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Summer Reading Group: “The Two Most Important Choices You Will Make Today”

This is the third 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.

You see what I did up there? Bear with me. I recently hired a professional coach to help me think through tactics to establish more intentional practices in my work life. She had me take an emotional intelligence assessment and when I got the scores I learned that I am ridiculously low in Impulse Control. This is embarrassing and there are many ways I can think about this assessment and try to form new habits of self-regulation. However, the reading for this week indicates that my constant interaction with “Clickbait” such as the title of this essay, may also have contributed to my difficulties with control.

Williams opens Chapter 4, “Bring Your Own Boundaries,” with a thought-experiment on control. His argument is that our primary challenge in the world of ubiquitous technology is that of self-regulation. We need boundaries. In the past, the boundaries were handed to humans who rarely had the ability to think about choosing and rejecting them. But fairly recently in the modern world we have been able to jettison the “off-the-shelf” constraints. We tend to use cosmological or philosophical reasons for doing so — including liberal individualism, ideas of liberty, and the notion that we can’t assume the presence of a supernatural constraining power.  This is indeed liberating, Williams acknowledges. But it comes with additional challenges. We now have to come up with our own boundaries for our lives, each of us as individuals, instead of relying on the systems of tribe, faith, or hierarchy. 

Tragically, Williams points out that there can be a social/economic gap in the ability to establish will-power and boundaries on an individual basis. Perhaps the disenfranchised in the new world will be those who can’t self-regulate or who don’t establish their own boundaries on the flow of entertainment, information, and tasking that our new technologies provide. I was especially struck by Williams’ description of the “treadmill of incompetence” — we are constantly learning the new software and using new tools, and thus never have enough knowledge about the technology to control it and make it bend to our needs.

And perhaps some of this is a direct result of our modern individualism. Writers as disparate as Aldous Huxley, Nikola Tesla, and Neil Levy have observed that our will is deeply shaped by our environment. Instead of our ideas being able to shape our behavior and surroundings, the tools and structures with which and within which we grow and develop are the primary influences on our ideas and habits. We need communal support if we are going to establish boundaries.

This short chapter got me thinking about Sabbath and Sabbathing. I do not feel constrained by any legalist/perfectionist understanding about Sabbath-keeping, and therefore I feel very free. Leaving the home of my parents and the structures of Adventist schools left me needing to find my own Sabbath-keeping practices. This was deeply liberating at first. But for many years I have found that it is harder and harder to keep the boundaries of Sabbath unless I have a community helping me. Not having children and needing to establish boundaries for them has left my husband and I adrift with our own freedoms. Technology has not been our friend. It is hard to put down the phone with its access to emails and information from around the world, and its constant temptation to go down the rabbit hole of entertainment that leaves us numb rather than refreshed. I do better at Sabbath-keeping when I do it in community with others, when we encourage each other to rest and to worship and to fellowship and we share practices which help sustain us.

Chapter 5 had me at “Empires of the Mind.” I study empires in the seventeenth and eighteenth century and so feel that I have a bit of an idea of what it takes to expand power. Many of the empires I study relied on the coercive power of the state. In the modern world, we like to think we have jettisoned the practice of strong-arm tactics for persuasive and rhetorical power. Williams warns us not to be so smug about how free we are to choose practices based on debate and personal persuasion. He argues that persuasion has moved from the personal to the industrial. The feedback loop of influence has so dramatically increased with the internet that advertising and promotions can have real time measurements of their effectiveness in ways that were never possible before. The metrics revolve around capturing the attention of potential consumers and measuring how much time we spend with their product. The empires of today are empires of the mind.

Daniel Kahneman’s research over the last four decades has revealed how much of our thinking is automatic, not “rational” or intentional. Advertisers have learned to use these new technologies to capitalize on this non-conscious phenomenon to capture our attention. This has become so successful that virtually all digital information delivery has taken on the form of an advertisement. What we now have is an “attention economy.” Designers must work at calling on our impulses rather than our intentions. So, if you and I want to live intentional lives, the very difficult reality is that we have to fight against all the design that exists in the information, commercial, and entertainment worlds around us. This all requires greater self-regulation and boundary-control.

Williams concludes this confrontational chapter with the mantra that the freedoms of the future will be the freedoms of the mind. I have been trying to convince the students in my World Societies class of this. We study empires that are driven by faith and hierarchy under an emperor and they shake their heads and sigh about how oppressed and controlled these people were. Recently when we talked about unfree labor and how it has built so many of our world’s great powers, one student said “but I have so much debt that I feel as if I’m going to be engaged in forced labor for much of my life, with little control of how I spend my time.” I so much appreciated that insight. We do indeed have many, many more options and liberties than people in the past. But the powers that persuade us of how to spend our time, money, and emotional energy operate so cleverly at the level of the unconscious, using the technologies we all need for our daily life, that we may be too arrogant about our freedom. We are more governed than we realize.

For me, the answer to this is more community. Less Netflix at home in my pajamas till late in the night, and more spending the evening babysitting my friends’ kids so they can have a date night. Less watching a YouTube sermon and more reading the Bible together with a group of people, whether on Sabbath or in a small group during the week. I need more help getting outside and seeing my neighbors in the skin they are in, spending less time commenting on their Instagram pictures. I want a culture that doesn’t assume if we have a Facebook group, we are connected. There are certainly more creative ideas than the ones I have just suggested and I would welcome them. But if we are to work toward an environment that helps us self-regulate, we need some intentionality and communication. And maybe even some confession about our own realities.

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.)

 

Lisa Clark Diller is Professor of Early Modern History at Southern Adventist University.

Image courtesy of Cambridge University Press.

 

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