I pulled out one of my all-time favorite CiRCE talks this week, “Communications Technologies as Engines of Unrest” by Ken Myers (which you can purchase here). Listening to this lecture back in 2007 changed my life as I discovered the source of the restlessness I had been struggling with. The questions Myers raises are even more relevant today with the popularity of smartphones and social networking.
Here are some highlights to encourage you to listen to this lecture, which is not an attack on technology, but rather an encouragement to be thoughtful about the way we use technology and about the tendencies that certain technologies promote.
1. We think of the opposite of rest as work, but internally the opposite of rest is restlessness, internal agitation or franticness. Paradoxically it’s a spirit that makes us want to do something, but keeps us from doing most things well unless the restlessness is overcome.
2. Once we have the power of a technology, we are more restless until we exercise that power and then extend the power even further. That’s why technologies that are designed to give us more time and leisure give us less of both. It’s like a drug dependency.
3. The worship of choice has brought us a world of restless dissatisfaction in which nothing we chose seems good enough to be permanent and we’re unable to resist the unending pursuit of new selections. Technologies expand choices, and because you can do something, you feel obliged to do it. Whether it achieves any kind of worthwhile end becomes irrelevant. Freedom is having more choices to do more things, not the ability to do the right thing or a good thing, which is what freedom meant classically.
4. For moderns, freedom means unlimited choices, but ironically unlimited choices produce anxiety rather than liberty because we can’t ignore options. More effort is put into making decisions than into enjoying them. No one can rest in the choices that they make because they are constantly worried that they should have chosen something else, something better—everything from picking out a bottle of wine to choosing a spouse.
5. By its very nature, the Internet encourages superficial interaction. We “surf” the web and “browse” websites, intentionally skimming the surface of the Information Superhighway. We never stop in one place too long because there are unlimited sites on the Internet demanding our attention.
6. In the classroom, teachers who are trying to get student to think deeply will find students overwhelmed by the effort. If students have media-rich lives (as most young people do), they have been trained to expect short, intense, and ultimately disposable experiences. We feel something intensely for 15 seconds or 24 minutes and then move on to the next intense experience. Reading the classics and contemplating them, will overwhelm students precisely because the experience is so very underwhelming for them.
7. This remarkable new way to feel things is antithetical to wisdom and the contemplative life. And because these experiences are disposable, they are also antithetical to the enjoyment of permanent things.