Reduce Digital Distractions

It is possible to simplify your digital life, ditch social media, reduce digital clutter, and lead a more productive and happier life. Read this blog post by Cal Newport, reporting on Aziz Ansari, social media, and productivity.

The commenters don’t like Cal’s point, saying that only the established and successful can ditch social media. I don’t agree with that. I don’t think anyone needs social media to make it, not even comedians. What matters, in the end, is whether or not you can step on stage, pick up a microphone, and be funny in the room. If you can do that, it doesn’t matter a lick how funny you are on the web.

And in other fields, your success isn’t contingent on what you do on a social media platform, but whether or not you deliver in the actual realm of your chosen field. Social media isn’t real life. It never was.

And Kevin Kelly, of Wired, passed along 103 bits of advice on his 70th birthday. A lot of good stuff, but my favorite is this: “Your time and space are limited. Remove, give away, throw out things in your life that don’t spark joy any longer in order to make room for those that do.”

Make The Days Count

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

When I tell my graduate students, who are mostly in their late twenties, to contemplate the fact that they have fifty or sixty Thanksgivings left, and twenty or thirty with their parents, they look pretty shocked. And it’s not just young people–remember that the average American considers the beginning of “old age” to be six years after the average person dies. We avoid thinking realistically about the length of our lives and the time left, lulling us into the false belief that we have all the time in the world.

Arthur C. Brooks, From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life, p. 94

Brooks says to think about the people, places, and experiences you value most, and dedicate time toward investing in the people, visiting the places, and partaking in the experiences that you designate as vital. We’re mortal. Brooks observes our lives are driven by the desire for “more, more, more,” while a life well lived accepts constraints and is spent in pursuit of fewer objectives with greater intensity. The wise “chip away” what doesn’t satisfy and focus intently on the people, places, and experiences that bring deep satisfaction.

I’ll admit that I’m trying to figure this out. I’m narrowing down my commitments and designating more time for strengthening ties with family members, building friendships, deepening my faith, and humbling myself in service to others. Life is brief. It is rich. And also a gift. I’d like to make the most of it, while it lasts.

File Under: “Could, But Shouldn’t”

Photo by Yassine Khalfalli on Unsplash

In 2011, the last time inflation was on the rise, the then-president of the New York Federal Reserve, William Dudley, ventured into a working-class neighborhood in Queens, New York, to give a speech explaining why inflation wasn’t a big deal. Finding that he wasn’t making an impact, Dudley famously picked up an iPad 2 and told his audience, “Today you can buy an iPad 2 that costs the same as an iPad 1 that is twice as powerful.”

“I can’t eat an iPad!” someone in the audience shouted back.

Samuel Gregg, “That Doesn’t Feel Like $150 Worth of Groceries,” via the Common Sense Substack Newsletter

Waiting Differs from Doing Nothing

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Waiting differs from “doing nothing.”

Waiting doesn’t always feel that way.

Waiting can be active, expectant, watchful, and patient.

Or waiting can be passive, unexpectant, lazy, and impatient.

Lamentation 3:5 says, “The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him.”

Psalm 27:14 says, “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!”

Habbakuk 2:3 reminds us, “For still the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end—it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay.”

Isaiah 30:18 says, “Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you. For the Lord is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him.”

These are all Old Testament references. Maybe the Hebrew people learned a thing or two about waiting.

James 5:7 says, “Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains.”

Romans 5:1-5 says,

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

In Luke 2:25 we read this about a man named Simeon, “Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him.”

And Henri Nouwen writes:

Whenever there is a lack of clarity or ambiguous circumstances, it is time to wait. Active waiting is essential to the spiritual life. In our mostly active lives and fast-paced culture, waiting is not a popular pastime. It is not something we anticipate or experience with great joy. In fact, most of us consider it a wast of time. Perhaps this is because the culture in which we live is basically saying, “Get going! Do something! Show you are able to make a difference! Don’t just sit there and wait.” But the paradox of waiting is that it requires full attention to the present moment, with the expectation of what is to come and the patience to learn from the act of waiting.

Discernment, p. 150

As we wait, we pray. We’re active. Alert. Exercising faith, echoing the words of Psalm 39:7, which says, “And now, O Lord, for what do I wait? My hope is in you.”

Taking Notes on Notes

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Everybody writes. Especially in academia. Students write and professors write. And nonfiction writers, who are the third group of people this book is aiming to help, obviously write as well. And writing doesn’t necessarily mean papers, articles, or books, but everyday, basic writing. We write when we need to remember something, be it an idea, a quote or the outcome of a study. We write when we want to organize our thoughts and when we want to exchange ideas with others. Students write when they take an exam, but the the first thing they do to prepare even for an oral examination is to grab pen and paper. We write down not only those things we fear we won’t remember otherwise, but also the very things we try to memorise [sic]. Every intellectual endeavor starts with a note.

Sönke Ahrens, How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning, and Thinking — for Students, Academics, and Nonfiction Book Writers

I’m working to improve my methods for capturing, accessing, and utilizing information, and as a result I’m trying to get better at taking notes.

For years I’ve kept a quotation or commonplace book, where I sit down and copy out pithy sayings, phrases, proverbs, poems, and the like. When I’m looking for ideas, or I’m searching for insight, I’ll flip through and see what I’ve copied there. I also use Evernote and Google Drive in addition to pen and paper. I carry a small notebook with me. Lately, a Sharpie and Post-it notes have been my way of capturing ideas, putting them in front of me, and processing them one by one. I’ve also taken to Trello as a board to capture big ideas, and then pin accompanying images, links, etc. for later consideration and treatment. I use my blog as an archive for my thoughts, a place to put ideas I gravitate toward, write about them briefly, and then tag, categorize, and file for later exploration.

But I don’t have a great system. So I’m reading Ahrens’s book, cited above in order to learn how to do it better. As someone who writes about religion, spirituality, and faith, having a system that works is necessary. One of my seminary professors encouraged us to have a system, a way to capture, file, access, and utilize information. He shared his system. But he told us to glean what we could from the way he did it, and make it our own.

How do you take notes? How do you file and organize those notes, and then access them for later use? What works well, and what do you have trouble with?

Writing crystalizes and captures thought. Filing and organizing those thoughts makes them accessible, and when your thoughts are accessible you can put them to use. Some of us are great at writing things down, but terrible at filing and organizing and creating smooth channels for retrieval of information.

It’s one thing to make a note, and it is another to make a note that you can later use. Every intellectual endeavor may start with a note, but deep intellectual work requires systematization, organization, accessibility, and retrieval.

I’ve started creating project specific notebooks, or notebooks designated for particular areas of my life, such as a personal journal and a work journal. That’s one way I’ve tried to capture information in one place in order to keep it contained and accessible.

How do you do it?

About Haidt’s Babel

Babel is a metaphor for what some forms of social media have done to nearly all of the groups and institutions most important to the country’s future—and to us as a people. How did this happen? And what does it portend for American life?

Jonathan Haidt, “Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid

This raises the question as to whether America is under judgment. Is social media a vehicle for divine wrath?

The dominant accounts of the Internet’s rise in the 1990s are filled with positive sentiment, pointing to the web’s promise as a vehicle for human connection and the sharing of ideas. Haidt follows this standard account, and there is much evidence to support it. But as technologies have developed and social media has come to dominate the Internet’s landscape, Haidt argues that the social fabric has been weakened. Twitter, Facebook, and the like have eroded social capital, undermined institutions, and weakened the commonalities established through a shared story. We’ve unraveled.

I’ll call this the erosion thesis. Things were good, and social media has been tearing it down. It is certainly plausible.

My working thesis, however, hasn’t been one of decay. Rather, I think we’ve experienced a revelation, an apocalypse. As more and more people joined social media, we have been enabled to see more and more of what humanity is, especially at the fringes. Social media amplified what was marginalized or shaded within localized communities (what Haidt refers to as “hidden communities”), and enabled the loudest voices to ascend and dominate the room. We’re now seeing more and less of humanity at the same time. We see more of those formally pushed to the margins. We see less of those within the mainstream.

“Normals” have gone dark on social media. They’ve been shouted down and shamed. Without the average citizen, our perceptions of “normal” shift. We’re comparing fringe to fringe.

Haidt’s account offers tremendous insight into the ways “viral dynamics” changed social media, our digital ecosystems, and the nature of our public discourse. And once you understand those dynamics, you can begin to understand why social media environments have become what they have become, and why some people have abandoned those hellscapes.

Those remaining on social media remind me more of the various tribes and factions roaming the world of Mad Max, protecting their fiefdoms, scanning horizons, and marauding and destroying anyone who dares step on their turf and violates their norms. Twitter is Thunderdome. Virality incentivized hatred, purity, and extremism. As Haidt writes, “The newly tweaked platforms were almost perfectly designed to bring out our most moralistic and least reflective selves. The volume of outrage was shocking.”

Social media has yielded a mob, not a “public” or a “town” or a “global village.” Mob dynamics are very different than discourse dynamics. Haidt observes, “When our public square is governed by mob dynamics unrestrained by due process, we don’t get justice and inclusion; we get a society that ignores context, proportionality, mercy, and truth.” Rationality goes out the window. Impulse takes over. We move from the human to the animal. Bearers of the divine image become beasts.

And apparently, we’re stuck. There is no going back. Haidt claims:

We can never return to the way things were in the pre-digital age. The norms, institutions, and forms of political participation that developed during the long era of mass communication are not going to work well now that technology has made everything so much faster and more multidirectional, and when bypassing professional gatekeepers is so easy. And yet American democracy is now operating outside the bounds of sustainability. If we do not make major changes soon, then our institutions, our political system, and our society may collapse during the next major war, pandemic, financial meltdown, or constitutional crisis.

That’s downright scary. Can we prevent a societal collapse? That’s uncertain. But Haidt proposes that we harden democratic institutions, reform social media, and prepare the next generation by equipping Gen Z with wisdom on how to steward usage of digital technologies. These might be hints toward a solution, but in no way do these proposals add up to a plan.

And I’m not sure a workable plan is possible, due to the fragmentation and division wrought by our present circumstance. America is too big, too geographically diverse, and too divided among ideological and class lines to expect a renewal of social capital, trust in institutions, and adoption of shared stories. If such a renewal were to occur, from whence would it come?

At the conclusion of the essay, Haidt states, “What would it be like to live in Babel in the days after its destruction? We know. It is a time of confusion and loss. But it is also a time to reflect, listen, and build.”

Who is this “we?”

It won’t be the same “we” who pass their days on the world of Twitter, pretending that the Internet is the real world. It will be the “we” who have returned to local communities and local work, who develop shared discourses and make common commitments, and who adopt common stories and a common purpose. “We” are those who build institutions, who establish trust through action, and who tell a story that’s true.

Such communities can be established on any number of foundations. But the one I have in mind, one that has tremendous promise, are communities that are already familiar with the Babel story, who know that after Babel comes Abraham, a covenant, and the establishment of a community called to acknowledge God as God and people as not, and who are tasked with bearing the image of the divine before the watching world as stewards and servants.

Who am I thinking of? I’m thinking of the church.

Elon Musk Owns Twitter? Okay.

I haven’t been on Twitter for two or three years now. I haven’t missed it. Elon Musk takes over, and now people are asking if he can “save” Twitter, if he can somehow transform it into something other than the cesspool it has become.

I doubt it.

But the man isn’t an idiot. And he doesn’t seem to care what certain members of the elite class think about him. That’s admirable.

Statements calling Twitter the world’s digital commons or the global public square are, in my opinion, wrong. Cal Newport, on a recent podcast, alluded to an essay by Jonathan Haidt, where Twitter was likened to the Roman Colosseum, a place where elites once gathered to watch one group of people draw blood from another group of people for the purposes of spectacle and entertainment. I think that’s more accurate.

Twitter is a mob scene. It is a digital avenue by which “Legion” is allowed to invade one’s mind and take possession of one’s soul. A few algorithmic tweaks here and there might make it better. But what it really needs is an exorcism.

We’ll see how Elon does as the internet’s digital priest. We’ll see if digital openness and transparency on policy has the effect of light casting out darkness.

Or, we’ll find that even Elon isn’t enough, that a visit to Mars is more attainable, and Twitter will go the way of the dinosaur, the dodo, and Tom from MySpace.

“Dearer than all that is nearest…”

Dearer than all that is nearest,
Dearer than dear, or than dearest,
Dearer than sight,
Dearer than light,
Is the communion with Jesus.

Oswald Chambers, as quoted in Wesley L. Duewel’s Heroes of the Holy Life: Biographies of Fully Devoted Followers of Christ

I’ve been reading and researching the life of Oswald Chambers, an artist, poet, preacher, Christian educator, and Baptist minister, born in 1874 in Aberdeen, Scotland, and died in 1917, at the age of forty-three. He is most well known for his devotional work, My Utmost for His Highest, compiled after his death by his wife, Biddy Chambers.

One of his students at the College of Dunoon recalled, “As one entered the room it was like stepping into heaven. Then Mr. Chambers spoke, leading us straight to God, and I afterwards found that this was very characteristic of him. In every lecture or meeting he brought one right into the presence of God.”

I’ve met a few men and women like that. I’d like to meet more. And, I’ll confess, I’d like to be a person like that. Chambers had a deep conviction that his life was a product of God’s activity and grace, that God had worked for reasons he did not understand nor grasp in response to prayers that he did not nor could not know to appoint him as a worker in the church, in schools, and in the world. Chambers not only taught people about God and pointed people to the Scriptures, he was a man of profound and rich spiritual experience.

Chambers dedicated himself to the life of faith. He also trusted that God’s outside power had come in, had shaped him, and was continuing to conform him to the likeness of Jesus. This is a yielding, of heart, mind, soul, and spirit, and taking up a cross, dying to self, and following Jesus wherever he leads.