A few days ago, I took a long walk. Something about the cool June day reminded of a time when summer didn’t become intolerably hot till July. In the late twentieth century, it seldom sizzled till July Sidewalk Sale Days, when you felt the waves of heat on the pavement as you rummaged through merchandise on tables outside stores.
I thought nothing profound on my walk. Thoughts have no narrative anyway: they are fragments, disjointed bits, occasionally bursting into ideas. In Wim Wenders’ movie Wings of Desire, written by Wim Wenders and Peter Handke, an angel (Bruno Ganz) listens to the disordered fragments of human thoughts.
I was slightly bored on my walk. Suddenly I realized I had forgotten my electronic device. Without music on a Walkman, your thoughts go in a different direction.
Boredom is good for you. That’s what they say, and I believe it. In the 20th century, everything seemed slower. There was more time before e-mail and iPhones.
Being on the internet can make you feel brittle, if you find yourself reading articles that are in no way illuminating. For instance, I wasted time today on a couple of articles about Trump and Biden insulting each other at separate stops on a trip through Iowa. Well, that’s politics. Isn’t it absurd that the presidential campaign starts so early?
Being online has some advantages. I read an excellent essay in The L.A. Review of Books, “Walking Alone: On Digital Minimalism.” Taylor Foyle muses on online addiction as he reviews a new book, Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World.
Foyle observes that we are “floundering in our digitally saturated environment.” He says that Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, and the philosopher Martin Heidegger may “seem impossibly quaint” today in their objections to TV (Merton) and the typewriter (Heidegger).
They don’t see quaint to me. We all know, however, that electronic toys are far more addictive than TV and typewriters.
That both Merton, in his Kentucky monastery, and Heidegger, in his Black Forest “hut,” spent most of their adult lives unplugged and off the grid makes me wonder what — if any — measures we could now take to escape our brave new virtual world. Our love affair — indeed, our addiction — with screens and the joy we take in pushing buttons has only deepened. The behavioral indicators of chemical dependency align quite well with our near-constant interaction with smartphones. Add to this the sophistication and economic muscle Silicon Valley spends on rewiring our neurological circuitry to make us crave more time with our devices and it now looks like our attachment is incurable.
Foyle is enthusiastic about Newport’s book. Newport recommends not only that we detox from electronics but advises us to get back to things that make us human. Foyle writes, “To this end, Newport reflects on three core practices now crowded out by our overuse of technology: solitude, conversation, and leisure.”
It sounds good to me. Even a walk without electronics feels different.
But some see no reason to stop. When a friend of mine found herself in a “no phone zone” at a library, she took out her phone and took a picture.
Why do i find that sad?