Picture with me a dreadful scene. Not the one represented above, I will discuss that further in.  Rather, envision the lone figure of a diner sitting in a stereotypical restaurant – a favorite lunch haunt of the midday crowds.  He is surrounded by a sea of humanity dutifully captivated by the glowing screen a foot from their faces. Scrolling, always scrolling.  If those around him had the capacity to pry their gaze from their devices, perhaps they might perceive that terrifying and unsettling emotion played out across his face: contentment.  He has not been bitten by the bug which compels its recipients to be incessantly frenzied for the newest tidbit of information. Even worse, it would appear that our man has got in his head the idea of thinking. Not mere fleeting thoughts, bouncing aimlessly around in his head and chased to and fro by the breeze of excitement, but real, solid, substantive thinking which grasps at the core of things.  The kind of musing which requires the fuel of an uninterrupted view out the window, or perhaps the hustle and bustle of perpetually busy city life, but which is simultaneously and mysteriously immune to the chaos. Thoughts that are able to pierce right to the heart of a matter, with the capacity for illumination and workable solutions.  Thoughts that take a repulsively long time to develop, and an even longer time to arrive at a coherent stage. It seems at this very moment, he is engaged in that heinous activity, and apparently enjoying himself greatly.  To make matters even more dire, he doesn’t look as if he will be shaking himself out of this foolish reverie any time soon and reverting back to the status quo demonstrated so adeptly by his neighbors.  As a matter of fact, he may not even possess one of the devices necessary for doing so.  Instead, the shape and texture of a form frighteningly reminiscent of a book materializes in our minds if we look closely, and we soon realize this archaic relic is his only companion.  As the final dagger, next to the book – untouched, and even pushed aside – sits the glass of Kool-Aid he was served upon arrival.

Obviously, the scenario above is a satirical amplification; an exaggeration of the problematic nature of our technological usage.  It is not as sinister or repressive as I presented it to be. That said, it does serve to illustrate some necessary observations about our instinctual  postures towards that usage, and the societal conforming that follows close behind. Below are a few general comments which come to mind in regards to this discussion. I know that I am certainly not the first to throw in my two cents here, and will undoubtedly not be the last; it is an ongoing and collective conversation. Nonetheless, these are a few of the observations I have been itching to share. It is important to note that these are intended to be a broader diagnoses of the overall state of things as I have seen it.  There is obviously great variation to the ways which we are each individually susceptible to the pitfalls of social media consumption. Furthermore, keep in mind that I am not attempting to paint an apocalyptic picture, but rather to simply elucidate some of the areas where we may have been blown off course, and to provoke thought on how we might regain our original bearings.

A Dying Pastime 

It is undeniable that the sight of anyone in a public place (especially sitting down for a meal), unattended by their phone, tablet, or laptop is highly uncommon.  Frankly, someone simply gazing contentedly out the window or around the room looks just a tad bit crazy.  I myself have been guilty of passing this judgement on that strange person who has presumed to peer so curiously around the room I happen to inhabit along with them. How dare they take in their surroundings?!  It’s as if they haven’t gotten the memo of minding their own business that the rest of us had received a long time ago, but don’t remember actually reading.  Either that, or I have been on the receiving end of it – wondering how many people around me view my lack of gadgetry as an indication of my strangeness.  This is a curious thing.  There are few aspects of our behavior which are so fundamentally human as the activity of simply watching the world, and reveling in the myriad experiences and trains of thought it has to offer.  This process takes many forms, from daydreaming, to social observations, to extensive introspective examination. For many centuries, the useful pastime has captivated the imagination of humans in a wide variety of personal contexts and cultural manifestations.

In this light, the state of affairs is quite sad then: there seems to be a collective subconscious aversion to something that is – and has been for time immemorial – a deeply human activity.  We have come to view our human existence as so integrated with our technological portals, that without them, we somehow feel less like ourselves. This being the case, at the first available opportunity of a free moment there is an instinctual reversion to the device close at hand, rather than the prospect of letting the gears of our minds spin freely of their own accord. We have restructured our mental makeup, with technological consumption functioning as both the fuel and the drive shaft of the engine of our thoughts.  Without it, we feel dead in the water.

If you find yourself protesting at this point against the way in which I have already represented this supposedly extreme picture, just try and go an entire day without pulling out that alluring rectangle of electronics, glass and plastic that is in your pocket.  Even if you manage to pull this colossal feat off, the mere fact that your hand wandered to it so instinctively (and often) should be at least a slight indication that this diagnosis is accurate.

Muscles of the Mind

The meticulous and painstaking nature of well rounded thinking is a portion of this discussion which should not be overlooked. Surely, we would not consciously admit or say out loud that we don’t want to think well.  In reality though, when it comes to an actual  devotion to rigorous thought, we typically shy away from it immediately.  We would all love to be capable and expansive thinkers, but are often unwilling to invest the uninterrupted time and effort necessary for truly attaining these faculties.  Instead, when faced with that silence – or any free block of time which can be such a promising environment for the cultivation of worthwhile thinking – we compulsively recoil from that difficult prospect and revert to the comfort of our self entertainment.

William Cullen Bryant’s poem The Poet (a favorite of mine) highlights the necessity of utilizing those unhindered periods of free time which can produce the greatest results.

 

THOU, who wouldst wear the name
  Of poet mid thy brethren of mankind,
And clothe in words of flame
  Thoughts that shall live within the general mind!
Deem not the framing of a deathless lay         
The pastime of a drowsy summer day.
But gather all thy powers,
  And wreak them on the verse that thou dost weave,
And in thy lonely hours,
  At silent morning or at wakeful eve,         
While the warm current tingles through thy veins,
Set forth the burning words in fluent strains.

(See full poem here)

The main thrust of the poem is to reflect on the process of writing inspired poetry, but the essence of the admonition to “gather all thy powers, and wreak them on the verse that thou dost weave” is vitally applicable in any contemplative endeavor. The poet must pour himself wholeheartedly into his poetic efforts. This directive by Bryant stands in direct contravention to the flightiness of our day, and the propensity to move on to the next fad once the previous one has failed to maintain our flippant interest. According to Bryant, anything less than a reckless devotion to mental discipline and focus will not produce worthwhile results. Undoubtedly then, the thoughts which are difficult in arriving at are typically the only ones worth dwelling on.

Conversely, the clutter and pace of our social media habitats has replaced the previous arenas (“silent morning” and “wakeful eve”) more conducive to deeper analytical possibilities. There are no “lonely hours” anymore, because – as previously mentioned – a smartphone or tablet is instinctively inserted into anything perceived to be heading in that supposedly dreadful direction. Naturally then, the muscles of our minds have become markedly atrophied. This is greatly alarming, for in order to break free from the rut of regularity which we are endlessly traveling around in, there must be the fuel of original thought.  What is required in our time is noble minds, invigorated by the prospect of discovery and breakthrough, and driven by an appetite to attack old problems in a new way.  This is becoming scarcer by the minute. Without it, we will not even achieve any of the basic improvements so badly needed in our world, let alone any sort of revolutionary innovation that has marked our history as a human race. The current attitude being cultivated in far too many young and fertile minds is a reliance upon the thinking of others, rather than an ownership of their own perspectives from the ground up.

This constant outsourcing of thought cannot bode well for us.  Imagine the world we might currently inhabit if those who have paved the way to this point in history with their contributions were otherwise occupied, rather than pouring themselves into their work in a focused manner.  Marie Curie, constantly obsessed with just the right selfie to post on Instagram.  Einstein, devoting endless hours to Snapchat. Newton, perpetually gaming in some dark basement – far away from any apple trees. Abraham Lincoln, binge watching Netflix rather than reading religiously. While all of these examples of technological usage are not inherently bad, if they are utilized in the typical fashion of the day they will inevitably chip away at the vitality of our minds and abilities. One of the greatly unsettling results produced from this mass indulgence in all forms of social media (with such overwhelming frequency) is the collective lowering of the bar. We pat ourselves on the back for five minutes of uninterrupted contemplation; what was considered a warm-up in times past has become the gold standard for the average person in our day. It seems we have failed to grasp what previous generations have known so well, that any truly revolutionary idea or epiphany does not exist in a vacuum. Rather, they are the natural product of countless hours of deep reflection; the inevitable conclusion in a long line of coherently ordered mental effort.  If these towering figures of history can teach us nothing else, it is this: groundbreaking innovation is most definitely not a common companion of mediocrity.

Y=mX + B

As a young boy beginning to explore mathematical concepts in my studies, I remember initially being perplexed with the idea of graphing and plotting lines.  The notion that a straight line could (and technically did) stretch on infinitely in either direction was not easy to wrap my mind around. I had a difficult time grappling with the abstract thought of a line – represented by physical ink on a physical medium of paper – extending outwards past the confines of the graphing paper itself, sustained merely by an equation which essentially suspended it in midair.

The visual that graphing lines generates is wonderfully analogous to the action of incessantly scrolling which social media usage utilizes. To be fair, this system of relaying information is the most efficient. As each new piece of data (pictures, status updates etc.) is generated by other users, it is neatly lined up off the screen, waiting to be summoned onto it by a thumb or mouse scroll bar. Once the information in the feed has been viewed (for a grand total of 3.5 seconds most likely) it is discarded, and replaced with the content immediately following it. On and on this goes, with the screen itself functioning as the graphing paper, and the newsfeed as the line being graphed.

We are all familiar with this structural setup.  It is what we have interacted with for countless hours, and is typically not given a second thought. I would suggest though that this constant exposure to such a process has an underlying detrimental effect on us, which we most likely cannot perceive at first glance. Our conception of time – and the way we value our navigation through it – is inevitably distorted. Our minds cannot escape unscathed from a medium which subtly encourages us to look much too eagerly to the future, too flippantly at the present, and to disregard the past so readily. We are always itching to get our hands on the newest content which resides just off the screen, and barely able to give it our attention once we procure it; our minds are still so focused on what we haven’t yet seen. This is all too reminiscent of the classic scenario of the dog chasing a car. He is unsure of what to do once he has obtained his prize, and immediately moves on to the next vehicle in motion which catches his attention after he has become bored with the stationary one.

Perhaps worst of all, this mindset cultivated by our scrolling has created an aversion to anything which resides in the past. The thought of reversing the direction of our scroll almost borders on sacrilege. The high priests of our technological religion have decreed an ever onward march, and we dutifully step in line. The reason we so readily adhere to this dogma is that to dwell on the past for any extended portion of time would rob us of our ability to turn our gaze to the future. What is ultimate in our day, of course, is to be as up to date as possible on every development that is coming down the pipeline.  A deep appreciation for the past is simply not compatible with this approach. Unfortunately, in the battle for our mental attention, what has not yet transpired typically wins out over what the past has to offer.

This constant immersion we undergo on an almost nonstop basis unavoidably generates correlating effects outward, remapping how we interact with our physical surroundings and our journey through time. The future is surely a beautiful thing, with unlimited possibilities and prospects for improvement and rich experiences.  While this is true, it should never supersede our valuation of the present moment, or our ability to derive anchoring insights from the past.

The Primary Consideration

It is most likely that you have observed a unifying theme to all my objections so far.  They all center around the mental effects deposited in the wake of our constant exposure to the glowing screens. Indeed the most alarming thing about the way in which we interact with various forms of technology and social media is not simply the block of time that is being wasted. Rather, the ways that it completely reshapes our mental habits and general functioning should be weighed much more carefully. This rewiring has a residual effect. Whether or not we are engaged in those specific activities at the moment is a moot point – they have already trained us to think and act in accordance with them, regardless of the context we are immersed in. Many criticisms of social media wrongly focus primarily on a tally driven approach; the main complaint is derived from measurements of time that could have been spent elsewhere.  While this is surely an important factor to consider, it is not the foremost damaging result which is created by unbalanced technological usage.

Moving past all of this talk of our minds into deeper waters, as promised at the beginning I will return to the unsettling image of Mark Zuckerberg as he walks amidst the sea of virtual reality consumers. The picture serves to illustrate the key element to this conversation which I will also conclude with. That element is simply the factor of our humanity – both the good and bad aspects of it. A quick glance at the picture reveals that none of the people in it sporting this VR device are even slightly exhibiting any of the basic markers of human interaction.  They are all completely absorbed in the restrictive software world which they currently inhabit.  The confines of the goggles they are wearing will not allow them to reach out and connect with their fellow humans in any meaningful way. So then, in determining whether or not a certain type of technology is a beneficial investment of our time and focus we should defer to this arbiter: Does that usage bolster or improve our navigation throughout life as human creatures, or does it undermine in some way those parts of us which are integral to our humanity? Will our exposure to it accentuate already present flaws in our character or behavior, or will it enable us to improve in some area which needs betterment? These are far more important considerations than anything that has been mentioned already.

I am most certainly not one to condemn outright all forms of technology across the board. Obviously, I have chosen this particular medium of my blog – which I view as incredibly valuable and effective – to convey my perspectives and ideas. It is necessary to remember that these gadgets are all simply tools, capable of being set to any task and ordered in any particular direction. The multitude of ways in which the deficiencies in them are manifested is actually a direct function of the shortcomings of their users. In a sense, we project and amplify our already present flaws through our usage of them. For instance, the very reason social media can be so distracting is because our minds are already so easily distracted. We have always been creatures prone to laziness; mindlessly scrolling through Instagram is just an easy way of reverting to that natural behavior.

With this in mind, it makes the stakes even higher. These are incredibly powerful tools, which have pervaded almost every area of our lives. In addition to this, we are deeply flawed at nearly every level. Unchecked, this can evolve into quite the combination of man and machine; we might do well to weigh this unification soberly. Above all, we should seek to invest in activities and behaviors which strengthen the core of who we are as human beings. Whether the best path forward involves utilizing technology to reach greater heights or mitigating its detrimental effects remains to be seen in the unfolding drama of the years to come.

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