Repeated emphasis on the importance of staying informed can easily trick you into thinking that endlessly consuming bad news on autopilot is a progressive moral duty, when in actuality it's the digital equivalent of emotional self-harm.
— Posted on Facebook by "Sara Z (@marysuewriter)," originally on Twitter, I think. I give credit where (as far as I can tell) credit is due, but a quick look at the original makes me not recommend it for reasons of language if nothing else. Nonetheless, this quote is spot on.
Lead Yourself First: Inspiring Leadership Through Solitude by Raymond M. Kethledge and Michael S. Erwin (Bloomsbury 2017)
For me, the most impressive chapter of Cal Newport's Digital Minimalism was that on solitude, in which Newport recommends Lead Yourself First. It is a good book, filled with stories of how famous leaders of the past and present (both introverted and highly extroverted) found times of solitude essential to their success. If you've read the former, it is probably not necessary to read this one, Newport having done a good job of condensing the meat in his chapter. But the examples here, which include Dwight D. Eisenhower, Jane Goodall, T. E. Lawrence, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Aung San Suu Kyi, Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King, Jr., Pope John Paul II, and many lesser-known leaders, are worth reading in themselves. And for someone in a leadership position it might be even more inspiring.
I did find this to be a somewhat depressing book, despite my appreciation of its content. I find it impossible to read so much about what other people have accomplished and how they work without looking at my own life and thinking, how is it I never learned how to do this?
Somewhere in elementary school, one of my teachers expressed to my parents that he wished I had more interest in being a leader. Teachers are always looking for "leadership qualities." It never occurred to me to want to be a leader ... or a follower, either. So maybe that's where I missed out. Or maybe this is the equivalent of social media envy—the Barbie doll problem. Or maybe the answer lies in the first quotation.
Leading from good to great requires discipline—disciplined people who engage in disciplined thought and who take disciplined action. (from the forward by Jim Collins, p. xiv)
This book illustrates how leaders can—indeed must—be disciplined people who create the quiet space for disciplined thought and summon the strength for disciplined action. It is a message needed now more than ever, else we run the risk of waking up at the end of the year having accomplished little of significance, each year slipping by in a flurry of activity pointing nowhere. (p. xvii, emphasis mine)
I warned you it could be depressing.
To develop ... clarity and conviction of purpose, and the moral courage to sustain it through adversity, requires something that one might not associate with leadership. That something is solitude. (p. xviii)
Genuine leadership means taking the harder path. There are plenty of easier ones: the worn path of convention, smooth and obstacle-free; the fenced path of bureaucracy, where all the hard thinking is done for you, so long as you go wherever it leads; and the parade route of adulation, for those who elevate their followers' approval above all. To depart from any of these paths takes a considered act of will. Not because they are plainly right—more often the opposite is true—but because of the consequences that are sure to follow. The leader who defies convention must bear the disapproval of establishment types, who will try to coerce him morally, and failing that might box his ears. The leader who defies bureaucracy is usually in for harder treatment, as its machinery, given the chance, will run over him with the indifference of a tank. And the leader who makes unpopular decisions must be willing to be unpopular herself, at least for a while. (p. xix)
One of the book's strengths, I believe, is its recognition of what I will call active and passive solitude, and the importance of each. Passive solitude, a clearing of the thoughts commonly (though far from exclusively) associated with meditation, allows people to draw upon the intuition that is so often drowned out by the noise and action of everyday life. ("Be still, and know that I am God.") In active solitude one focusses intently on a particular problem—think Jacob wrestling with the angel. ("I will not let you go unless you bless me.")
The foundation of both analytical and intuitive clarity is an uncluttered mind. (p. 4)
For Eisenhower, the most rigorous way to think about a subject was to write about it. (p. 28)
[Quoting Eisenhower] My days are always full. Even when I think I have a couple of hours to myself, something always happens to upset my plans. But it's right that we should be busy—as long as we can retain time to think. (p. 29)
[Quoting Dena Braeger] We're getting more of everything, but less of what is authentically ourselves. If we spent more time alone, creating something that might not look as amazing [as something from Pinterest] but is more authentic, we'd value ourselves more. (p. 58)
[Quoting Chip Edens] Leaders experience fear in times of turbulence or threat. You become obsessed about worst-case scenarios, fall into despair. That's the easiest way to resolve the conflict. That's when people snap—they quit the job, the marriage is ended, there's no hope. You need to step away from that and give yourself space to process it. (p. 66, emphasis mine)
[Quoting Chip Edens] Differences are a product of ideas. Division is a product of behavior. A community means we live together with differences, but we can't be divided. (p. 66)
[Quoting Dena Braeger] People are so quick to bow to the idea of "staying connected." They aren't conscious of the priorities they're setting with regard to their time. Time is an unrenewable resource. You can't get it back. All these things we've done to exchange information, to access information at our fingertips, have actually taken away our time for restoring the soul. (pp. 133-134)
Solitude has been instrumental to the effectiveness of leaders throughout history, but now they (along with everyone else) are losing it with hardly any awareness of the fact. Before the Information Age—which one could also call the Input Age—leaders naturally found solitude anytime they were physically alone, or when walking from one place to another, or while standing in line. Like at great wave that saturates everything in its path, however, handheld devices deliver immeasurable quantities of information and entertainment that now have virtually everyone instead staring down at their phones. Society did not make a considered choice to surrender the bulk of its time for reflection in favor of time spent reading tweets or texts. (p. 181)
A leader must strike a balance between solitude and interaction with others, but leaders (along with everyone else) face considerable social pressure to skew the balance toward interaction. The term "loner" is usually a pejorative, often directed at people who spend only a fraction of their time alone. And in many offices the culture is to gather in herds—not only in meetings but at cake parties, lunch, and various events outside work. ... This same culture also finds physical manifestation, in open-office plans and large rooms full of cubicles. (p. 182)
If you plan to use solitude to think about a specific issue, you should identify that issue in advance and briefly review any materials you think especially relevant. That will get your mind processing the issue beforehand, which often allows insights—sometimes analytical, sometimes intuitive—to come more quickly when you do think about it. (pp. 184-185)
Extroverts gain energy from interaction with others, while introverts lose it. And introverts gain energy from solitude, while extroverts lose it. ... But these energy transfers have little to do with how extroverts and introverts actually perform in these settings. Introverts can excel in social settings; extroverts can excel at thinking alone. The limitation is simply that members of each group can spend only so much time out of their element before they need to recharge. (p. 185)
In some quarters there is a "fear of missing out": a fear that, if one unplugs from e-mail or news services or social media even for a few hours, they'll be less current (a few hours less, to be exact) than their peers. And indeed that is true. But tracking all these inputs is surrender to the Lilliputians. One simply cannot engage in anything more than superficial thought when cycling back and forth between these tweets and work. And most of the inputs are piecemeal, and thus worthless anyway. As with our obsession with smartphones, one needs to make a choice about whether to engage in this kind of practice. And no one serious about his responsibilities will choose to engage in it. (p. 186)
Here's a 15-minute TED talk by Raymond Kethledge that will give you another taste of these ideas.
I would just add two comments.
(1) The quote he attributes to Viktor Frankl at about 10:10 is probably not by him (see this discussion), not that that devalues the point.
(2) At about 11:00 he states, "Moral courage is what we need when we're subject to moral criticism. Moral criticism is when someone says, 'You're not simply mistaken because of what you believe or what you choose to do, but ... you're a bad person because of those things.'" That, ladies and gentlemen, sums up the problem with discourse today.
What we didn't realize at the time, and I as a seminarian certainly didn't realize, was that by participating in the Liturgy, even if we didn't get it at first, even if we didn't want to be there at 9 a.m. on Sunday morning in our stalls, if we participated in the Liturgy it would profoundly change us.
Fr. Trey Garland, on being in choir with Dr. Robert Delcamp
Sunday November 17, 2019
American Guild of Organists Hymn Festival
Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, Longwood, Florida
Today we tried to vote by mail. Florida has already proved that it handles that well, but just to be on the safe side, we had planned to use the ballot drop box at our local library, which is an early voting site.
For the record, on principle I don't like early voting, and would rather use mail-in voting only when I'm out of town for Election Day. But with this being such an important election, and figuring that the odds were higher in this year than most for something cropping up to prevent our getting to our local polling place on November 3, voting early seemed the better part of valor.
Here's the warning I promised in the title: Mark your ballot clearly, but don't go overboard. I filled out the first page of my ballot neatly with a fine-point black Sharpie, which seemed to be doing a good job—until I turned the page over to fill in the other side. The ink had bled through from the first side, making the second side full of those "stray marks" we are always warned against. Rather than get a new mail-in ballot, we decided to vote in person.
Porter stood at the end of the line while I took care of my business with the library itself. That took longer than expected, so I thought he would have made a lot of progress, but that was far from the case. However, he had learned about another early voting place that was reputed to be not as crowded, and was near my favorite GFS foodstore and on the way to picking up our car from getting its faulty airbag replaced ... so that's what we did.
The voting went smoothly: there were lots of people, but it was a big room efficiently run, so there was almost no waiting. They cancelled our mail-in ballots, had us sign in on the screen with these cute little disposable "pens" that looked suspiciously like fancy Q-Tips, and gave us sanitized pens for filling in our ballots.
I really do feel more comfortable watching my votes be recorded right then and there. And I'm glad to have gotten the job done.
But if you're going to vote by mail, do be careful what kind of pen you use.
One of my favorite places to be is sitting lengthwise on our back porch swing, looking out towards the yard. My favorite time to be there is more or less from four to six in the morning: then I find the solitude that is so vital to our mental health and so lacking in modern society. And yet I am certainly not alone. The frogs and insects are invisible to me, but they are omnipresent and loud. Barred owls stop by to say a word on their way from and to who knows where. The armadillo waddles his way slowly home from his nightly wanderings—though the one time I saw him chasing a female armadillo he moved at a speed I could hardly believe of him. As dawn approaches, many birds awaken and supplement the chorus.
Once I've identified the fauna, I try not to disturb them; I know the armadillo's sound, and he dislikes my flashlight, so I am content to listen. But the other day curiosity drove me to investigate a new noise.
It sounded a bit like branches and acorns falling on the porch roof, a not uncommon sound this time of year. Yet it was more localized, and not really the same. So I got off the swing, picked up the light, and found ... raccoons.
There were four of them, I learned, though I only saw two at first. Not babies, but clearly youngsters. They were small, and playing with the gay and fearless abandon of the young. Unlike the armadillos, they loved my light, climbing off the roof and onto the screen of the pool enclosure to follow it. One of them insisted on sitting exactly above me, giving me an unprecedented view of a raccoon's underside. When I took the light off the screen, they lost interest, and went back to playing on the roof.
Then they sought further adventure, and nimbly climbed down the ladder we had left leaning against the wall. I followed them with the light, and once again entranced the most adventuresome fellow. He headed right towards me, and I think that if there hadn't been a screen between us he would have come up to sniff my feet. If I moved a little, he would draw back, but as soon as I stopped he would approach again.
I returned to my swing, but eventually they all climbed back over the roof and down on the other side, near the swing. I could see three of them wrestling with each other, as young boys do. The fourth, which was smaller and—dare I stereotype?—probably female, mostly eschewed the acrobatics in favor of exploring in the bromeliads and finding an occasional snack. All four played there for a long time, frequently passing through a convenient hole in the fence between our yard and that of our neighbors, whither they eventually departed.
A few days later, at around the same time of day, I heard them crawl back through the same hole. To my eyes they were noticeably bigger, but they were only three. The smallest raccoon was missing—I hope it was because the gap between her interests and those of her brothers had grown, and not because she had met an untimely end, though as Ernest Thompson Seton famously said, "the life of a wild animal always has a tragic end."
The three did not play as much as before, but seemed to have exploration and a destination in mind instead. However, they allowed themselves to be again distracted by my light, and two were even bolder than before, running right up to me, and stretching against the screen to get as close as they could. We were just a few inches apart, and only if I moved suddenly would they temporarily retreat.
Unsuccessful at getting closer, they eventually resumed their journey, which led off somewhere in the back of our yard, where they disappeared into the undergrowth of and bromeliads and ferns.
Having just seen most of the debate, even a member of the younger generation is shocked at just how much of a simple shouting match it is. Trump is Trump, he interrupts way too much and isn't a particularly patient man. Biden is better at not interrupting, but also told the moderator that he would not answer a question on whether he would pack the Supreme Court. Both had the opportunity to appear statesman-like, and, failing that, civil, but neither did. This debate proved that the use of actual debate of issues is, as Obi-Wan Kenobi described the lightsaber, “A more elegant weapon for a more civilized age.” This debate seems to prove that society is drifting away from civilization, not towards it. There was once a place for people to disagree but still act respectably to each other. Now, Trump calls Biden a “stupid person” and Biden calls Trump “evil” and “the worst president in history.” But it didn't start with the politicians, but with the populace.
When it becomes reasonable to insult one another on social media, do those same voters really want to watch people be civil to each other? Does the younger generation even have the attention span to watch people be civil to one another for an hour and a half? These debates are a symptom of the culture of the internet. What do I mean by the culture of the internet? That is to say that people now have the ability to communicate with people from all over the country. In the past, people haven't tended to spend much time caring about what is outside of their immediate surroundings. Why? Because they couldn't see what was going on there, and couldn't influence anyone outside of a certain area. When it becomes easier for a person to influence further afield, they often do so. With the internet, it can become intoxicating. I could go to the town meeting and speak there for a lower school budget, but then I would have to defend myself against people I can't ignore. I would suffer the consequences for whatever I said. If I have a social media argument with someone in California, who cares if they hate me? They are hardly likely to drive to New Hampshire. Thus, people become more extreme and derogatory to their opponents.
Why be moderate in your arguments when you can go to the logical extreme? In the past, people have had to be moderate so that they could cohabitate and be friendly with their family, extended family, and community. But with the ties of society like the family breaking down, so is the incentive to have a moderate opinion. Now that people have stronger ties over the internet than in their community, internet culture is becoming mainstream. So, now we have characters like Trump and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. They look for something to convince internet culture to come to their side, because they see that it is the future, and politicians always like to side with the future.
Of course, the internet is not a bad thing of itself, it is like anything from a car to a gun to a book. We can use it well, or we can choose not to. Without it, you wouldn’t be reading this. Many, especially of the younger generation, have failed the test of how to use the internet responsibly. Rather than using it, it has used them. We'll see if they grow out of it or not.
Well, look at that. Columbus Day actually falls on Columbus Day this year.
I never did like the Monday Holiday Bill, as we still call it. But sometimes you get to choose your battles, and this one is not mine. Still, that doesn't stop me from being extra happy when the traditional holiday happens to fall on a Monday, and I can pretend there's still some historical connection between the event and the celebration. ("In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue," landing in the Americas on October 12, by the old calendar.) So,
Happy Columbus Day!
Some of you, I know, do not celebrate Columbus Day. If so, just pretend that I wished you Happy Hanukkah and you're not Jewish, or Eid Mubarak and you're not Muslim, or Seasons Greetings and you're celebrating something much more particular than "the Season." Take my happy wishes if you want them, ignore them if you don't.
Disassociating oneself from the historic meaning of a holiday is not unusual, nor surprising, especially now that so many have been made Monday holidays for the express purpose of encouraging people to think not about the significance of the event but about vacation time. But the peculiarity of America is our eagerness to leave behind even the name of a holiday, lest it bring to mind the event that inspired it. The Japanese don't have that problem: The population is only about one percent Christian, but regardless of their beliefs they happily sing Christmas carols about the birth of Jesus, and like to celebrate weddings in churches. Europe was determinedly secular long before America, yet we are the ones who take down public crèche displays and hesitate to wish our neighbors "Merry Christmas." Europeans are delighted to honor Christian holidays, from Easter to the Assumption of Mary, by closing businesses and taking the day off from work. They may have no idea what Pentecost is all about, but who cares? A party is a party. Maybe, too, it comes from the European sense of history and heritage, which America, being younger and more diverse, seems to lack—to our detriment, I think.
Have yourselves a merry little Columbus Day, unless of course you'd rather not.
Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World by Cal Newport (Portfolio/Penguin 2019)
Janet recommended this one to me, and after checking out Newport's TED talk, "Why You Should Quit Social Media," I decided to reserve it at the library. I had to wait in line; maybe more than a few people are rethinking Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Old Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all.
Digital Minimalism is divided into two parts: Foundations, and Practices. I read through Foundations easily, able to enjoy the book without pasting sticky tabs all over it. For me, this is like going somewhere and not taking pictures. Those sticky notes represent text that I will later laboriously transcribe for my reviews. As with the photos, something is gained but something is lost. I was enjoying the book and anticipating an easy review.
Then I hit Practices. Or Practices hit me.
The first chapter of that section, "Spend Time Alone," is about solitude deprivation. I could have sticky-noted the whole chapter. Here is me, restraining myself:
Everyone benefits from regular doses of solitude, and, equally important, anyone who avoids this state for an extended period of time will ... suffer. ... Regardless of how you decide to shape your digital ecosystem, you should give your brain the regular doses of quiet it requires to support a monumental life. (pp. 91-92).
[Raymond] Kethledge is a respected judge serving on the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, and [Michael] Erwin is a former army officer who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. ... [Their book on the topic of solitude], Lead Yourself First ... summarizes, with the tight logic you expect from a federal judge and former military officer, [their] case for the importance of being alone with your thoughts. Before outlining their case, however, the authors start with what is arguably one of their most valuable contributions, a precise definition of solitude. Many people mistakenly associate this term with physical separation—requiring, perhaps, that you hike to a remote cabin miles from another human being. This flawed definition introduces a standard of isolation that can be impractical for most to satisfy on any sort of a regular basis. As Kethledge and Erwin explain, however, solitude is about what’s happening in your brain, not the environment around you. Accordingly, they define it to be a subjective state in which your mind is free from input from other minds. (pp. 92-93)
You can enjoy solitude in a crowded coffee shop, on a subway car, or, as President Lincoln discovered at his cottage, while sharing your lawn with two companies of Union soldiers, so long as your mind is left to grapple only with its own thoughts. On the other hand, solitude can be banished in even the quietest setting if you allow input from other minds to intrude. In addition to direct conversation with another person, these inputs can also take the form of reading a book, listening to a podcast, watching TV, or performing just about any activity that might draw your attention to a smartphone screen. Solitude requires you to move past reacting to information created by other people and focus instead on your own thoughts and experiences—wherever you happen to be. (pp. 93-94).
Regular doses of solitude, mixed in with our default mode of sociality, are necessary to flourish as a human being. It’s more urgent now than ever that we recognize this fact, because ... for the first time in human history solitude is starting to fade away altogether. (p. 99)
The concern that modernity is at odds with solitude is not new. ... The question before us, then, is whether our current moment offers a new threat to solitude that is somehow more pressing than those that commentators have bemoaned for decades. ... To understand my concern, the right place to start is the iPod revolution that occurred in the first years of the twenty-first century. We had portable music before the iPod ... but these devices played only a restricted role in most people’s lives—something you used to entertain yourself while exercising, or in the back seat of a car on a long family road trip. If you stood on a busy city street corner in the early 1990s, you would not see too many people sporting black foam Sony earphones on their way to work. By the early 2000s, however, if you stood on that same street corner, white earbuds would be near ubiquitous. The iPod succeeded not just by selling lots of units, but also by changing the culture surrounding portable music. It became common, especially among younger generations, to allow your iPod to provide a musical backdrop to your entire day—putting the earbuds in as you walk out the door and taking them off only when you couldn’t avoid having to talk to another human. (pp. 99-100).
This transformation started by the iPod, however, didn’t reach its full potential until the release of its successor, the iPhone.... Even though iPods became ubiquitous, there were still moments in which it was either too much trouble to slip in the earbuds (think: waiting to be called into a meeting), or it might be socially awkward to do so (think: sitting bored during a slow hymn at a church service). The smartphone provided a new technique to banish these remaining slivers of solitude: the quick glance. (p. 101)
When you avoid solitude, you miss out on the positive things it brings you: the ability to clarify hard problems, to regulate your emotions, to build moral courage, and to strengthen relationships. (p. 104)
Eliminating solitude also introduces new negative repercussions that we’re only now beginning to understand. A good way to investigate a behavior’s effect is to study a population that pushes the behavior to an extreme. When it comes to constant connectivity, these extremes are readily apparent among young people born after 1995—the first group to enter their preteen years with access to smartphones, tablets, and persistent internet connectivity. ... If persistent solitude deprivation causes problems, we should see them show up here first. ...
The head of mental health services at a well-known university ... told me that she had begun seeing major shifts in student mental health. ... Seemingly overnight the number of students seeking mental health counseling massively expanded, and the standard mix of teenage issues was dominated by something that used to be relatively rare: anxiety. ... The sudden rise in anxiety-related problems coincided with the first incoming classes of students that were raised on smartphones and social media. She noticed that these new students were constantly and frantically processing and sending messages. ...
[San Diego State University psychology professor Jean Twenge observed that] young people born between 1995 and 2012 are ... on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. ... [She] made it clear that she didn’t set out to implicate the smartphone: “It seemed like too easy an explanation for negative mental-health outcomes in teens,” but it ended up the only explanation that fit the timing. Lots of potential culprits, from stressful current events to increased academic pressure, existed before the spike in anxiety.... The only factor that dramatically increased right around the same time as teenage anxiety was the number of young people owning their own smartphones. ...
When journalist Benoit Denizet-Lewis investigated this teen anxiety epidemic in the New York Times Magazine, he also discovered that the smartphone kept emerging as a persistent signal among the noise of plausible hypotheses. “Anxious kids certainly existed before Instagram,” he writes, “but many of the parents I spoke to worried that their kids’ digital habits—round-the-clock responding to texts, posting to social media, obsessively following the filtered exploits of peers—were partly to blame for their children’s struggles.” Denizet-Lewis assumed that the teenagers themselves would dismiss this theory as standard parental grumbling, but this is not what happened. “To my surprise, anxious teenagers tended to agree.” A college student he interviewed at a residential anxiety treatment center put it well: “Social media is a tool, but it’s become this thing that we can’t live without that’s making us crazy.” (pp. 104-107)
The pianist Glenn Gould once proposed a mathematical formula for this cycle, telling a journalist: “I’ve always had a sort of intuition that for every hour you spend with other human beings you need X number of hours alone. Now what that X represents I don’t really know . . . but it’s a substantial ratio.” (p. 111)
The past two decades ... are characterized by the rapid spread of digital communication tools—my name for apps, services, or sites that enable people to interact through digital networks—which have pushed people’s social networks to be much larger and much less local, while encouraging interactions through short, text-based messages and approval clicks that are orders of magnitude less information laden than what we have evolved to expect. ... Much in the same way that the “innovation” of highly processed foods in the mid-twentieth century led to a global health crisis, the unintended side effects of digital communication tools—a sort of social fast food—are proving to be similarly worrisome.(p. 136).
After winning me over with the chapter on solitude deprivation, Newport lost me somewhat with his approach to taming the beasts. The basic problem is that, for a guy who has written several books and has his own blog, he seems to have very little respect for the written word.
Many people think about conversation and connection as two different strategies for accomplishing the same goal of maintaining their social life. This mind-set believes that there are many different ways to tend important relationships in your life, and in our current modern moment, you should use all tools available—spanning from old-fashioned face-to-face talking, to tapping the heart icon on a friend’s Instagram post.
The philosophy of conversation-centric communication takes a harder stance. It argues that conversation is the only form of interaction that in some sense counts toward maintaining a relationship. This conversation can take the form of a face-to-face meeting, or it can be a video chat or a phone call—so long as it matches Sherry Turkle’s criteria of involving nuanced analog cues, such as the tone of your voice or facial expressions. Anything textual or non-interactive—basically, all social media, email, text, and instant messaging—doesn’t count as conversation and should instead be categorized as mere connection. (p. 147)
I heartily disagree with his lumping e-mail in with "all social media, text, and instant messaging." I will grant that most social media, texts, WhatsApp, IM, and the like are severely limited by the difficulty of creating the message. Phones simply are not designed for high-speed typing, and I don't know about other people's experiences, but for me voice-to-text makes so many errors I spend almost as much time correcting as I would have laboriously pecking out a message on the tiny keyboard. (That's why I much prefer WhatsApp, where I can type my messages on the computer keyboard, to texting, where I can't.) So messages tend to be short, of restricted vocabulary and complexity, and full of nasty abbreviations. But e-mails are simply typed letters that get delivered with much more speed than the mail can achieve. I will grant that you miss the tone-of-voice cues that can be heard over the phone, but I think that's often more than made up for by the ability to both speak and listen without interruption. On the phone, if I turn all my attention to what the other person is saying, there's a long silence when it's my turn to talk while I think of how I want to respond. But if I try to figure that out while the other person is speaking, I'm likely to miss, or mis-interpret what is said. And when I'm speaking, it's more than likely that I will get interrupted before getting out my entire thought, and the conversation will veer off in another direction, leaving my response incomplete and likely mis-understood. E-mail leaves plenty of time for listening, thinking, and responding.
Newport has serious problems with Facebook's "Like" button. I can see his point in some respects.
The “Like” feature evolved to become the foundation on which Facebook rebuilt itself from a fun amusement that people occasionally checked, to a digital slot machine that began to dominate its users’ time and attention. This button introduced a rich new stream of social approval indicators that arrive in an unpredictable fashion—creating an almost impossibly appealing impulse to keep checking your account. It also provided Facebook much more detailed information on your preferences, allowing their machine-learning algorithms to digest your humanity into statistical slivers that could then be mined to push you toward targeted ads and stickier content. (p. 192)
I do get the slot-machine analogy. We all crave (positive) feedback for whatever of ourselves we have put "out there." And the temptation to keep checking is real. It reminds me of the joke from 'way back in the America Online days, in which the person sitting at the computer (no smart phones back then) checks his mail, sees that there is none waiting for him—and immediately checks again. It was funny because that's what so many people did. But I think Newport misunderstands how many of us use the Like button.
In the context of this chapter, however, I don’t want to focus on the boon the “Like” button proved to be for social media companies. I want to instead focus on the harm it inflicted to our human need for real conversation. To click “Like,” within the precise definitions of information theory, is literally the least informative type of nontrivial communication, providing only a minimal one bit of information about the state of the sender (the person clicking the icon on a post) to the receiver (the person who published the post). Earlier, I cited extensive research that supports the claim that the human brain has evolved to process the flood of information generated by face-to-face interactions. To replace this rich flow with a single bit is the ultimate insult to our social processing machinery. (p. 153)
But here's the thing. I don't know anyone who pretends that clicking "Like" or "Love" or "I care" is conversation. However, it is the digital equivalent of one part of a successful conversation: the nod, the smile, the grunt, the frown, the short interjection, which in face-to-face conversation we used as an important lubricant to keep a conversation running smoothly. It hardly communicates any more information than the Facebook buttons; maybe it's little more than a bit—but it's an important bit. It says, "I'm listening, I hear you, I agree, keep talking," or "Wait, what you said confuses me, or angers me," or "I'm sorry, I sympathize."
As soon as easier communication technologies were introduced—text messages, emails—people seemed eager to abandon this time-tested method of conversation for lower-quality connections (Sherry Turkle calls this effect “phone phobia”). (p. 160)
Guilty as charged, but there's no need for Newport (or Turkle) to be snarky about it. I'm hardly alone, and there's ample evidence that phone phobia is attached to the same set of genes that makes me like mathematics. I love the (true) story a colleague told of a bunch of math grad students who decided to order pizza. Every one of them hemmed and hawed and delayed making the order, until the wife of one of the mathematicians, herself a grad student in philosophy, sighed, "For Pete's sake!" and called the restaurant. Text-based communication is a real boon to people like us. Call it a disability if you like—and then remember that you shouldn't mock or discriminate against people with disabilities.
Fortunately, there’s a simple practice that can help you sidestep these inconveniences and make it much easier to regularly enjoy rich phone conversations. I learned it from a technology executive in Silicon Valley who innovated a novel strategy for supporting high-quality interaction with friends and family: he tells them that he’s always available to talk on the phone at 5:30 p.m. on weekdays. There’s no need to schedule a conversation or let him know when you plan to call—just dial him up. As it turns out, 5:30 is when he begins his traffic-clogged commute home in the Bay Area. He decided at some point that he wanted to put this daily period of car confinement to good use, so he invented the 5:30 rule. The logistical simplicity of this system enables this executive to easily shift time-consuming, low-quality connections into higher-quality conversation. If you write him with a somewhat complicated question, he can reply, “I’d love to get into that. Call me at 5:30 any day you want.” Similarly, when I was visiting San Francisco a few years back and wanted to arrange a get-together, he replied that I could catch him on the phone any day at 5:30, and we could work out a plan. When he wants to catch up with someone he hasn’t spoken to in a while, he can send them a quick note saying, “I’d love to get up to speed on what’s going on in your life, call me at 5:30 sometime.” ... He hacked his schedule in such a way that eliminated most of the overhead related to conversation and therefore allowed him to easily serve his human need for rich interaction. (pp. 161-162)
I have to say, that strikes me as more selfish than clever. It's saying to everyone else that he will only communicate with them through his own preferred medium. Granted, it's his right to do so, and maybe he's learned that that's the best way he can get the most accomplished. But I'd have to be pretty desperate to call someone who I knew was going to be driving while he is talking with me. Either he's not going to be giving me his full attention, or he's not going to be giving the other cars on the road his full attention, neither one of which strikes me as ideal. And if I have a complicated question, I definitely want the response to be by written word, where there's a record of what was said, and more chance of getting a well thought out response.
I’ve seen several variations of this practice work well. Using a commute for phone conversations, like the executive introduced above, is a good idea if you follow a regular commuting schedule. It also transforms a potentially wasted part of your day into something meaningful. Coffee shop hours are also popular. In this variation, you pick some time each week during which you settle into a table at your favorite coffee shop with the newspaper or a good book. The reading, however, is just the backup activity. You spread the word among people you know that you’re always at the shop during these hours with the hope that you soon cultivate a rotating group of regulars that come hang out. ... You can also consider running these office hours once a week during happy hour at a favored bar. (pp. 162-163)
<Shudder> Really? I'm supposed to go to the expense, inconvenience, and annoyance of sitting around at a coffee shop or bar on spec, just hoping a friend shows up? And expect my friends to be willing to pay an insane amount for a cup of coffee just to talk with me? Here, and in many other places in Digital Minimalism, you can tell that Newport is an extrovert—with plenty of spare cash—and friends who are the same.
And anyway, whatever happened to visiting people in their homes? One friend of ours decided to quit Facebook, and in her final message invited anyone in town to drop by her house for tea. I could get into that. If you're willing to get out and drive to a restaurant, come instead and knock at our door. You'll be more than welcome and none one of us will have to buy an expensive drink. (This pandemic won't last forever.)
[In the early 20th century, Arnold Bennett, author of How to Live on 24 Hours a Day, speaking of leisure activities] argues that these hours should instead be put to use for demanding and virtuous leisure activities. Bennett, being an early twentieth-century British snob, suggests activities that center on reading difficult literature and rigorous self-reflection. In a representative passage, Bennett dismisses novels because they “never demand any appreciable mental application.” A good leisure pursuit, in Bennett’s calculus, should require more “mental strain” to enjoy (he recommends difficult poetry). (p. 175)
Newport approves of the idea that "the value you receive from a pursuit is often proportional to the energy invested." But then he adds,
For our twenty-first-century purposes, we can ignore the specific activities Bennett suggests. (p. 175)
And what, pray tell, is snobbish or unreasonable about literature and poetry?
Newport has a lot to say about the value of craft: of woodworking, or renovating a bathroom, or repairing a motorcycle, or knitting a sweater. He includes musical performances as well. But—and I find this odd for an author—he seems to have little respect for creating books. Would it be a more noble activity if they were typed on an old Remington, or handwritten? He similarly discounts composing music using a computer as less worthwhile than playing a guitar. I don't buy it.
The following story is for our two oldest grandsons, who have a way of picking up and enjoying construction skills.
[Pete's] welding odyssey began in 2005. At the time, he was building a custom home. ... The house was modern so Pete integrated some custom metalwork into his design plan, including a beautiful custom steel railing on the stairs.
The design seemed like a great idea until Pete received a quote from his metal contractor for the work: it was for $15,800, and Pete had budgeted only $4,000. “If this guy is billing out his metalworking time at $75.00 an hour, that’s a sign that I need to finally learn the craft myself,” Pete recalls thinking at the time. “How hard can it be?” In Pete’s hands, the answer turned out to be: not that hard.
Pete bought a grinder, a metal chop saw, a visor, heavy-duty gloves, and a 120-volt wire-feed flux core welder—which, as Pete explains, is by far the easiest welding device to learn. He then picked some simple projects, loaded up some YouTube videos, and got to work. Before long, Pete became a competent welder—not a master craftsman, but skilled enough to save himself tens of thousands of dollars in labor and parts. (As Pete explains it, he can’t craft a “curvaceous supercar,” but he could certainly weld up a “nice Mad-Max-style dune buggy.”) In addition to completing the railing for his custom home project (for much less than the $15,800 he was quoted), Pete went on to build a similar railing for a rooftop patio on a nearby home. He then started creating steel garden gates and unusual plant holders. He built a custom lumber rack for his pickup truck and fabricated a series of structural parts for straightening up old foundations and floors in the historic homes in his neighborhood. As Pete was writing his post on welding, a metal attachment bracket for his garage door opener broke. He easily fixed it. (pp. 194-195)
If you're wondering where to learn skills needed for simple projects ... the answer is easy. Almost every modern-day handyperson I've spoken to recommends the exact same source for quick how-to lessons: YouTube. (pp. 197-198, emphasis mine)
In the middle of a busy workday, or after a particularly trying morning of childcare, it’s tempting to crave the release of having nothing to do—whole blocks of time with no schedule, no expectations, and no activity beyond whatever seems to catch your attention in the moment. These decompression sessions have their place, but their rewards are muted, as they tend to devolve toward low-quality activities like mindless phone swiping and half-hearted binge-watching. ... Investing energy into something hard but worthwhile almost always returns much richer rewards. (p. 212)
Finally, I can't resist his description of former Kickstarter project called the Light Phone.
Here’s how it works. Let’s say you have a Light Phone, which is an elegant slab of white plastic about the size of two or three stacked credit cards. This phone has a keypad and a small number display. And that’s it. All it can do is receive and make telephone calls—about as far as you can get from a modern smartphone while still technically counting as a communication device.
Assume you’re leaving the house to run some errands, and you want freedom from constant attacks on your attention. You activate your Light Phone through a few taps on your normal smartphone. At this point, any calls to your normal phone number will be forwarded to your Light Phone. If you call someone from it, the call will show up as coming from your normal smartphone number as well. When you’re ready to put the Light Phone away, a few more taps turns off the forwarding. This is not a replacement for your smartphone, but instead an escape hatch that allows you to take long breaks from it. (p. 245).
Despite our areas of disagreement, there's only one really, really annoying section of the book. He spends seven pages on the ideas of someone named Jennifer who "prefers the pronoun 'they/their' to 'she/her'." The ideas are not worth the ensuing confusion between singular and plural. I found myself constantly re-reading trying to figure out who was being referenced in the text.
But I do recommend reading Digital Minimalism. The concept of solitude deprivation alone would make it worthwhile, and the rest of the book is pretty good, too—especially if you're not a phone-phobic, introverted author.
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I mentioned before that Facebook rejected my September 11 tribute post for "violating their community standards."
My first reaction was that I didn't want to be part of any community that would object to such a post. That dovetailed pretty nicely with the thoughts I had been having about how to tame the Facebook dragon in my life. (See my Social Media category.)
While poking around another part of Facebook this morning, I found this:
You'd think they'd make such things a little more obvious. Then again, there was a big "Continue" button on their original rejection that I completely missed until today.... Following that, I discovered that I could request a review of their rejection.
I wasn't going to bother, but then decided it was only fair to give them another chance. I requested the review, though I was given no opportunity to ask or explain anything. At that point I received a notice saying that they would review my post, but "as a reminder" I would not be able to post or comment for 30 days. I wasn't expecting that, since they had said they would not restrict my account (see above), because "we understand that mistakes happen." (They may have meant that I made an inadvertent mistake, in which case I was going to be annoyed, but I choose to assume they were admitting that THEY may have made a mistake.)
I then made a test post was to see if they really meant what they said, or if it was just a boilerplate response, and it was not rejected, at least not yet. For a moment there I thought my decision about restricting my Facebook use had been taken out of my hands. :)
I'll update when I hear from the Facebook review team. Assuming I get to humans this time and not the automaton that I think rejected my post in the first place.
In the meantime, I'm enjoying my newfound status among friends who can't believe I could write something that would offend community standards. I had no idea I had a reputation of being mild-mannered and harmless.
Even during COVID-tide our church celebrates the Feast of St. Francis with the annual Blessing of the Animals. We attended virtually, as it was again held in the sanctuary instead of outside, and last year all that fur and dander was Not Good. It was fun to see the pets from a distance, however.
Even more fun was what you'll hear if you go to this YouTube video of the service, which should be set to begin at 21:38. (Sorry I can't embed it here.) Soon you will hear what the priest spoke at the point of the service where he usually tells the congregation, "You may be seated."
This was also the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, but I know Father Trey well enough to be certain he was not speaking to them.
This post is about 40 years late in coming. But I'm reading Cal Newport's Digital Minimalism, and was struck by something right at the beginning.
Newport reports that Bill Maher—some television personality I'd never heard of, but that's not the point—had a show in which he likened the deliberately-engineered addictiveness of social media to the deliberately-engineered addictiveness of tobacco. "Philip Morris just wanted your lungs," he concluded. "The App Store wants your soul." It could be argued that what both really want is your money, and I don't think Maher would disagree.
Back to Sesame Street. Maher could have looked a little further and realized that the whole television industry is just as guilty of enticing us to mainline its products. I pick on Sesame Street largely because it was so strongly sold as something good for children, and the pushers were not just the networks but teachers and doctors and social workers and neighbors.
Yet the show was filled with all the techniques that promote addiction, shorten attention spans, and actually change our brains, such as bright colors, fast, catchy music, and rapid-fire changes of focus. And when you think about it, what exactly was educational about the show? What did it teach?
Letters and numbers? Nothing that spending that time with parents and siblings couldn't have taught faster and better.
What it did teach effectively was a certain kind of socialization. Sesame Street was a neighborhood, and those who produced the show had very definite ideas about what makes a good neighborhood and how neighbors should behave. (Note that these ideas sometimes changed over time, with videos of the older shows now labelled "for adults only," because they show children riding bikes without helmets and walking to the store unaccompanied by an adult.)
If your family's own values happen to coincide with those of the show's creators, well and good. If you happen to think a complete stranger can do a better job of helping your child learn to deal with anger, grief, fear, death, divorce, illness, disability, and even love than you can, well, there you go.
But if you disagree, know that Sesame Street is a very effective propaganda machine that is teaching a whole lot more than the alphabet. Even Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, which I considered to be a far superior show, couldn't resist trying to act in loco parentis on personal and social issues. What goes on in today's children's shows I don't have the need (or stomach) to investigate.
How is it that we parents have become so timid and unsure of ourselves that we're eager to turn much of our children's character formation over to others?