Medieval monks thought a lot about thinking. As University of Georgia history professor Jamie Kreiner elaborates in a recent Aeon article:
“Their job, more than anything else, was to focus on divine communication. For these monks, the meditating mind wasn’t supposed to be at ease. It was supposed to be energised. Their favourite words for describing concentration stemmed from the Latin tenere, to hold tight to something. The ideal was a mens intentus, a mind that was always and actively reaching out to its target.”
To accomplish this goal “meant taking the weaknesses of their bodies and brains seriously.”
They used complex visual mnemonic techniques to help structure complex information in their mind’s eye.
They deployed heavy labor and moderate diet to keep their physiology in an optimal state for mental work.
Even the monastic renunciation of worldly goods and relationships supported concentration: the fewer things going on your life, they reasoned, the fewer things to distract you while trying to think about God.
What struck me as I read this article is that in our modern world, we still maintain positions in which the ability to concentrate is crucial to success: high skilled knowledge work jobs, like computer programmers, lawyers, doctors, consultants, journalists and professors.
“Both technologists parted ways with the social network amid a user boycott and as the company faced a congressional inquiry over the Cambridge Analytica controversy, when it was revealed that the political firm had improperly obtained personal information from millions of Facebook users.”
The same article then elaborated:
“After a rolling series of scandals involving the misuse of personal data, hateful content and misinformation, many Facebook users have also changed the way they use the platform”
Here’s the thing: misuse of personal data and hateful content were not the reasons emphasized by AOC for why she quit Facebook. She instead called social media a “public health risk” that too often leads to “increased isolation, depression, anxiety, addiction, escapism.”
I keep encountering this same mismatch between real social media users and the press coverage of these services when I’m out promoting Digital Minimalism.
The press coverage of our culture’s growing disillusionment with social media tends to focus — like the article cited above — on policy issues such as data privacy, or political issues such as the definition of hate speech.
By contrast, when you talk to actual users about their concerns with these services, they tend, like AOC, to instead talk about their addictive nature, and how this compulsive use keeps them away from activities they know are more meaningful.
When AOC mentions isolation, anxiety, addiction, and escapism, most heavy social media users know exactly what she’s talking about.
On the other hand, when the press reports on this issue, they’re more likely to turn their attention back to Cambridge Analytica — a phrase I almost never hear mentioned by the students, parents, teenagers, retirees, artists, coders, lawyers, entrepreneurs, and athletes I’ve been talking to about digital minimalism over the past three months.
Putting politics aside for the moment, we should applaud AOC for being so forthright about the complicated tensions generated by social media. These tools played a big role in her rise to national prominence, but they’re also diminishing the quality of her life (not to mention the quality of life of hundreds of millions of other users obsessively entangled with these apps). The issue here is not clear cut, but it also can’t be ignored.
To me, this is the real story about how the social media juggernaut is currently renegotiating its place in our culture.
I think we’ll all be better served once the national press recognizes this reality, and turns more of its attention from the spectacle of Mark Zuckerberg testifying about data privacy and AI-driven content review, and toward the more nuanced and more human issues encapsulated by the surprising story of a 29-year-old social media rockstar who finds it necessary to escape the very techno-world that made her.
In other words, the important story is not the fear that social media companies will improperly use our data; it’s instead the fear that they’ll subvert our primal drive to cultivate a meaningful life.
A couple weeks ago, I posted an article in reaction to the news that the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals now allows his players to take “phone breaks” during their team meetings.
“You start to see kind of hands twitching and legs shaking, and you know they need to get that social media fix,” he helpfully explained.
If you’re one of the many readers who joined me in thinking this move was a shortsighted capitulation, I’m hoping to help improve your mood by sharing some uplifting counter programming from the world of college basketball.
Those who know Martin Luther King Jr.’s story well, know that January 27, 1956, was a pivotal date for the young minister.
Only one month earlier, still a newcomer in town, King, to his surprise, was elected to run the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) formed in response to Rosa Parks’s arrest.
As King’s Pulitzer-prize winning biographer David Garrow recalls, King “mistakenly presumed that the boycott [organized by the MIA] would be relatively brief,” but he was wrong. A series of tense negotiating sessions made it clear that the city was reluctant to give up any ground.
As the bus boycott dragged on, and more attention was turned toward its leader, the situation became tense. According to Garrow:
“The increased news coverage had brought with it a rising tide of anonymous, threatening phone calls to his home and office, and King had begun to wonder whether his involvement was likely to end up costing him, his wife, Coretta, and their two-month-old daughter, Yolanda, much more than he had initially imagined.”
On January 26th, King was arrested and jailed for supposedly driving 30 mph in a 25 mph zone. The next day, after his release, he received another round of anonymous threatening phone calls. He tried to sleep, but couldn’t, so he returned to his kitchen table to make a cup of coffee and confront his mounting anxiety and fear.
As King recalled in a sermon given a decade later at the Mount Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church:
“And I bowed down over that cup of coffee. I never will forget it…I prayed a prayer, and I prayed out loud that night. I said, “Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right…But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now. I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage.”
“And it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world.'”
Garrow describes this scene as one of the most important moments of King’s life.
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