The other day I finished reading Nicholas Carr's book The Glass Cage: Automation and Us. Carr's argument about automation, and technology more generally, is that it is not an unmitigated good. If technology is not made to serve human ends, then humans will end up serving technology. We can see this clearly with social networking services. As the saying goes, if you're not paying then you're the product. Yet it goes much deeper than that. Tools such as the ubiquitous "like" button give you the pleasant feeling that you are interacting with your 500 friends on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, but that feeling is illusory. Aristotle observed over 2300 years ago that true friendship requires spending time together; yet when clicking buttons on a website you are merely engaged in the simulacra of friendship, not the real thing. (I gather that Jacob Silverman makes this point quite forcefully in his book Terms of Service, which I have not yet read.)
Thoreau, too, took a questioning stance toward new technologies (in his day, that meant things like the railroad). Far from being a refusenik, he was, in fact, quite the tinkerer - he could build just about anything that needed building, he invented improved methods of pencil-making for his father's company, and he used various tools (such as telescopes) when they suited his purpose. Yet he keenly perceived the limits and constrictive qualities of the things we make. In "Economy" (chapter 1 of Walden), he wrote:
As with our colleges, so with a hundred "modern improvements"; there is an illusion about them; there is not always a positive advance. The devil goes on exacting compound interest to the last for his early share and numerous succeeding investments in them. Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at; as railroads lead to Boston or New York.
I write this on one of the prettiest toys of the present day: the laptop computer. So I am by no means immune from the wiles of technology. However, more and more I find myself pulling back from entanglement with the latest inventions. I find myself trying to live and work more deliberately, more thoughtfully, more quietly, more deeply. When not working, I find myself reading (and writing) books, walking, working outside, cooking, playing guitar, spending real time with real friends. During the workday, too, I find myself improving my focus by shutting down all applications but the one or two that I am actively using at the moment (say, an editing program to write a whitepaper), not constantly checking email or chat, not leaving dozens of tempting tabs open in my browser, and so on.
Living deliberately does not mean giving up modern improvements entirely. Instead, it means thinking clearly about your higher purposes and not getting distracted away from what truly matters; it means always holding your humanity to be primary, not subordinate to the supposed needs of the machine; it means exercising reflection and self-restraint, which are the only solid basis for personal freedom; it means seeking deeper treasures, not surface pleasures.
Perhaps this sounds hopelessly old-fashioned or just plain difficult; but as Spinoza said, "All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare."
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