I’ve read three books more or less concurrently recently, which are all connected across the themes of human scale living, restraint and appropriate technology usage. These are powerful themes I’ve embarked on studying personally this year, and which I’ve started to explore in posts on Technological Overload, Getting Kinetic, Honoring Our Seasons, and Digital Editing. Questions such as – why should we slow down and pull back, and why is it beneficial to do so? Why is it so important for us to have our environment structured in a scale we can readily comprehend? What are the environments that best foster real, meaningful connections and community? Why do the “boundless” entities of virtual reality and instant communication not offer us the meaning and enlightenment we had hoped for?
The Joy of Missing Out: Finding Balance in a Wired World, The Power of Restraint, and Human Scale Revisited: A New Look at the Classic Case for a Decentralist Future were illuminating reads on these topics, and were really thought provoking. It will be hard to do them justice in a single blog post (and I’ll likely come back to sections of them in future to explore specific points) but I’ll try to tackle how these volumes have helped me clarify my thoughts on the questions posed above.
Why should we slow down and pull back, and why is it beneficial to do so?
All three texts touched on this one. It’s no surprise to anyone that our lives seem to move at frenetic pace. Take note of that word – seem – because it’s important to remember that our concept of time is merely a social construct. The division of days into hours, minutes, and seconds is an artifice of the production-oriented world. As Rabhi notes in The Power of Restraint, “time does not, in fact, exist without our sense and perception of it. It is a sort of illusion that gives a comprehensible framework to to our lives”. Our entire industrialized society is predicated on the concepts of instant gratification, increasing productivity, and the decree that “time is money”. The machine in which we are all cogs is massive, and it is fast. Coupled with that is the recently coined “FOMO” problem – “Fear of Missing Out”. Interestingly, FOMO is applied in the context of missing out on online pursuits, as opposed to real-life ones, which is in itself quite telling in terms of how technology is shaping our worldview. We have collectively arrived at a point where we’re afraid of missing an update in a news feed, or even just not seeing it quickly enough and placing a value on that concept that is higher than the fear of missing an in person interaction. By who’s measure is another point entirely, but I think it’s fairly clear that digital FOMO is today’s extremist incarnation of keeping up with the Joneses.
Be that as it may, is that what we want? Do we want to walk around our lives chained to a digital pacifier; a shadow existence? I think most of us would say no, even introverts. Crook notes in The Joy of Missing Out that once we break free from technology, we have the space and clarity to recognize that the sky will not fall – if we do “miss” anything, our lives and experiences are no less rich or meaningful for it. In fact, her theory and personal experience indicate that by relieving ourselves of constant technology interaction, we actually open ourselves up to greater possibilities for meaningful engagement in the real world of our day to day lives. Which makes sense – if you let go of hours on social media, you’ll have “found time” to fill with face to face encounters or other enriching experiences. She also notes that you don’t have to end up completely disavowing social media and technological interaction – at the end of her cold-turkey experiment, she did allow it back in. Her point is that technology use should be a conscious decision that we make, and the decision to use it should serve a tangible need in our lives. Technology use should not be the default, and it behooves us to actively participate in our lives and not fall back onto autopilot.
Why is it so important for us to have our environment structured in a scale we can readily comprehend?
There are certain natural environments that leave us completely awestruck, with a diminishing capacity to understand their existence. The Grand Canyon has this effect on me. The first time I ever saw it in person I stood near the edge, and after a dumbstruck moment of silence, burst out laughing uncontrollably. The scale was, to state the obvious, grand. It stretched on further than I could see; from my particular vantage point there was no bottom in sight. My brain’s only ability to communicate my astonishment and lack of comprehension was uncontrollable laughter. How do you define that which you cannot measure? That is the premise of Kirkpatrick’s work in Human Scale Revisited. The great problem, of course, is that the human environment is now stuffed to the gills with buildings and structures that far exceed our capacity to see them completely within our line of vision. Think of a skyscraper. There are very few practical vantage points where a human being can observe the entire structure coherently without looking up and down, or often, side to side. As Kirkpatrick explains, this is important because we need to comprehend the totality of our environment in under to truly understand how we fit in it, and therefore feel comfortable navigating within it. The main thesis set forth is that there is a right size for everything, be it a structure, system or institution. As optimum scale is exceeded, not only it is increasingly difficult for human beings to be comfortable within the environment, but critical mass is reached in terms of optimum function, or efficiency. “Big government” is the best example of this – it can often take a sizable investment of time and paperwork to achieve even the simplest goals, as anyone who has visited the DMV or applied for a passport can attest to.
What are the environments that best foster real, meaningful connections and community?
We all think we know the answer to this question, but it’s increasingly difficult to define. Or perhaps technology is creating so much noise that the obvious answer has been completely obfuscated. The short answer, and what I think is the obvious one, is that smaller scale, in person environments best foster connections that are meaningful and hold value for their participants, an idea that both Crook and Kirkpatrick agree with on the whole. What clouds that premise is how geographically spread out family and friends are today. If we didn’t have the internet, or an organized postal system, or mechanized travel – all of which are organized and operate on the grand scale – many connections would be lost or diminished due to simple geography. These tools were supposed to be our salvation, a supplement to relationships that would allow us to maintain connections while still expanding our worldview (both literally and figuratively). Instead, they have largely supplanted the necessity for an in person existence. Yes, the connection to those distant is maintained, which is a boon. But localized relationships have suffered greatly from these “advances”. Why walk twenty feet to have an in person conversation, when a chat message like Skype or email are right at our fingertips? Why call when you can text? Why spend time on the front porch when you check up on your neighbors on the community’s Facebook group? We have become lazy and insular, governed by our technology, instead of making conscious decisions on how technology can serve real and tangible needs in our lives.
Why do the “boundless” entities of virtual reality and instant communication not offer us the meaning and enlightenment we had hoped for?
Technology was supposed to save us from the burdens of always having to work to get our basic needs met, but instead of embracing the boundaries naturally inherent in meeting essential needs more efficiently, they have become blurred entirely. Now, you can always be working, communicating, producing – there is no off switch anymore. There is no concrete distinction between work and home, here and there, outside and inside. It’s all the same, and it’s all for sale.
Additionally, the interactions we have in a digital environment are more often than not superficial – a “like” or “wow” emoji on someone’s post. Increasingly entire conversations happen under the guise of GIF exchanges. While it could be argued that this demonstrates extraordinary pop culture literacy and creativity, it also comes across as lazy and impersonal. Where did personalized, original thought go? We don’t have better communication and relationships in the digital world (an oxymoron if ever there was one), just more of them. And more isn’t necessarily better. The old quantity versus quality debate.
Of course, I certainly don’t have all the answers, or even some of them. I feel like I’ve fallen (or have I jumped?) down into the rabbit hole of trying to address this underlying discomfort I feel in the way I conduct my life, in terms of navigating the technology and environments in which I am engaged. I suspect there are many others grappling with the same questions. So what next? I almost feel as though instead of a blog post, this should’ve been a conversation in a cafe or in a park, laying on a quilt under dappled sunlight with good friends and shooting the breeze. I endeavor to bring more of those moments back into my life. Sometimes it feels as though we’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater.
* The fine print – I did receive all three books gratis from their publishers, but I only review content that I find thought provoking and worth sharing. The links above are also affiliate links – if you’re interested in purchasing your own copies of these books, I appreciate you using my links so that I earn a small commission without any additional cost to you.