Wednesday, April 27, 2016

I Wanna Make Up My Mind but I Don't Know Myself

Stephen Heiner, like countless other people, read Nicholas Carr's book The Shallows and came away with a renewed determination to reclaim his neuro-territory from the pernicious imperialism of personal technology. His guerrilla tactics are likewise predictable: write things by hand, avoid multitasking, etc. There's nothing inherently good or bad about doing things the long, slow way, but again, as with nearly everything else that has been written in praise of Carr's message, the problem is that it substitutes a technical solution for what is more a question of value. In other words, this, to me, is a job for Sartre's conception of bad faith.

Carr starts from a conception that others have called the "contemplative literate subject" and assumes it as the default. He seems to think that what demands explanation is the fact that fewer people today (however one would quantify such things) seem inclined to live a life of literary introspection. I, on the other hand, start from the premise that we are always divided against ourselves, wanting to have mutually exclusive things, lacking the discipline and motivation to resolve the conflict. I suggest to you that most people don't know what they want out of life, and that this is, and has always been, the norm. I suggest that their oft-stated desire to live more profoundly is aspirational — that is, they realize that it looks good to profess such a goal, even if they're not particularly motivated to achieve it. And I suggest that the reason so many people have happily taken to Carr's message is because they recognize how useful it is in allowing them a bad-faith excuse, a way to avoid the sort of uncomfortable soul-searching that might call upon them to change their lives. They are content to forfeit their agency and act like the helpless prisoners of dimly-understood forces beyond their control.

I don't mean "change" in the sense of substituting a pen and paper for a netbook or smartphone — that's the sort of trivial self-improvement scheme or productivity hack you can find in any self-help book. I'm saying, what happens if you start thinking about why you spend so much time allowing your energy to be dissipated by idly thumbing your phone instead of reading a good book, or why it is that you spend so much of your day in a high-tech work environment that leaves you feeling exhausted and empty? What if it turns out that you don't really want to read books because you're not actually a profound person? What if a life of watching sitcoms and sports honestly sounds good enough to you, but you're afraid that admitting it would be devastating to your social status and self-image? What if you start to suspect that you're spending all your time working at a job you hate because it pays the sort of money you need to live the lifestyle you've somehow happened into, and besides, all of your expensive education went into preparing you for it, and sunk-cost fallacy notwithstanding, you can't even begin to consider changing course now, and besides, your family depends on you playing your role, and oh, God, how did you ever end up with a spouse and three kids to begin with, and where oh where could you even consider admitting that some days, you feel ambivalent enough to contemplate just driving off into the sunset and never thinking about any of them again?

Most people, I suspect, are practiced enough at burying such speculation before it asserts itself, and have been since they were adolescents. Thus, when a public intellectual comes along to tell them how their dissatisfaction is due to the fact that technology has rewired their brains, they have a ready-made headstone to put on top of it.