Digital Asceticism and Pascalian Angst

Writing in the Times, Kevin Roose describes how he recently arrived at a better working relationship with his smartphone. It is not unlike similar narratives that you might have read at some point in the last few years. Roose realizes that he is spending way too much time checking his smartphone, and he recognizes that it’s taking a toll on him. A series of unambitious measures—using grayscale, installing app-blockers, etc.—can’t quite get the job done, so he turns to Catherine Price, the author of “How to Break Up With Your Phone,” a 30-day guide to getting a better grip on your phone use.

You can read the piece to find out how things go for him. I’m just going to make two or three observations.

First, it’s always interesting to me to note the preemptive framings such pieces feel they must deploy. They reveal a lot about their rhetorical context. For example, “I confess that entering phone rehab feels clichéd, like getting really into healing crystals or Peloton.” Or, more pointedly, this:  “Sadly, there is no way to talk about the benefits of digital disconnection without sounding like a Goop subscriber or a neo-Luddite. Performative wellness is obnoxious, as is reflexive technophobia.”

The implicit fear that commending tech temperance might earn one the label of neo-Luddite is especially telling. Of course, the fear itself already cedes too much ground to the Luddite bashers and to the Borgs, who use the term as an a-historical slur.

Preemptive framings notwithstanding, there’s still some fodder for another, socio-economic strand of criticism:  taking recourse and gaining access to a life-coach of sorts, pottery classes, an unplugged weekend in the Catskills framed as a Waldenesque experience.

Who has the time and resources for such measures? And, of course, this is the point of the socio-economic critique of testimonials of this sort:  it’s a luxury experience available to very few. Mind you, Roose himself notes the even more luxurious variants:  multi-thousand dollar getaways at luxury detox destinations, etc.

This line of criticism is understandable. The point-scoring, out-of-hand, performative dismissals are less so, of course. The unfortunate result of all of this is that in certain quarters it is difficult to speak about the problems associated with digital devices without getting some serious blowback. We must all, to some degree, necessarily speak out of our own experience, and this requires a measure of humility not only in the speaking but also in the hearing. Neither is particularly encouraged by the structures of social media.

Secondly, I was reminded about a post I wrote back in 2011 about the possible virtues of what I then called digital asceticism. I used Google to find the post with “digital asceticism” as my search term. I expected to have to wade through a few pages to find my post, but I was surprised to discover that it was, at least for me, the third result. The first result was a blog titled “Digital Ascetics,” which appears to have been launch and abandoned in 2009 (practicing what it preached, I suppose). I was surprised by this because I was sure that in the eight or so years since I wrote the post, especially in light of the rolling tech backlash over the last couple of years, there would be plenty of references to digital asceticism. Apparently not.

It seems like an obvious framing for the wide variety of efforts that we deploy to get at least a semblance of control over our use of digital devices. It’s even suggested by some of the language we use to talk about such measures: fasts and Sabbaths, for example. Frankly, I find that it may be a better option than the more popular alternative: the clinical language of addiction.

Part of what the language of asceticism captures is the aspect of self-denial that is necessarily involved, at least for many who would practice it. We won’t really be able to grapple with the personal consequences of digital devices unless we recognize that doing without them now entails what is experienced as real deprivation. Indeed, the connection between the word privation and privacy is suggestive on this score. Privacy in the world of digital media is privation; the measures we might take to achieve privacy require privations we find barely tolerable. The self-denial entailed by digital asceticism also takes on a slightly different hue:  it is not simply a matter of denying certain experiences to the self, it is denying the self the very experiences by which it is constituted in the present psycho-social technical milieu.

It is also useful to consider that asceticism is never properly for its own sake. It is for the sake of some greater good than that which we deny ourselves. But this valuation is itself dependent on the psycho-social milieu. What higher goods do we find plausible or compelling? The answer to this question is already informed by the structures within which the self takes shape. Such goods are always a product of what Charles Taylor has called a social imaginary, and we might think of media as the material scaffolding of the social imaginary. We might expect, then, that the pursuit of alternative goods to those sustained by the dominant media structures will always appear renegade, deviant, or, at best, quixotic. Yet another reason why we might feel pressured to preemptively hedge our decision to pursue them.

Lastly, I can’t quite keep from echoing Pascalian notes whenever I encounter them. “Mostly,” Roose observed, “I became aware of how profoundly uncomfortable I am with stillness.” “It’s an unnerving sensation,” he added, “being alone with your thoughts in the year 2019. Catherine had warned me that I might feel existential malaise when I wasn’t distracting myself with my phone.”

“All of man’s misfortune comes from one thing,” Pascal noted in the 17th century, “which is not knowing how to sit quietly in a room.” “Nothing,” he wrote, “could be more wretched than to be intolerably depressed as soon as one is reduced to introspection with no means of diversion.” Or, more to the point still,

“Being unable to cure death, wretchedness, and ignorance, men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things …. What people want is not the easy peaceful life that allows us to think of our unhappy condition, nor the dangers of war, nor the burdens of office, but the agitation that takes our mind off it and diverts us.”

Has there ever been a more perfect instrument of what Pascal called diversion than the smartphone? I’m hard pressed to think of a counter example.

It occurs to me that these three observations are not unrelated. The difficulty in speaking earnestly about digital asceticism involves the erosion of a social imaginary that would render the goods for the sake of which such asceticism might be undertaken plausible or desirable. Instead we are left with the less satisfying and less compelling language of wellness with which to speak about such things. But this itself reminds us that whatever the dominant social imaginary may tell us about the virtues and wonders of the preternaturally connected life, there is a world against which such visions rub up and in this world the recalcitrance of our bodies signals to us the inadequacy of the vision. Then, it may be that, heeding the challenge of the body, we undertake the practices of digital asceticism and as a consequence stumble upon these signs of an alternative, possibly disconcerting understanding of our situation, as Pascal suggested. And we might even find that we really are better for it and that wellness, as we imagined it, had, finally, very little to do with it.


Occasional reminder that tips are welcome.

One thought on “Digital Asceticism and Pascalian Angst

  1. >Has there ever been a more perfect instrument of what Pascal called diversion than the smartphone? I’m hard pressed to think of a counter example.

    Opium? Instead of relying on endogenous dopamine, the supply of which is limited at best, just mainline it directly.

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