Yesterday, I wrote briefly about how difficult it can be to find a place for thought when our attention, in both its mental and emotional dimensions, is set aimlessly adrift on the currents of digital media. Digital media, in fact, amounts to an environment that is inhospitable and, indeed, overtly hostile to thought.
Many within the tech industry are coming to a belated sense of responsibility for this world they helped fashion. A recent article in the Guardian tells their story. They include Justin Rosenstein, who helped design the “Like” button for Facebook but now realizes that it is common “for humans to develop things with the best of intentions and for them to have unintended, negative consequences” and James Williams, who worked on analytics for Google but who experienced an epiphany “when he noticed he was surrounded by technology that was inhibiting him from concentrating on the things he wanted to focus on.”
Better late than never one might say, or perhaps it is too late. As per usual, there is a bit of ancient wisdom that speaks to the situation. In this case, the story of Pandora’s Box comes to mind. Nonetheless, when so many in the industry seem bent on evading responsibility for the consequences of their work, it is mildly refreshing to read about some who are at least willing to own the consequences of their work and even striving to somehow make ammends.
It is telling, though, that, as the article observes, “These refuseniks are rarely founders or chief executives, who have little incentive to deviate from the mantra that their companies are making the world a better place. Instead, they tend to have worked a rung or two down the corporate ladder: designers, engineers and product managers who, like Rosenstein, several years ago put in place the building blocks of a digital world from which they are now trying to disentangle themselves.”
Tristan Harris, formerly at Google, has been especially pointed in his criticism of the tech industries penchant for addictive design. Perhaps the most instructive part of Harris’s story is how he experienced a promotion to ethics position within Google as, in effect, a marginalization and silencing.
(It is also edifying to consider the steady drumbeat of stories about how tech executives stringently monitor and limit the access their own children have to devices and the Internet and why they send their children to expensive low tech schools.)
Informed as my own thinking has been by the work of Hannah Arendt, I see this hostility to thought as a serious threat to our society. Arendt believed that thinking was somehow intimately related to our moral judgment and an inability to think a gateway to grave evils. Of course, it was a particular kind of thinking that Arendt had in mind–thinking, one might say, for thinking’s sake. Or, thinking that was devoid of instrumentality.
Writing in Aeon recently, Jennifer Stitt drew on Arendt to argue for the importance of solitude for thought and thought for conscience and conscience for politics. As Stitt notes, Arendt believed that “living together with others begins with living together with oneself.” Here is Stitt’s concluding paragraph:
But, Arendt reminds us, if we lose our capacity for solitude, our ability to be alone with ourselves, then we lose our very ability to think. We risk getting caught up in the crowd. We risk being ‘swept away’, as she put it, ‘by what everybody else does and believes in’ – no longer able, in the cage of thoughtless conformity, to distinguish ‘right from wrong, beautiful from ugly’. Solitude is not only a state of mind essential to the development of an individual’s consciousness – and conscience – but also a practice that prepares one for participation in social and political life.
Solitude, then, is at least one practice that can help create a place for thought.
Paradoxically, in a connected world it is challenging to find either solitude or companionship. If we submit to a regime of constant connectivity, we end up with hybrid versions of both, versions which fail to yield their full satisfactions.
Additionally, as someone who works one and a half jobs and is also raising a toddler and an infant, I understand how hard it can be to find anything approaching solitude. In a real sense it is a luxury, but it is a necessary luxury and if the world won’t offer it freely then we must fight for it as best we can.
There was one thing left in Pandora’s Box after all the evils had flown irreversibly into the world: it was hope.