For my friends who requested it: Sunday I spoke at Arlington Unitarian Universalist Church on the topic of social media. I have posted the full manuscript below. The response was very positive, and I have good feelings about the encounter. Thanks for reading.
Hamlet’s BlackBerry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age
I still remember as though it were yesterday, the purchase of my first smart phone: a BlackBerry Bold 9000. The year was 2009. I was driving southbound on Bowen Road, five minutes from my home, and I did reach my home . . . thirty minutes later. The delay was not caused by an accident, but then again, perhaps it was. The phone buzzed on my console . . . and I had no idea what that meant. It didn’t ring. It wasn’t a phone call. So what was that signal? The reason I was clueless was because I didn’t even know what a smart phone was. All I knew was that my old cell phone was functioning very poorly, dropping calls, and losing battery power. And it was pretty nicked up, having been dropped too many times. It was time for a new one, and I wanted a BlackBerry, not because I knew what it was, but because I had heard that “serious businessmen” carried them, and used them to stay organized. I am chronically disorganized. I could afford a BlackBerry, so I bought it.
So, what was that buzz? Choosing to be safe at the wheel, I pulled into a parking lot, parked and checked. An email notification. Really? On my phone? I knew it had that capacity, but I thought I would have to look it up to see if anything was there, not that it would blurt out an alert while I was driving, for God’s sake. I answered it, and then pulled back onto the street. The phone signaled again, but this was a different sound. Pulling into the next parking lot, I checked. A text message. Well, I already knew what those were; I just didn’t know the phone would speak up when it arrived. So I answered it. Back on the road. Another signal. Pull off to yet another parking lot. A facebook notification. Facebook? On my phone? Really? Well, I answered that. And then, a little further down the road, a different noise, this time my blog. You’re kidding! Someone posts a comment on my blog and my phone lights up? Wow! Now that’s what I call a “smart phone”!
I should have realized on that day what I had just stepped in. But I didn’t. Now I am all too aware: I had stepped into the Digital Age. I was Connected. Someone immediately taught me how to turn off all those notifications, but I did not want to turn them off. I felt important to be reached out to, so frequently. Earlier in life, I had found a measure of satisfaction with the Internet, with email messages, with facebook, finally with writing and publishing my own blog. But all that had been done on the computer. Every time I left the computer, I left the digital world of stimuli.
The book that has birthed today’s discussion, Hamlet’s BlackBerry, offers these words: “The simple act of going out for a walk is completely different today from what it was fifteen years ago. Whether you’re walking down a big-city street or in the woods outside a country town, if you’re carrying a mobile device with you, the global crowd comes along” With my smart phone in hand, I was taking the global village with me at all times. And I could not ignore the sounds, the prompts, the tugs that someone was trying to get my attention. When my blog readership shot up to over 3,000 subscribers, I suddenly found myself in the position where I felt that if I didn’t publish something on the blog at least once daily, that I would become irrelevant, forgotten. And so, my daily push for over one hundred hits on my blog became an addiction just as pathetic as Sarah Palin seeking ways to keep herself on that top 10 list of Yahoo searches, or Jerry Jones scrambling for ways to be mentioned on ESPN or the newspapers of the metroplex, or the 10:00 television news, or Donald Trump thinking up something else insulting to say so bored Americans will tune in to listen. What I didn’t realize was that I was Owned. I was not organizing my life, using the phone; the phone was controlling my life, making me jump with every notification. I was pulled into a lifestyle where I could not stay away from my smart phone, the text messages, the email, facebook, the blogosphere. And I didn’t realize it, though friends tried to tell me.
Henry David Thoreau, in the “Reading” chapter of his book Walden, writes: “How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book.” My friend Shelley listened to an interview on NPR about this book by William Powers, Hamlet’s BlackBerry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age. Finding it on Amazon, she read a few pages, experienced that shock of recognition, and purchased two copies, giving one to me. Now, after reading it with sincere gratitude, I come gladly before you this morning to share some very liberating ideas that I believe have improved my life. Granted this experience and set of ideas are still very new to me, I genuinely believe that I have come upon something of quality. At any age, it feels gratifying, to think you could have turned a corner or opened a new chapter.
I do not wish to sound a negative note for our improvement of technology, this digital age. Never before have I lived in such an era, and technology has transformed my teaching in the high school classroom as well as teaching online at Texas Wesleyan University now. Technology has connected me to the art and business world better than ever before. Computers are wonderful as are smart phones. I love blogging and (sort of) love facebook. I appreciate the ability to text and send emails. But there are two elements attending this digital age that run counter to my idea of a quality life—one is the fast pace and the other is the emphasis on connecting all the time with others. The fast pace disregards the importance of time to mature ideas; the social connection neglects the importance of solitary space to find oneself.
I am quoting a chapter title from the Powers book: “Digital Busyness is the Enemy of Depth”. The point he makes is that when we spend our lives surfing the Internet, flitting from site to site, platform to platform, screen to screen, we are not experiencing the depths of life, but merely skimming over the surface of the media.
When philosopher/theologian Paul Tillich addressed the fortieth anniversary of Time magazine way back in 1963, he pointed out that America “was a free society, to be sure, but one without depth: its ceaseless expansion, whether into outer space or on the production line, had created an almost irresistible temptation on the part of everyone to produce in order to produce still more. Tillich exhorted the producers of cultural goods to stop moving in this one-dimensional direction—to come to a halt in order to ‘enter creation and unite with its power,’ in short, to add the vertical line of depth to the horizontal line of extension.”
In his celebrated book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig, back in 1974, pleaded for a more contemplative life, and wrote the following: “What is in mind is a sort of Chautauqua—that’s the only name I can think of for it—like the traveling tent-show Chautauquas that used to move across America, this America, the one that we are now in, an old-time series of popular talks intended to edify and entertain, improve the mind and bring culture and enlightenment to the ears and thoughts of the hearer. The Chautauquas were pushed aside by faster-paced radio, movies and TV, and it seems to me the change was not entirely an improvement. Perhaps because of these changes the stream of national consciousness moves faster now, and is broader, but it seems to run less deep. The old channels cannot contain it and in its search for new ones there seems to be growing havoc and destruction along its banks. In this Chautauqua I would like not to cut any new channels of consciousness but simply dig deeper into old ones that have become silted in with the debris of thoughts grown stale and platitudes too often repeated. “What’s new?” is an interesting and broadening eternal question, but one which, if pursued exclusively, results only in an endless parade of trivia and fashion, the silt of tomorrow. I would like, instead, to be concerned with the question “What is best?,” a question which cuts deeply rather than broadly, a question whose answers tend to move the silt downstream. . . . Now the stream of our common consciousness seems to be obliterating its own banks, losing its central direction and purpose, flooding the lowlands, disconnecting and isolating the highlands and to no particular purpose other than the wasteful fulfillment of its own internal momentum. Some channel deepening seems called for.”
A major argument proposed by this book is that digital connectedness sacrifices depth. One cannot contemplate the qualities and meaning of life when clicking on links and flitting from headline to headline, text to text, opinion to opinion. It seems that the only motivation for such a lifestyle is to feel connected to humanity.
Well, being connected is not the sole quality of life. In Anthony Storr’s book Solitude, the noted psychologist maintains that Sigmund Freud shifted clinical opinion toward the emphasis of social relations as a measure of human quality. Storr argues for the merits of solitude, that an intrinsic outlook does not mean that the individual is lacking in human quality. In today’s world, so much emphasis has been placed on connectedness that many feel they are inadequate or uninteresting if they do not continually post on facebook or Twitter, or find someone to call or text on their smart phones. Many feel chained to chat rooms and blogs on the Internet, convinced that the more connected they are, the more well-rounded and healthy their lives are. William Powers urges: “However, the external validation provided by incoming messages and the number of times one’s name appears in search results is not as trustworthy or stable as the kind that comes from the inside.”
Is the fear of disconnecting a fear of loneliness or is it really the fear of irrelevance? When I became immersed in my blog activity, I first regarded my daily posting as a matter of discipline, convincing myself that if I held myself to a daily deadline, like a newspaper journalist, that I would improve my disciplinary lifestyle in other areas as well. As time went on, however, I confess that what drove me was not a sense of discipline and self -worth, but rather the fear that I would become irrelevant and eventually forgotten, if I did not keep the blog fires burning by daily shoveling fuel into it via a new post.
The heart of this book argues that our age is not unique with the conflict between social connection and solitude, between speedy technology and plodding contemplation. The author writes compelling chapters covering Plato, Seneca, Gutenberg, Shakespeare, Ben Franklin, Henry David Thoreau and Marshall McLuhan. What they share in common is living in an age of technological advance with its temptation for speed, and they used it where it was beneficial, but refused to abandon their contemplative natures. They consistently maintained that technology and the need for speed was not their life.
In addition to the chapters of Powers’s book, I would suggest some of the New Testament Gospel accounts concerning words and practices of Jesus of Nazareth. After a blockbuster day with the crowds in Capernaum, Jesus arose before daylight the following morning, departed for a solitary place, and there prayed. When his disciples finally caught up with him, they said, “What is this? Everyone is looking for you!” His response: “Then, let’s move on to the next town, because I have a broader purpose.”
This rhythm of public ministry and private retreat is a thread running throughout the Gospel narratives. Jesus did not hesitate to urge that practice upon those whom he loved. When his apostles finished their first preaching tour, they came back to him overflowing with success and enthusiasm. His words: “Come aside with me to a solitary place where you can rest awhile,” because there was so much coming and going that they could not even stop long enough to eat.
When Jesus went to Bethany to visit in the home of the sisters Mary and Martha, Mary sat at his feet with the other men, transfixed by his spoken words. Martha was prattling about the kitchen. “Jesus!” she urged, “Don’t you care that I have no help in here? Tell my sister to come and help!” His answer: “Martha. Martha. You are distracted over many things. One thing matters. Your sister has found that one thing, and it will not be taken away from her.”
If the digital age has distracted you to follow the myriads of links, meetings and tasks throughout each day, just think on this: You are distracted, harassed by many things. One thing matters. Don’t let them take away from you that one thing. It is O.K. to disconnect from this connected world from time to time and find yourself in the quiet gaps of solitude.
This is what has kept me alive and vital after twenty-seven years in a public classroom. I’ve witnessed complex changes in technology and social networking and I have heard the call for acceleration. But that is not my life. I still live for the reflection, the quiet, the delicious moments of solitude. And I always seek for ways to make time for those things that matter the most.
Thoreau wrote: “How many can date a new chapter in their lives from the reading of a single book?” So, how is my daily lifestyle different, having read this book? I still have a job, so I have to make preparations and show up daily to work and do my job. I have a schedule to follow that the job dictates. But when I am at liberty, I can make art, I can read, I can write in a journal, or go somewhere. I no longer have to go online. I no longer have to connect. I no longer have to publish. There is no need to show off. I have no fear of being forgotten if I choose to stay offline for a season. It is My Life. I am taking Ownership of my life. I am no longer driven by this sense of a digital publishing obligation.
What an age this is in which we live! In many ways it could be called the fullness of time. We can talk on the phone to people far away without paying those long-distance charges. We can email a letter now, and not have to wait on the U. S. Postal Service to get it to its destination. Never before have I felt so enriched by what technology offers us today. Yet, we cannot forget the quality of face-to-face conversation or mailing the handwritten correspondence. Ralph Waldo Emerson got it right when he wrote: “This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it.”