This is the fifth post of Spectrum’s 2018 Summer Reading Group. Each post will be drawn from chapters of the book Stand out of our Light by James Williams. You can view the reading/posting schedule here.
When you’re sick, it can be both comforting and discomforting not knowing what is really going on. Having the premonition something is wrong, but not really knowing, shields you from the possible knowledge that it’s actually what you fear. Then comes the news and this is also comforting and discomforting. On the one hand, you’re comforted by the facts of the matter; now you know what it is and how bad it is, but, it’s also a lot worse than you thought. The cancer goes deep and is spreading.
Similarly, Williams’ incisive analysis in Chapters 8 and 9, like the diagnosis offered by a good doctor, is both comforting and discomforting. A couple years ago, I deleted the Facebook (and Instagram) app from my phone. (Yet, I couldn’t bring myself to delete my actual accounts and found myself still loggingin, albeit less frequently, via my phone’s web browser.) The primary motivation was to avoid distraction at the level of attention, functional distraction. I found myself constantly opening the apps and descending into infinity scrolling mode, putting off the things I wanted to and needed to get done.
Perhaps you can relate.
Yet, if Williams is right, the threat is much greater than being less efficient than we’d like to be. He argues that the stakes in question are the fundamental capacities—beyond our actions—that make us distinctively human; the constant connection and information technology offers us disrupts and disorders our lives at deep levels, both individually and collectively.
William’s argument draws on the analysis of philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s influential analysis of human freedom as being related to desires.i First-order desires are any immediate desires an individual might have for anything—tacos, pizza, or, to use Frankfurt’s example, cigarettes. Second-order desires are desires about desires. The smoker wants another cigarette, but, also doesn’t want to want the cigarette. Which action—to smoke or not to smoke—driven by which desire—the first order or second—would represent a free action? Frankfurt argues that second-order desires are higher, and therefore, in this case, not smoking the cigarette, even if at the first-order level one wants to, would be the truly free action.
Struggling to do what one really wants to do or should do might not seem like the epitome of freedom. (A perfectly virtuous person would have first-order desires that aligned with their second-order ones.) But compare such a person with someone who might be driven solely by immediate desire(s); they have no desires about their desires. Such persons Frankfurt designates as “wantons,” missing something fundamental to being a fully mature, and free, human.
Williams’ concern is that the proliferation of digital technology is turning us in to a society of Frankfurtian wantons—incapable of both reasoning about higher values and unable to live lives in harmony with those values. In other words, interference at the level of function should be the least of our worries; we are confronting distraction at both the existential (the “starlight”) and epistemic(the “daylight”) levels.
To illustrate what can happen at the existential level, Williams shares his own experience with social-media platforms and the competition to garner more and more “likes” or “favorites” (or “friends”or “connections”). As he began to utilize these, he found himself spending more and more time trying to come up with clever things to say, not because they were really worth saying, but because he liked and wanted the attention—“Social interaction had become a numbers game for me, and I was focused on ‘winning’ — even though I had no idea what winning looked like,” he candidly admits (57). And this was turning him into a petty person, losing sight of the ideals that led him to writing in the first place and a lesser (more narcissistic) kind of a person than he aspired to be. He had swapped out his higher, longer-term values for lower, shorter term ones. The use of social-media had diluted his values.
But more disconcerting than existential distraction is the problem of distraction at the epistemiclevel, the loss of ability to define any worthwhile goal to begin with. This ability requires a “suite of capacities,” notably the ability to reflect, to remember, to predict, and to reason (68). The statistics and studies Williams cites, of how the attention economy undermines these capacities, to support his argument are deeply troubling.
Misinformation and disinformation abound; digital distraction literally diminishes our cognitive capacities and makes us less intelligent. (A study conducted on employees found that distraction dropped IQs by 10 points, double the impact of smoking marijuana!) It decreases memory capacity; it provokes anxiety. Reflection requires turning one’s attention to one’s own mental activities and calling one’s own beliefs and motives into question(70). The average smart-phone user’s attention, however, is directed elsewhere, checking their phone 150 times a day (and touching it 2,600 times a day). All this takes time, and, ironically, takes time away from leisure. Leisure, Williams clarifies, is not the same thing as entertainment. It is “unstructured downtime” (70) “a respite from having to perform attentional labor” (71). This is what makes it possible for new, novel ideas to emerge and form — “A mind too active is no mind at all/The deep eye sees the shimmering on the stone…”ii
We are collectively less intelligent, less self-reflective, and less imaginative and more deceived (and deceptive), more forgetful, and more anxious because of our digitally saturated lives.
But to make matters worse, it’s not just our personal lives that are impoverished by all this, but, Williams argues, our life together—the basis of political life, of democracy, is being corroded. Consider the following worrying trends:
- “across many liberal democracies the percentage of people who say it’s ‘essential’ to live in a democracy has in recent years been in freefall” (61).
- “the last two decades the percentage of Americans who approve of military rule (saying it would be either ‘good’ or ‘very good’) has doubled…to now being one in six people” (61).
- a sense of shared identity and common purpose is being lost, as is the collective will to carry it out (64).
- moral outrage, verdicts issued by the court of public opinion, and mob justice and violence are on the rise (71-79).
If the attention economy is the cause of all this, we have something equivalent to a public health crisis on our hands.
Next week we turn to Williams’ proposed treatment plan, one that doesn’t, in case you are worried, call for an ascetic withdrawal into a digital desert or return to a pre-digital age, but collective action to confront a collective problem. But what if the problem runs even deeper than he thinks? What if the digital economy itself is not the ultimate cause of distracted and disarrayed lives, but itself a manifestation of some deeper longing? I’m thinking, of course, of a much earlier analysis that predates smart phones by many years, but also penned at a time of civilizational crisis. On Augustine’s analysis, the violent ways and violent demise of Rome was rooted in the misplaced love of its citizens — desiring permanent satisfaction and satiation from impermanent objects.iii In contrast, he envisions a different kind of community, a peaceable one, organized around a different love, the love of God.
If Augustine’s diagnosis is still relevant, a comprehensive treatment plan for the malaise of the modern, digital age would have to address personal and collective action, as well as spiritual need — “Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee.”iv
An electronic version of Williams’ book is available free/open access through the Cambridge University Press website. (For those who prefer a physical copy, Amazon has it in paperback for about $15 at the time of this writing.)
Notes & References:
i. Harry Frankfurt, The Importance of What We Care About (1988), Cambridge University Press.
ii. Theodore Roethke, “Infirmity” (1963), quoted p. 71.
iii. Augustine, City of God, Part II.
iv. Augustine, Confessions, Book 1.
Zane Yi is an associate professor at Loma Linda University’s School of Religion, where he teaches courses in philosophy and theology and directs the MA in Religion & Society program. He serves as an officer in the Society of Adventist Philosophers.
Image courtesy of Cambridge University Press.
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