Old Hardware, Once Treasured, Begs

Hard times.

Discovered the above here. Was reminded of “The Lifecycle of Software Objects,” a short story in Ted Chiang’s collection Exhalation, in which digitally created entities, or “digients,” interact with human trainers who help them grow and develop. The trouble comes when the software company that developed these digital products goes bankrupt, and the digital world hosting these interactions becomes dated and obsolete. Chiang’s short story is provocative, inviting reflection on how we interact with technology and what it means to be human.

The Macintosh Classic II is a piece of hardware, running software that gives it the appearance of a human face. We do not think of “things” as having personality, but we relate to them as though they do. When they fail us, we get angry at them, as though they possess a will instead of a malfunction. Who among us has not called a computer stupid? We interact with our things, our technology, often more than we do people! The computer on which I’m writing this post is but one link in the chain of technological mediation standing between us. We become attached to our machines, too. We develop a bond, perhaps affections.

Until we upgrade. Then we move on.

If you watch the video above, you’ll see the Macintosh placed on a city street, passed by pedestrians, with few turning their heads. This computer was placed outside an Apple Store, begging for change. The irony. The company that created the machine could bring it in for recycling. But then that’d be the end of that piece of hardware. Before pulling the plug, you’d have to look into those eyes.

It’s a wonderful piece of art, doing what art does, making us evaluate how we see and how we think, raising questions, inviting reflection, pondering what is true.

Digital Connectivity is Overrated

Image by Simon Hu from Pixabay

Cal Newport relays a story from a reader named Peter who recently visited the Lyndon B. Johnson State Park and Historic Site in Stonewall, Texas. LBJ had a phone installed poolside while serving as president in order to remain accessible. A tour guide told visitors this story, who responded with laughter. We all have phones now. Everywhere.

Newport observes:

In an age of smartphones, everyone has access to a phone by the pool. Also in the bathroom. And in the car. And in every store, and on every street, and basically every waking moment of their lives. The average teenager with a iPhone today is vastly more connected than the leader of the free world sixty years ago.

I thought this was a good reminder of the head-spinning speed with which the connectivity revolution entangled us in its whirlwind advance. We haven’t even begun to seriously consider the impact of these changes, or how us comparably slow-adapting humans must now adjust. Be wary of those who embrace our current moment as an optimal and natural evolution of our species’ relationship with technology. We still have a lot of work ahead of us to figure out what exactly we want. After sufficient reflection, it might even turn out that taking a call by the pool, LBJ style, isn’t as essential as we might have once imagined.

And this is exactly right. Who knows what we’ll think about the smartphone in another ten, twenty, or fifty years?

We may discover that our obsession with social media has proven even more destructive, harmful, and wasteful than we perceive it to be now. The smartphone has affected how we consume news, who and what we consider a friend, our social expectations, our speed of life, our perception of the “good life,” and our emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being. We may find that a flourishing human life doesn’t depend on the connectivity created by digital technology, but is found instead in something older and much less dependent on a screen, an electronic portal allowing us to transcend time and space.

What would that be? Unmediated human connection; flesh and blood presence, conversation, and shared activity. Doing things together in the concrete, rather than the digital.

Newport is careful. He says that digital connectivity may prove to be less essential than we imagined. It will still have a place. But it may be better to begin finding ways now to lessen dependence on our smartphones, create space for solitude and silence, designate spaces and zones where digital connectivity is no longer expected or required, and invest our energy in connecting face to face with family members, neighbors, and others living nearby.

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.”

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.

What a Description

With my daily life so indelibly marked by the presence of the digital, I have increasingly felt that when Apple’s fan base hailed the first iPhone as the “Jesus phone,” this moniker was more telling than they could ever imagine. As a person of faith who has been steeped in the understanding that Jesus Christ transforms anyone who opens themselves to his presence, I can personally testify to the curious ways that the Jesus phone has transformed me since I “accepted it into my life.” My relationships, my work patterns, my routines of how I spend my time and how I engage my spaces, even the patterns of thinking and my heart’s preoccupations–all of these have been quietly shifting and changing. Indeed, when I stop to recall what life had been like before it became enveloped by digital ubiquity, I need to work at remembering: What did consciousness feel like before mobile devices, email, and the internet? The difficulty in summoning up the memory of what that state of existence felt like reveals how clearly the logic and presence of all things digital in my life have incrementally but definitively made me into a new creation. That I barely can perceive this transformation when I consider how I move through my daily engagements signals how most everyone around me has undergone a similar transformation too.

Felicia Wu Song, Restless Devices: Recovering Personhood, Presence, and Place in the Digital Age

A mass conversion event. Almost 60% of the mobile phones in use in the world are iPhones. There are over 6 billion smartphone users globally. This isn’t just a market phenomenon. It’s a spiritual shift.

Toxic, and They Know It

Photo by Solen Feyissa on Unsplash

“Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse,” the researchers said in a March 2020 slide presentation posted to Facebook’s internal message board, reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. “Comparisons on Instagram can change how young women view and describe themselves.”

For the past three years, Facebook has been conducting studies into how its photo-sharing app affects its millions of young users. Repeatedly, the company’s researchers found that Instagram is harmful for a sizable percentage of them, most notably teenage girls.

“We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls,” said one slide from 2019, summarizing research about teen girls who experience the issues.

“Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression,” said another slide. “This reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups.”

Among teens who reported suicidal thoughts, 13% of British users and 6% of American users traced the desire to kill themselves to Instagram, one presentation showed.

Georgia Wells, Jeff Horwitz, and Deepa Seetharaman, The Wall Street Journal, “Facebook Knows Instagram is Toxic for Teen Girls, Company Documents Show

This confirms what we already knew intuitively and experientially.

The question then, is, “What will we do about it?”

Will the Search Be Undertaken?

Photo by Solen Feyissa on Unsplash

Leigh Stein’s “The Empty Religions of Instagram,” appearing in The New York Times, identifies a multi-layered problem. This past year we’ve experienced isolation due to the pandemic, we’re addicted to our phones, and we long for connection, meaning, and transcendence. It turns out we are human after all.

But many millennials and Gen-Zers are not affiliated with a religious tradition. Emerging generations either did not receive formation in a religious tradition or have disaffiliated with the tradition of their youth for various reasons. Ms. Stein is one of those millennials. She substituted political activism for a stretch. Social media has been an outlet.

But both have come up short. Ms. Stein writes:

I have hardly prayed to God since I was a teenager, but the pandemic has cracked open inside me a profound yearning for reverence, humility and awe. I have an overdraft on my outrage account. I want moral authority from someone who isn’t shilling a memoir or calling out her enemies on social media for clout.

Left-wing secular millennials may follow politics devoutly. But the women we’ve chosen as our moral leaders aren’t challenging us to ask the fundamental questions that leaders of faith have been wrestling with for thousands of years: Why are we here? Why do we suffer? What should we believe in beyond the limits of our puny selfhood?

The whole economy of Instagram is based on our thinking about our selves, posting about our selves, working on our selves.

Her perspective turns following a conversation with a person of an older generation:

My mom is an influencer in the old-school sense — at 72, she still works full time as a psychotherapist, she’s a lay minister at her church, and she fills her free time with volunteer work. Her sermons are a combination of therapeutic tips, references to current events, and lessons from scripture about having compassion for the other even during times of intense polarization.

I told her that I find myself craving role models my age who are not only righteous crusaders, but also humble and merciful, and that I’m not finding them where I live (online). Referring to the influencers who have filled the void religious faith has left for people like me, she said, “They might inspire you to live your best life but not make the best use of your life.”

And her conclusion is an outright stunner:

There is a chasm between the vast scope of our needs and what influencers can provide. We’re looking for guidance in the wrong places. Instead of helping us to engage with our most important questions, our screens might be distracting us from them. Maybe we actually need to go to something like church?

Contrary to what you might have seen on Instagram, our purpose is not to optimize our one wild and precious life. It’s time to search for meaning beyond the electric church that keeps us addicted to our phones and alienated from our closest kin.

But where will she, and others like her, ultimately land?

If you Mute a Person’s Online Presence Think About These Things

Alan Jacobs wrote an excellent post on muting, and how we go about it, and why. Jacobs is responding to Noah Millman, who wrote a longer essay in The Week on muting. Millman claims that when we mute someone, we do it for ourselves, and it is not the best way of being a friend, or a citizen.

Jacobs answers:

First, when I have disengaged in this way I have indeed, and absolutely, done it for myself — but I don’t think that’s necessarily a reason not to do it. I find the online direhose of wrath and contempt and misinformation immensely wearying, and indeed depressing, and especially given the damage I have sustained from the unavoidable depredations of the Year of Our Lord 2020, I think there can be good reason for avoiding the depredations that are not necessary.

Second, I think that how you disengage matters. On many occasions I have decided to unfollow or mute or just ignore people I know IRL, and when these were just acquaintances it was a simple thing to do. But on the rare occasions when they were genuine friends it was complicated. In all such cases, I began by telling them that I had problems with their online self-presentation and that I wished they would behave differently. Memory may fail me, but I can’t at the moment remember an occasion when that intervention had any effect whatsoever. So eventually I unfollowed/muted/ignored — and I told them I was doing that, also.

In 2020 I decided to ditch Instagram and drop off Facebook. I quit checking Twitter in 2019. In every case, the decision I made to abandon those environments has proven to be the right one for me. I have more mental focus, I’ve freed up energy to read other sources of information, and I think my mental health is better. Plus, I’ve stayed in touch with friends and family via email, text messages, and phone calls. Such communication is more personalized. Sure, I miss out on bits of information and on occasion some important news. I’m living life as it was a couple of decades ago, B. S. M. (Before Social Media).

There is no obligation to be on social media. Maybe you love it, and you find it adds value to your life. Maybe, like Jacobs and Millman and so many others, maybe there are people in your social media environment that you have reason to mute, ignore, unfollow, or hide. If you do, it is at least worth considering the contours of these arguments, and to factor them in how you take action within these online environments (and offline in your relationships, if you read the rest of Jacobs’ post).