This fall, the former ur-blogger Andrew Sullivan wrote an article in New York Magazine titled “I Used to Be a Human Being.” There, Sullivan referenced Alan Jacobs’ article “Habits of Mind in an Age of Distraction,” from our summer 2016 issue, and wrote about his addiction to information and his attempt to rediscover his humanity. The article is well worth your time. It sparked this conversation between Chad Wellmon, associate professor of German studies at the University of Virginia, and Comment senior editor Brian Dijkema. Wellmon notes that, if we want to rediscover ourselves, we’ll have to rediscover the limits of our own wills and look outside of ourselves to the jigs that shape us, and our habits.
BRIAN DIJKEMA: Chad, our issue tries to highlight that we are not the autonomous, self-directed creatures we think we are. That, instead, all of us are “rigged” by things outside of us, of which we are only partially aware. One of the first things you said in response to Andrew Sullivan was that “the will is not enough” to address the challenges that he and many of us face when trying to use technology in ways that make us human. If our wills are not enough to pull us out of these habits, what is?
CHAD WELLMON: First, we should acknowledge that the story Sullivan describes is the story the arbiters of Silicon Valley want us to believe. Apple, Twitter, and Facebook want us to believe that it is all up to us as individuals to learn how to say yes or no to their products. Just like, as Matt Crawford puts it in his book, the gambling industry wants us to believe that it’s simply up to us not to gamble when we go into these casinos. They want us to believe that it’s simply a matter of individual willpower whether someone blows their paycheque at the slots. But in reality the industry spends a tremendous amount of money to design these casinos with their flashing lights and suggestive sounds—all in order to create an endless feedback loop that draws people in. Similarly, Silicon Valley builds cultural jigs to keep us wrapped up in their ecosystems. Just think about the notifications on the iPhone Twitter, and Facebook. They function in ways similar to the sounds and lights of Vegas, but in even more personally configured ways. They even vibrate. And these behaviour-modifying features have to then be considered within a broader media ecology in which it is increasingly difficult to find information or communicate without going through Facebook, Twitter, or Google—or the iPhone. We live in a technocultural regime that forms us as individual persons and forms our social relationships with each other. And a small number of companies has an outsized influence in designing these formative structures. To celebrate or condemn the isolated will in this context is to play right into the plan of Apple or Facebook. They train us to believe in the limitless power of the will. We’re facing a cultural and corporate regime that is designing cultural practices, cultural jigs, to keep us locked in to their ecosystem. The ruse that Apple and Facebook is selling us is that if there is a problem, it’s our problem. For them, it can’t be a cultural problem.
There is another element to this story about will power and technology. And we can hear it when people such as Sullivan invoke ideas like digital detox. To me there’s a certain naïve transcendent desire at work here—a sense that we can rise above the complicated culture into which we’ve been thrown by leaving it. That we can say no to it.
Digital detoxing suggests moral bootstrapping, the idea that persons can rely only on themselves to transform and shape their lives. I think this is a delusion. In order to live well with technologies we have to engage in other types of practices; we have to live and be part of other types of communities that can help us understand how to deal with the demands our technical cultures place on us. We need demands and desires that counter the desires Apple and Facebook cultivate. These might be the demands of a family life, the demands of domestic space with partners and kids and that can support each other to live well. Religious communities can provide resources, patterns, and models to understand not how to escape from the world into which we’ve been thrown, but how to live well within it. And, perhaps even, functioning democracies.
Liberalism’s ethical and intellectual resources are insufficient for living in our digital age. And my doubts jibe well with Crawford’s entire project. Relying on yourself to put your smartphone down or just say no is kind of doubling down on the vision of the moral ethical hero. Would this work, for example, for a single mom working three jobs, struggling to care for her family and kids? It seems like a smartphone could help her survive. A colleague of mine, Julia Tiocona, a scholar at the Data & Society Research Institute, has done brilliant work to describe how low-wage workers, especially women, use their phones “to find and coordinate work and care, and to alleviate stress in emotionally draining jobs.” It’s one thing for someone who is financially able to drop the phone and retire to some detox retreat in Northern California, but lots of people can’t do that. Digital detox is a privilege that only a few can afford. So what would good living look like in that situation?
BD: Let me just follow up on this. Andrew Sullivan is a smart guy. He’s not generally known for being naïve. He writes in his article that he’s aware that the addictive character of certain technologies is by design. Why is it that this detox metaphor is so appealing to thoughtful people who might not otherwise identify with the idea of a moral ethical hero?
CW: There are many ways to think about this. I don’t want to psychoanalyze anyone here, but I think it might be indicative of why so many people find that compelling. In his essay Sullivan beautifully, painfully details how fully embodied his experience of living in and with a new digital world was—to the point where he was physically sick in his last years of blogging. His blogging was so wrapped up in who he physically was that detox maybe was in some sense for him the right metaphor. It’s not a normative metaphor for how we as a culture and community should deal with this, even analytically, but I can understand how Sullivan wore these technologies. They literally weighed on him.
And I think that’s the irony. On the one hand detox is a desire to transcend and to escape, but the very language of detox is so vivid in its physicality; you’re literally flushing these things from your body. And there’s a certain irony in the way the detox metaphor is deployed because it fails to understand its very language. Detoxing means expunging something physically; but metaphorically it suggests escape. Detox is often equated with rehab: where you go to some wooded yoga retreat centre and they put your phone in a basket and then you get massages. But what it actually means is physically expunging something from you and then taking it apart. It means taking something that’s been a part of you and ejecting it. And I think that speaks to the impossibility of detoxing digitally. Because the world in which we live, one in which technology is such a constitutive feature, does not allow for that type of permanent ejection.
Now that doesn’t mean that how we deal with tech should be determined by digital corporate powers and what not. But I think if we took detox quite literally, if we understood its materiality, and the way it shapes our physical lives and communities, it might be a very good metaphor. But if it’s deployed as a means of transcendence, I think it loses its power—ethically and analytically.
BD: But what if transcendence really is what is needed? You note that we can’t just say no, but what if what is needed are practices and other communities that do understand transcendence? I think it’s telling, for instance, that Sullivan mentions Into Great Silence [a film documenting the lives of the Carthusian monks of the Grand Chartreuse].
The film shows one of the more radical alternative visions of community and rhythm that there is, and it’s rooted in transcendence. You talked about things like families and religious communities that act as a communal sea anchor that can keep you from being swept away into this torrent. But what is it that anchors those communities?
You and I, and most readers of Comment, are not monks and don’t have either the time, money, or wherewithal to get away to a detox, or may not even need it as Andrew did. But we still have the ability to shape our communities in ways that shape our practice. What sort of things would you need to consider in the home, or at the university, or in the workplace? If it’s possible to live well with technology individually, might it be possible to do so communally?
CW: I think Into Great Silence is a wonderful example. Among many other things, the film gives witness to another way of living with our technologies. It reveals a tradition of understanding technology as bound to technique. When I think of technology, I don’t think simply of artifacts. For me the iPhone is a technological artifact, but we engage with iPhones through all kinds of cultural techniques and practices. To return to the film, the monks lead a life full of techniques and full of technology. Just think about that scene in which you can hear those heavy metal shears cutting through the cloth that will then be fashioned into the new monk’s robe—the artifact can’t be separated from the technique in that scene. When you mentioned rhythm, I thought of the monks’ liturgical calendar, their canonical hours, their rules. These techniques and practices order their lives! And all of our technologies are enmeshed in similar patterns of behaviour. That’s what all of these notifications are trying to do—habituate us to certain patterns.
We didn’t check Twitter compulsively before, but if you do use it, you almost develop a rhythm: if I write for forty-five minutes, then I can check Twitter. Write: Twitter. Write: Twitter.
BD: Oh no, it’s more widespread than I thought!
CW: Yeah exactly. And I think that’s what these Silicon Valley corporations are trying to do: they’re trying to develop cultural patterns through which we identify with their products.
BD: Patterns that benefit them.
CW: Oh exactly. That’s the thing; it only benefits them, whereas the cultural practices of the monks, or hopefully the cultural practices of family life, religious communities, or democratic-oriented communities are not directed, they’re not directly funnelled to corporate accounting measures, right? They’re directed to the flourishing of local communities, local families, or publics. Not even necessarily local. We can operate on all kinds of scales here, but it’s not simply or even led by profit taking. One liberating way to think about our technologies is under the much broader rubric of techniques. So the question, in an Augustinian vein, becomes, to what end? Our iPhones can be used to various ends, as can any technology or practice. Neither a technology nor a practice is inherently good or bad. When engaging both we have to have or develop a clear sense of the ends toward which they are directed. Remember the scene in Into Great Silence when the monks were sledding down the hill in the fresh snow? As they slid down the slope, you could hear distant shouts and screams, which only made sense, only had meaning against the knowledge that these people lived most of their lives in total silence. Outside of that knowledge, we might assume that they were making an escape from a prison of some sort. But it was an expression of utter joy that can only be understood as such from having had this glimpse into the rhythm and days and techniques of their lives.
That’s how I would suggest we engage each other, and these technical artifacts. We have to understand them as cultural techniques and practices that give us rhythm, and the rhythm is about ultimate ends and ultimate desires.
BD: My favourite scene in that film is the one with where the young African novice is sent to cut wood for the monastery’s woodstoves. He has a bowsaw and small piece of wood—a measurement jig that provides the basic length for each piece. He goes to the saw horse, addresses the log, and he just starts going gangbusters on the piece of wood with his bowsaw. Then all of a sudden his blade gets caught and you see him halt. It’s jolting.
Now if you’ve ever tried carpentry, you can imagine, almost feel, the desire for rage in that moment. But he takes a deep breath and he puts his little measurement jig there again, and he starts cutting slowly. And all of a sudden he’s in a rhythm. You even hear the rhythm of the saw blade. You see very clearly why monks use bowsaws instead of chainsaws; this is how we work here. I might be reading too much into it, but I saw that as the technology teaching the novice a lesson.
The question that came to my mind is whether it’s possible to create a technological ecosystem that would work on us in that way.
Is it going to take philosophers getting into Silicon Valley and saying “Hey guys we’re doing something wrong here”? Maybe, but it’s likely more material than that. Does somebody need to create a product that appeals to those deeper things that people need?
CW: One way to think about why some technologies or platforms flourish and others fail is to consider how they relate to previous technologies. In what ways do purportedly newer technologies adapt to and transform older technologies and their related practices? For example, I find Twitter pretty useful because it helps me share bibliographic information very quickly. And, in turn, it helps me sift through the mountains of material that my colleagues have gone through as well. Twitter, Facebook, and similar tools provide a search and filter function for me. And that puts them in a very long tradition of search technologies from commentaries to indexes.
I can’t imagine that this is how Twitter was originally designed, I don’t know. I don’t even know if it actually matters, but I know the circles that I engage with on Twitter, for example, are highly bibliographic and that it doesn’t necessarily kill print and its related practices. I’m constantly taking pictures or doing screenshots and sharing those pages on Twitter or Facebook. In that sense, it has a relationship to the printed page. Most people probably don’t, but I think a lot of scholars, intellectuals, academics, and writers do use Twitter in a way in which there is still a profound relationship to the printed word.
There have been a few recent studies showing that kids are writing a lot more. Who would have thought that? Twitter and Facebook and texting were supposed to kill writing. But it’s bringing back a new engagement with a really old kind of technology: writing. In a different way, but remediated, these different media get mixed up one in the other.
BD: Yes, but it takes a certain person who’s been trained in a particular way to use Twitter that way. I mean, you’re a PhD who’s spent a lot of time reading in libraries, right? Not everyone is trained that way.
CW: Sure, but I learned some of this stuff from my kids! All they did was use my iPhone to take a picture of a book.
I have the relationship to this history of practices; I can understand the relationship of the history of writing and texting, but my twelveyear- old kid doesn’t see it that way.
BD: I think I hear you. You’re underlining your point that in its use in that way what it’s actually doing is developing or enhancing a different, older practice?
CW: Yes. It’s being remade and reinvented in some ways. I think this goes back to your point. The very materiality of these technologies is so central; hopefully the ones that are successful help us understand there are new ways to engage old practices and share them anew.
BD: It’s an interesting thought—the use of technologies in unintended ways that develop old practices. I know you’ve done a lot of work on Silicon Valley and the university; might there be a case where there can be a positive relationship between the university and the tech world of the Bay Area that doesn’t turn the university into a tech company?
CW: One thing that has happened is that the lecture as practice is flourishing in myriad forms again. Just a few years ago, people claimed that MOOCs would kill off the lecture. But the perceived threat prompted others to reconsider the lecture—its history, ends, and purpose, to rethink it as performance.
It was almost as if people said, “Okay, wait, why is it again that the lecture has survived since at least the fourteenth century? Why again, what was important about it?” Lectures didn’t simply disseminate knowledge. They gathered people together. They were a performative event. And often they were an event centred on a charismatic figure.
I think that’s another example of how an old technique, a lecture, gets put under pressure and reinvented. And then people reflect on its historical ends and also its contemporary ends and how it can be reinvented. At the University of Virginia, undergraduate students have started the “Last Lecture” series. They invite their favourite professor to come give a lecture at night, and thousands come out and listen to them. That, to me, is an example of how we can reinvent new technologies in places where we might not previously have imagined they could flourish.