself from whatever daylight spot I occupy in whatever gallery or museum. I am tantalised by its tones, the strokes of execution, but also by its profound pastness. Not its particular century or period, simply that it is a version of a bygone world.
Here attention meets distraction or, better yet, daydreaming. They are not the same thing. One is the special curse of our age — the self diluted and thinned to a blur by all the vying signals — while the other hearkens back to childhood, seems the very emblem of the soul’s freedom. Distraction is a shearing away from focus, a lowering of intensity, whereas daydreaming — the word itself conveys immersed intensity. Associational, intransitive: the attending mind is bathed in duration. We have no sense of the clock-face; we are fully absorbed by our thoughts, images and scenarios. Daydreaming is closer to our experience of art.
Marcel Proust wrote somewhere that love begins with looking, and the idea is suggestive. But if that’s the case, the reverse might also be: that true looking begins with love. There’s the quote that I used to repeat like a mantra to writing students, from Flaubert: ‘Anything becomes interesting if you look at it long enough.’ Again, the distinctions, the questions of priority. Is it that the looked-at thing becomes interesting, or that its intrinsic interest gradually emerges? Is the power in the negotiable thing or in the act of looking? If the latter, then the things of the world are already layered with significance, and looking is merely the action that discloses.”
“Frank Gehry (b.1929) is recognized as one of the most important architects of our time, and his spectacular buildings — including the iconic Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and Walt Disney Concert Hall — have won him worldwide renown. Watch the American architect talk about his life, architecture and the world today in this in-depth video recorded at his studio in Los Angeles.
When a teacher enrolled the young Gehry in a night-class at architecture school, it became the beginning of a long career: ‘It was all by chance.’ At that time, American architects — including Frank Lloyd Wright — were inspired by Japanese architecture, and Gehry feels that this early influence has stayed with him ever since, not least when he built the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles: ‘You’d think Disney Hall was a Japanese temple.’
‘That’s what an architect should do — be able to have an emotional response to their work that lasts through the centuries.’ If you want to be an architect, Gehry argues, first of all you’ve got to learn the craft, but also ‘your personal spirit has to evolve into the language that you create.’ Everyone will ultimately produce something different, personal and completely unique — like a signature — and it’s important to be brave enough to ‘take the chance to jump off into the unknown.’ Architecture is about feelings, and the best architects, or artists, are themselves and no one else. In continuation of this, Gehry believes that architecture is about the singularity of the building as well as being part of the surroundings, and he finds it aggravating that all buildings in cities nowadays look the same: ‘Downtown Los Angeles now looks like Downtown Seoul, Korea.’”
How to Think Like an Entrepreneur contains a moving chapter about Gehry. Philip Delves Broughton writes how Gehry sought the company of artists and architects, but found himself marginalised by both groups. The artists called him a ‘plumber,’ while the architects tried to belittle him by calling him ‘artist.’ But Gehry drew his energy from straddling these worlds.
“There was a powerful, powerful energy I was getting from this [art] scene that I wasn’t getting from the architecture world. What attracted me to them is that they worked intuitively. They would do what they wanted and take the consequences. Their work was more direct and in such contrast to what I was doing in architecture, which was so rigid. You have to deal with safety issues — fireproofing, sprinklers, handrails for stairways, things like that. You go through training that teaches you to do things in a very careful way, following codes and budgets. But those constraints didn’t speak to aesthetics,” Gehry says.
Only in 1997, when the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao opened to worldwide acclaim, Gehry’s blend of energy and competence, and his ability to bring a unique architectural vision to reality were finally recognized. He was sixty-nine.
Located in Seoul’s Nowon District, Hannae Forest of Wisdom by UnSangDong Architects is not just a library; “it also acts as a community space — a place for neighbours of all ages to come together,” Tamsin Bradshaw writes for Design Anthology.
“Unsangdong began by organising informal sessions with the local community, listening to their desires and needs for the library space. […] The result is a series of spaces that feel cosy and approachable, both inside and out. Layered, gabled roofs lend a friendly, homely feel, while calling to mind the Chinese character for ‘people.’ Floor-to-ceiling windows invite both natural light and visitors inside, while skylights overhead encourage young readers to tilt their gaze upward and daydream.”
“I absolutely think that a museum is one of the deepest places of meditation that there could be, maybe even more than a library, because you’re looking. In a museum, you’re not reading — I mean, you’re reading a little bit, but you’re basically just wandering and looking. And once again, the function of the brain, what happens to the brain is very different than, I don’t know, than being in a supermarket — even though I love being in a supermarket. So wait a minute. I love supermarkets. I love to look at all the packaging. To me, that’s a little bit like a museum. But that’s a digression. I think that we have the opportunity to understand silence around us, and really looking, all the time. There’s always the opportunity. And there’s never a lack of things to look at, and there’s never a lack of time not to talk.” — Maira Kalman in Daily Things to Fall in Love With, an interview with On Being’s Krista Tippett